Public service upended

So many officials don't know what it means to serve

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Most of us want to believe that people who go into "public service" do so for the right reasons -- desire to improve their communities, commitment to the public good, belief that they can help fix what's broken and make a difference for the better.

We don't want to believe that they are only in it for themselves from the get-go, that power, influence and money are the true motivators.

So when they go bad, we always wonder how it happened. Were they corrupted along the way? Was there some Machiavellian figure in their inner circle who urged them toward the dark side? Perhaps years surrounded by yes-men inflated their egos and sense of invulnerability. Or the line between right and wrong kept moving, or simply disappeared.

Or maybe they had larceny in their hearts to begin with.

Often it seems that the political system, so dependent on money and influence, rewards bad behavior, right up to the moment someone gets caught. Protests that "everybody does it" may be true to some degree (not everyone does it, but some do without discovery), and charges of selective prosecution may have some merit. But none of that escapes your mother's rhetorical questions, "If the other kids (rob a store, drive off a cliff, set their hair on fire), do you do it too?"

We may never know why some figures fall prey to their worst instincts. The transgressors might not even know themselves. But with the recent bumper crop of public corruption cases in the region, the lure of the crooked path is very much on view.

We've seen it with state legislators who are now serving time for illegal use of taxpayer money on their campaigns: former House speakers John Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican, and Bill De-Weese, a Greene County Democrat, not to mention former senators Robert Mellow, a Democrat, and Jane Orie, a Republican. Corruption, it seems, is the one area of government where we can count on bipartisanship.

Then there's Orie's sister, Joan Orie Melvin, the soon-to-be-ex-justice of the state Supreme Court, convicted last month on similar charges, as was another sister, Janine Orie, who was not a public official but was involved in her sisters' campaigns. They have yet to be sentenced, but if jail time results, the state might recoup some of the purloined tax money by housing the Orie trio in the same cell.

Jane Orie was also convicted of forgery. Perzel dipped into the public coffers for a computerized election system to help Republicans win elections. The other crimes (although not the Ories') stem from the infamous Bonusgate scandal, where $3.8 million in public-money bonuses was paid to legislative staffers for campaigning.

I'm leaving aside problems emerging from the offices of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Pittsburgh Police Bureau because those investigations are still unfolding and we don't know what, if any, charges might result. Nevertheless, it still must be noted that Chief Nate Harper was forced to resign, the mayor dropped out of his race for re-election, the FBI is looking into expenses charged to the police credit union, and that favoritism is alleged in the awarding of off-duty assignments.

As if all of that wasn't enough, now we have an unpretty picture emerging from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. This body has never been known for guarding the public trust anyway; its real purpose seems to be self-perpetuation and doling out political favors through jobs and contracts. So it took some exceptionally suspicious behavior to get a grand jury investigation under way.

After years of work, the jurors last week handed down an 85-page presentment outlining a "pay-to-play" culture at the commission, complete with bid-rigging that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars in inflated charges. This would be exasperating under any circumstances, but in a time of budget cuts that eat into essential services and hurt the most vulnerable among us, it's downright infuriating.

The new state attorney general, Kathleen Kane, announced indictments against eight turnpike figures. Most prominent of these is Joe Brimmeier, a well-connected political broker among Allegheny County Democrats and, until the indictment, a member of the county's Port Authority board. He and seven others are charged with bid-rigging and awarding contracts to favored contributors who entertained officials and gave generously to their pet political candidates -- some of whom are serving time as we speak.

Such a cozy set-up raises, yet again, the idea of retiring the turnpike commission once and for all. But that's a subject for another day.

Until then, it wouldn't hurt government officials at every level to remember that "public service" refers to them serving the public, not the other way around. Many of them believe this already and act accordingly. Those who don't may get away with it for a while. But when the party ends, no one will care why they did it, and they can expect little sympathy from the folks who were hoodwinked.


Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette ( 412-263-1610.


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