Pa. House ethics panel might investigate Democrats involved in sting
HARRISBURG — Despite decades of inaction, the House Ethics Committee may secretly investigate at least four state House members accused of taking cash payoffs from a confidential informant posing as a lobbyist to influence passage of legislation.
The committee, which has subpoena power, can issue sanctions ranging from a private reprimand to a public censure, said Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks County, its chairman. If the committee formally censures a lawmaker, a majority of the House could refuse to seat that person, Petri said.
An investigation and public censure require bipartisan support. Four Republicans and four Democrats are on the committee.
Committee members aren't aware of public discipline in recent history.
“I don't know of a single legislative reprimand by a legislative chamber in 30 years,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
But given the high-profile nature of the case involving four Philadelphia lawmakers, there's a “reasonable chance the Ethics Committee will do something,” Madonna said.
The state Attorney General's Office under former top prosecutor Tom Corbett, now the state's Republican governor, began a sting operation targeting Philadelphia legislators. An informant prosecutors snared in a $430,000 fraud case wore a wire and recorded lawmakers taking cash, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported March 16. No one was charged.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane said she ended the investigation because she considered it flawed. The informant, Tyron B. Ali, worked largely unsupervised in an investigation improperly targeting black lawmakers, she said.
Kane said the office dismissed more than 2,000 charges against Ali, making the case “unprosecutable” because his credibility was shot.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who supervises the former state prosecutor and agent who worked the case, said the case was solid. He denied racial targeting occurred.
Four Philadelphia House Democrats took money from Ali, the Inquirer reported: Rep. Ronald G. Waters, multiple payments totaling $7,650; Rep. Vanessa Brown, $4,000; Rep. Michelle Brownlee, $3,500; and Rep. Louise Bishop, $1,500. None of their offices returned calls seeking comment.
Democratic spokesman Bill Patton, to whom they referred the calls, said: “If you don't hear from them directly, then it's because they choose not to respond at this time.”
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, “respects and trusts the Ethics Committee and he is committed to seeing the process through. But until we know what the committee decides to do, it's not appropriate to comment beyond that,” Patton said.
Legislation to ban cash gifts appeared to gain some momentum because of the case.
Under law, a public official can accept $249 in cash, cumulative in a calendar year, from a lobbyist without either person having to report it, said Barry Kauffman, lobbyist for Common Cause of Pennsylvania. A legislator could take $1,000 cash from a lobbyist, if there were no quid pro quo, and not break the law as long as he or she reported it on an ethics statement, Kauffman said.
“It is a sad day when we need to make the law unequivocally say what any person should already know not to do,” said Rep. Warren Kampf, R-Chester County. Kampf said he was seeking co-sponsors to “change the Ethics Act to ban all cash gifts.”
Whatever the outcome of any investigation, Kampf said, “The recent stories have put a taint on the entire General Assembly. Quite simply, cash gifts have no place in our line of work.”
Adrian King, first deputy under Kane, said he supports “an outright ban on all gifts,” with “serious consequences for violations.”
House leaders of both parties recently pledged financial resources for an internal investigation of the Philadelphia case. Petri said he could not divulge whether the committee has employed an outside law firm, since that would signal whether an investigation is under way.
Petri acknowledged receiving a complaint against the four legislators from Harrisburg activist Gene Stilp. “It will go through the normal process,” said Petri, to determine whether it's frivolous or warrants a preliminary investigation.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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