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Can this House be saved?

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
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HARRISBURG

Average folk just don't understand how Pennsylvania legislators recorded on audio taking cash from a would-be lobbyist are not being prosecuted in criminal court.

“What the hell is going on here?” asked Dorothy Ripper, 76, of Bethel Park, when she called me last week. She wanted to know why five Philadelphia Democrats who took money from a confidential informant working undercover for the state Attorney General's Office are not in criminal court.

They're not, says Attorney General Kathleen Kane, because the investigation she inherited from previous attorneys general was flawed in many respects and might have targeted black legislators. Kane portrayed it as almost a rogue investigation without proper supervision. Yet the veteran prosecutor running it, Frank Fina, has a proven track record in more than two dozen legislative corruption pleas or convictions and in convicting serial child predator Jerry Sandusky.

The state House could not just ignore this. The reputation of the institution is on the line. Not that corruption is new. Lawmakers and staffers by the dozen have been led off in handcuffs since 2007. But this appeared to rise to a whole new level.

The result was a pre-emptive strike — banning cash gifts. It was approved by leaders of both parties through an entity called the Bipartisan Management Committee. The Senate could act this week.

Meanwhile though, Dorothy Ripper's question goes unanswered.

The House Ethics Committee apparently will conduct a secret investigation of the four lawmakers. All of the deliberations take place behind closed doors. The secrecy rule is there because a political opponent could make false allegations, officials say.

That makes sense, perhaps, until the committee establishes probable cause.

Under House rules, the entire investigation, from initial review to final vote, will be conducted behind closed doors. In a ridiculous twist, the members aren't even allowed to disclose there's an investigation. Only if there's a vote to censure will a public report be issued in the cases of Reps. Ron Waters, Louise Bishop, Vanesssa Brown and Michelle Brownlee, who have declined interviews.

There's audio of a confidential informant giving them cash, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Now, the wording might be nuanced, so the public should see a transcript. The AG's office and the House Ethics Committee should release those transcripts. The House should hold its hearings in the open. In the very least, the vote by the eight-member panel ought to be held in public.

There are four Democrats and four Republicans on the committee. Republicans say the Democrats didn't show for the first meeting. Will the panel be stymied by partisanship?

The secrecy is not protected by state law or the Constitution. The House rules could be changed any day it is in session. House GOP leaders should call for a vote immediately to open the committee vote. Seriously, what are the Democrats, particularly those from the suburbs and swing districts, going to do? Vote to protect alleged lawbreakers merely for partisanship?

The integrity of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is at stake.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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