Lawmakers got fewer gifts
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HARRISBURG -- Lawmakers last year got their hands on tickets to the Super Bowl, orchestra concerts, the Philadelphia Flower Show and Phillies games -- all without opening their wallets.
Those tickets are among at least $67,000 worth of freebies that state lawmakers accepted last year, according to statements of financial interest on file with the state Ethics Commission.
But that figure doesn't include more than $18,000 in food, facilities rental and other help lobbyists provided for lawmaker-hosted events, such as fairs for older residents in their districts.
Thirty-eight of the state's 253 senators and representatives disclosed receiving gifts such as yacht club memberships and travel to places as near as Philadelphia and as far as Rwanda.
State Ethics Commission records suggest, however, that lawmakers accepted fewer and less-valuable gifts last year than they did five years ago. Their new behavior had its genesis in 2005, when an outraged electorate ousted many state legislators after the lawmakers gave themselves hefty raises in a surprise middle-of-the-night vote that July.
That year, lawmakers reported receiving $93,349 in gifts, travel and hospitality -- including golf outings, trips to Taipei, ski passes and tickets to Penn State University football games, Philadelphia 76ers basketball games and Pocono Raceway events.
State officials are required to report tangible gifts of more than $250 per year from any entity. They also must report transportation, lodging and hospitality valued at more than $650.
Government watchdog Barry Kauffman said those thresholds should be lower. He said they now leave plenty of leeway for lobbyists to provide gifts that never need to be publicly disclosed.
"You can buy a lot of stuff for less than $250: crystal globes, golf clubs. There are a lot of little things you can do for less than $250," said Mr. Kauffman, director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, which advocates government accountability and fiscal responsibility.
An examination of lobbyist expenditure reports supports his contention.
Those reports must include the total amount spent on gifts, travel, hospitality and entertainment for state officials and their families.
Verizon Wireless, for example, provided $9,786 worth of gifts, travel and hospitality to state officials and their families last year, according to its expenditure report. However, since no one official received more than $250 worth of gifts or $650 worth of travel, lodging and hospitality, the recipients' names did not have to be disclosed.
Lobbyists bestow some of their most lavish gifts on legislators with the most control over the state's purse strings -- the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, received the single most valuable gift of all those reported last year by lawmakers: a $4,000 Super Bowl trip, courtesy of the Pittsburgh law firm Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney. The firm's lobbyists represent a variety of clients including utility companies, hospitals, wine and beer distributors and banks.
House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, was entertained by an assortment of groups including the utility company PECO, which provided four tickets to a Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants football game plus transportation and meals at the lavish Pennsylvania Society retreat in December at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, meanwhile, provided two tickets to its anniversary concert and ball, and the Philadelphia Art Museum provided two tickets to the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce William Penn Awards Dinner. Together, all of those perks are worth $5,263, Mr. Evans reported.
Those gifts were exceptions, said Johnna Pro, spokeswoman for Mr. Evans.
"He's not one to be out to dinner with lobbyists all the time. That's not something he does," she said.
Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, received the most generous perks last year, including trips to Rwanda, New Orleans, Chicago and Aspen, Colo. Together the trips were valued at $16,588. They were provided by The Aspen Institute, the Legislative Leadership Institute Academy of Foreign Affairs and Midwest Generation, an Illinois company that uses Pennsylvania coal.
None of the trips was a luxurious vacation and none involved direct lobbying for specific legislation, Mr. Pippy said.
In Rwanda, he -- along with Republican and Democratic lawmakers from other states -- met with genocide survivors, discussed the country's court system and met with its leaders. Mr. Pippy, who is in the U.S. Army Reserves and has served in Kuwait and Iraq, said he has an interest in international relations and war-ravaged nations.
In Aspen and New Orleans, Mr. Pippy participated in bipartisan think-tank sessions on U.S. relations with Asia and the Middle East. In Chicago, he discussed economic development and job creation with leaders of Midwest Generation.
When a lawmaker falls from power, so do the quantity and quality of gifts from lobbyists.
