Pennsylvania's laws on integrity score C-

| Monday, March 19, 2012

HARRISBURG -- Despite convictions of 27 people with ties to the Legislature since 2008, Pennsylvania's laws to deter corruption rate a C-minus, 19th-best in the nation, in a "state integrity index" released today.

The index measures the risk of corruption, and states with well-known scandals may rank higher because their tough laws and enforcement bring scandals to light, said a statement by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington nonprofit that sponsored the study with Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

Federal, state and local prosecutors charged seven Pennsylvania legislative leaders with crimes, one as recently as last week. The corruption charges center on using public resources for campaigns. The charges span four years. Those convicted include five ex-leaders.

"I'm surprised Pennsylvania isn't rated lower, given the amount of corruption we have had and the amounts of campaign contributions, and the influence of lobbyists and contributors," said Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg activist who directs his attention to reforming government.

"Pay-to-play is alive and well in Pennsylvania," Stilp said.

The practice of awarding state contracts to large campaign contributors can be legal, or illegal if a public official agrees to grant government business in return for money.

The study's authors asked Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA, to review criteria they used for the study. He said giving Pennsylvania a C-minus for its laws is "generous," and he thinks the state deserves an F for enforcement.

Lawmakers slashed the budgets of the state Ethics Commission and the Department of State, which monitors campaign finance laws, over the past four years, Potts said.

"The culture of corruption has not changed," Potts said. "They're just waiting 'til they can go back to the old way of doing things."

Said Randy Barrett, communications director for the Center for Public Integrity: "If you look at the people arrested in Pennsylvania, it means those systems are working."

Barrett said he realizes some might consider the approach to be counterintuitive. "Remember, no state got an A; and a C-minus ain't great," he said.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said the House made significant internal changes after scandals in the Democratic and Republican caucuses when prosecutors charged lawmakers with using state employees and resources for campaigns.

"I feel confident we've put in place internal rules and regulations to prevent that from happening again," Dermody said.

Some public officials ran afoul of federal laws. A jury in 2009 convicted former Senate power broker Vincent Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat, of 137 counts involving the misuse of millions of dollars from the Senate and a nonprofit he controlled. He is serving a 60-month sentence at a federal prison in Kentucky.

On Thursday, federal prosecutors charged ex-Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow with conspiracy for using staff and resources for politicking, including campaigns. Mellow agreed to plead guilty, court documents show. No date has been set for his plea in Lackawanna County.

New Jersey ranked as the top "transparent and accountable state." Georgia ranked last and was one of eight states given a grade of F, the report said. The other flunking states were North Dakota, Michigan, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming and South Dakota.

The criteria included access to information, campaign finance laws, Civil Service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, pension fund management and ethics enforcement.

Reform advocates frequently point out that Pennsylvania does not limit campaign donations to state candidates, allows no-bid state contracts and permits public officials to accept gifts.

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