Cashing out: The state needs a comprehensive gift ban law

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In the wake of the sting that never stung, leaders in the state House of Representatives adopted a rule Wednesday that bars members and House employees from accepting cash gifts from lobbyists.

That’s a good step and the Senate may follow suit this week, but Pennsylvania must go further. The ban should apply to all gifts, not just cash; it should be a law, not a rule; and it should cover all state employees, not just lawmakers. Then we’d be talking real reform.

The state Ethics Act, which allows legislators and other public employees to take gifts as long as they report those valued at $250 or more, is more about record-keeping than staving off influence.

This welcome, though limited, action on the House rule follows the disturbing case in Philadelphia in which four Democratic House members were caught on tape accepting cash or gifts. They were not prosecuted by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a fellow Democrat, because she said the case, which she inherited from her predecessors, was flawed and would not have resulted in convictions.

Perhaps those lawmakers would have thought twice about stuffing their pockets with hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash if state law banned gifts from lobbyists or similar sources trying to have their way with government.

The new House rule bans cash gifts to a representative and public employees of the House unless they come from “a spouse, parent, parent by marriage, sibling, child, grandchild, other family member or friend when the circumstances make it clear that the motivation for the action was a personal or family relationship.” Lobbyists and their employees cannot be considered friends under the rule.

House members who violate the rule will be referred to the House Committee on Ethics, which could investigate and call for censure or expulsion — another shortcoming of this approach. If the gift ban were enshrined in law, however, as some House and Senate members are proposing, tougher consequences could follow a violation, perhaps from the state Ethics Commission or the attorney general.

Give House leaders credit for taking this short, positive step. Not until the law prohibits all gifts to state employees, however, will Pennsylvania be able to curb such attempts to buy off government.

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