As House speaker in 2005, Philadelphia Republican John Perzel reported receiving $59,415 worth of freebies, including a $12,500 trip to China, tickets to the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., and a trip to a conference in Las Vegas.
Now a rank-and-file member, Mr. Perzel reported receiving no gifts, travel, food, hospitality and entertainment in 2009. He is awaiting trial on charges stemming from "Bonusgate," the government-corruption probe involving the use of state resources to run political campaigns. He did not respond to a request for comment.
The current speaker, Rep. Keith McCall, D-Carbon, reported receiving $671 worth of travel and hospitality last year, all of it from the PECO energy company.
Those who provide the gifts and travel aren't necessarily trying to buy support for particular legislation, lobbyists said, but they are buying lawmakers' time.
"It's relationship building. A gift gets you in the door. It gets you a chance to make your case, and it might even get you more favorable consideration," Mr. Kauffman said. "It gives you preferred treatment, preferred access."
Mr. Kauffman knows that firsthand.
His group reported spending $1,718 last year on gifts, hospitality, transportation and lodging for state officials and their immediate families. Nearly all of that money was for copies of a book about constitutional conventions. The books cost about $6 each, and Mr. Kauffman's group provided them to every lawmaker, to the governor's office and to several legislative staffers.
One Harrisburg lobbyist, who asked not to be named, said he frequently takes lawmakers to dinner but doesn't give tangible gifts.
If lobbyists on the opposing side of issues do provide gifts, he said, it means he has to work harder to explain and justify his group's stance to those legislators.
"The only thing I have is my reputation, my veracity and the completeness of the information I provide. Lobbyists are sales people. We're selling ideas; we're selling thoughts on public policy," he said.
Dinners with lawmakers create sales opportunities, he said.
He said he hasn't considered whether lower limits on gifts would help level the playing field for lobbyists who, like him, don't give expensive gifts such as Super Bowl tickets.
State Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, said most lawmakers have enough integrity that they won't be swayed by gifts, "but there's no doubt in my mind that there are some people who come to Harrisburg as legislators with the idea that they're for sale. Does it happen? Yeah. Is it commonplace? Absolutely not.
"The majority of them do what's right for their district and aren't for sale, but in every crowd there's a few that take advantage of every opportunity they have," he said.
Most often, gifts come from lobbyists whose interests already are in sync with the lawmaker's policy positions.
"They're people you're naturally aligned with. I don't get a lot of invitations from the Trial Lawyers Association or the [labor unions]," Mr. Ellis said.
Mr. Ellis reported receiving $910 worth of meals from Greenlee Partners, a lobbying firm with dozens of clients with widely varying interests.
He doesn't mind revealing that he also received a golf trip to Ohio, cigars and a gym bag from other lobbyists, but those gifts don't appear on his statement of financial interest because their values don't meet the reporting threshold.
Other Pittsburgh area lawmakers reported receiving the following gifts:
• Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, a golf outing and meals valued at $784 from Highmark. Mr. Christiana said the insurance giant's CEO Ken Melani was trying to recruit him to join the board of Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa.
• Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, received $2,271 worth of gifts from Consol Energy. He did not respond to a request for comment.
• Rep. Peter Daley, D-California, received $2,400 worth of lift passes from the Pennsylvania Ski Areas Association. Mr. Daley said the passes were never used.
• Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, received $932 worth of transportation, lodging and hospitality from the State Legislative Leaders Foundation to attend a meeting in Philadelphia about the housing finance crisis.
• The Allegheny League of Municipalities provided $613 worth of lodging for Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, to attend a series of meetings with other state, federal and local officials at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Somerset County.
• Rep. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, received the use of a suite at a Pirates game valued at $2,500. The suite was provided by Oxford Development Co.
• The American Legislative Exchange Council provided $1,465 worth of travel expenses for Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, to attend a meeting on safety and elections.
• Rep. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, received $2,471 worth of food, travel, hospitality and lodging from Consol Coal.
• Sen. Donald White, R-Indiana, received $651 worth of food, travel, hospitality and lodging from Greenlee Partners and $1,104 worth from Midwest Generation.
First Published August 15, 2010 12:00 am