By Angela Couloumbis, Joseph Tanfani and Andrew Maykuth Philadelphia Inquirer
The state Senate president, a key player in the debate over natural-gas drilling in Pennsylvania, accepted a free trip from one of the state's largest energy companies to see the Pittsburgh Steelers play in the Super Bowl.
Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Brockway, had his ticket, plane ride and hotel bill paid for by Consol Energy Inc., a major coal producer and one of the companies drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, according to Mr. Scarnati's top aide.
Mr. Scarnati and other top Senate Republicans were frequently singled out by former Gov. Ed Rendell and environmental advocates for blocking an extraction tax on shale drilling, even in the face of a projected $4 billion state budget deficit. Pennsylvania is the largest gas-producing state without such a tax.
Senate Republicans, including Mr. Scarnati, have said they would have supported a tax but couldn't reach a compromise with Mr. Rendell.
Drew Crompton, Mr. Scarnati's legal counsel and chief of staff, said there was nothing wrong with Mr. Scarnati accepting the free trip, which is permitted under Pennsylvania ethics rules.
Mr. Scarnati might reimburse Consol for some of the costs, Mr. Crompton said.
Consol executives and lobbyists have contributed more than $15,000 to Mr. Scarnati's campaigns since 2006, state records show.
It's not known whether Consol paid for any other legislators to attend the Feb. 6 game in Arlington, Texas, won by the Green Bay Packers, 31-25. A brief company statement said that Consol "had several guests join us at the Super Bowl," and that the expenses would be reported on its next lobbying disclosure report. Consol would not identify the other guests.
Tickets to the Super Bowl are hard to find and can end up costing fans thousands of dollars above face value. The NFL doesn't sell any tickets to the public, instead offering only a portion of them through a random drawing.
Pennsylvania law allows legislators to accept such tickets and travel so long as they report everything above a $650 annual threshold.
"There's nothing illegal about it, but it does show the undue influence industry has over elected officials," said Jan Jarrett, president of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, an environmental advocacy organization that has pushed for taxes and tighter regulations on natural-gas drilling.
"It really creates an uneven playing field between those who've got the resources to buy that kind of influence and those who don't," she said.
Other Pennsylvania legislators, including Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, went to the game as guests of the Steelers. The team paid for Mr. Pileggi's ticket, hotel, and flight to Texas, his office said. Mr. Pileggi paid for his flight home.
Mr. Scarnati did not respond to requests for an interview.
Once Consol itemizes the costs, Mr. Scarnati will decide how much, if any, of the expenses he will reimburse, Mr. Crompton said. He said Mr. Scarnati might use campaign funds.
Mr. Crompton, asked whether it was appropriate for Mr. Scarnati to accept the free trip from a company with such strong interests in Harrisburg, said:
"The question is whether or not there will be complete compliance with the laws that we have. And what our laws say is, if you take something in excess of $650 in the course of a year, it needs to be reported.
"People take hospitality, people take gifts in this state, and in other states. It's not whether or not it should occur. It's whether you are complying with the lobbying law that we have. And we are."
Mr. Crompton bristled when asked whether the trip would affect Mr. Scarnati's decisions on natural-gas policy.
"That's outrageous," he said. "Sen. Scarnati has taken positions that are adverse to shale companies, and nothing in his mind has changed. He does not toe the line of these companies. His independence speaks for itself."
Consol Energy, based in Canonsburg, expanded its Marcellus presence last year with the $3.5 billion acquisition of the natural-gas operations of Dominion Resources Inc., including 1.46 million acres of gas leases and 9,000 operating wells.
All told, Mr. Scarnati accepted more than $117,000 in campaign contributions from companies involved in the oil and gas industry, more than any other Pennsylvania legislator, according to a report last year from Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
Among Pennsylvania's politicians, Mr. Scarnati was second only to Gov. Tom Corbett, who received $875,720. The governor has said he does not support taxing the industry, but he left the door open for a fee on drillers. He has not elaborated.
Mr. Corbett went to the game on a chartered jet with the Rooney family, founders of the Steelers. Mr. Corbett's aides said he had paid his way for everything, including the tickets he got from the Steelers.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said legislators in some other states aren't allowed to accept free travel or gifts. His organization has been pushing for such rules in Pennsylvania.
"Under no circumstances should he be allowing someone to pay for his trip if they're lobbying the Legislature," Mr. Kauffman said. "It just doesn't look good."
Two other large natural gas companies -- Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy -- said they hadn't provided Super Bowl trips to any state official.
Some legislators' tabs were paid by the Steelers. Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, said that the team had picked up his airfare, hotel, and tickets, but that he would reimburse it out of his own bank account.
"I'm assuming it's going to be a couple thousand dollars," Mr. Pippy said.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, also paid for his airfare and accommodations out of his own pocket, spokesman Bill Patton said. Mr. Dermody also paid for his Super Bowl ticket, although, like other officials, he got it at face value from the Steelers.
"I believe that was $900," Mr. Patton said.
House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, did not go to Texas, aides said. But his chief of staff, Tony Aliano, did. Mr. Aliano, a Steelers season-ticket holder, said he had paid his own way down and had gotten tickets at face value from the team.
Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, who also went to the game, could not be reached for comment. It was not known how he had paid for his travel.
Mr. Corman, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, disclosed on his statement of financial interest for 2009 -- the year the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl -- that he had received $5,469 worth of gifts from the team, including Super Bowl tickets.
Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, said he had gone to this year's Super Bowl with his girlfriend and was paying for the trip through a combination of his own money and campaign funds.
"I got nothing for free," Mr. DeWeese said. "Nothing."