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Wolf wants lobbyist legislation tied to campaign finance reform

| Thursday, June 2, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf idea would raise $153 million in new revenue by removing the sales and use tax exemption for public warehousing and commercial storage businesses in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf idea would raise $153 million in new revenue by removing the sales and use tax exemption for public warehousing and commercial storage businesses in Pennsylvania.

HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will support legislation to prevent lobbyists from running campaigns, provided it's part of a broader reform package sought by the governor and House and Senate Democrats, his press spokesman said Thursday.

Wolf wants ethics measures to be passed that include a statewide gift ban, disclosure of public officials' outside income, more audits of lobbyists' reports, and campaign finance reform, said Press Secretary Jeffrey Sheridan.

The bill to ban campaign activity by lobbyists is sponsored by Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona, and pushed as part of a GOP package by Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, a Wolf critic.

An FBI investigation into lobbying in Harrisburg has given new impetus to efforts to tighten rules governing the $500 million-a-year industry. The FBI investigation has ensnared one prominent lobbyist, former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's onetime aide, John Estey, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud May 10. The FBI says its probe continues.

Relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers have gotten so cozy, some former aides of top-ranking lawmakers lobby their ex-bosses on behalf of private clients while at the same time running their political campaigns, a Tribune-Review investigation published Sunday found.

Critics say it's a conflict of interest for Long Nyquist, a firm hired by the FBI in its investigation that has strong ties to Senate Republicans, to run campaigns.

Republican Ray Zaborney owns Red Maverick Media, a campaign firm, and Maverick Strategies, a lobbying firm. An affiliate company run by Zaborney's wife, Jennifer, raises campaign money for GOP candidates.

“There are two firms that do this (lobbying and campaign management). From the governor's perspective, they are Republican firms,” said Eichelberger. “We want to stop this. Many lobbyists have said to me, ‘You have to get this done.' ”

The firms deny a conflict.

“The manner in which we run our business is appropriate,” Zaborney said. “It's not prohibited by any legislation. It's something that happens all the time in other states and in Washington, D.C. I think it's totally appropriate to do it in the right way.”

The right way, Zaborney said, is to maintain “strong separation between” lobbying and campaign operations.

“It's legal, but it's unethical,” Rocco Pugliese, who owns a lobbying firm, Pugliese Associates, said of the practice.

Politics and lobbying will always be closely tied, but when the same people are involved in both sides, “it creates the appearance of impropriety and the appearance of conflict,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

“I think it's dangerous, in many respects,” Costa said. “We don't have the public's trust in what we do right now.”

Costa said he supports the Eichelberger bill.

House and Senate Republican leaders had little to say other than Senate hearings are likely.

Jason High, a spokesman for Senator Wagner, called it “encouraging that Governor Wolf would support Senator Eichelberger's bill.”

But High added that “it is unfortunate that he is making his support conditional on the passage of legislation that has been historically impossible for the Legislature to pass.”

Campaign finance reform has floundered for decades, especially when the issue turns to limits on what state lawmakers can raise and spend in campaigns. Pennsylvania allows unlimited individual contributions.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale told the Tribune-Review that increased audits of lobbyists' reports filed with the Department of State “are on our radar” and more audits are likely to be announced within months.

Currently, the Department of State randomly selects 3 percent of all lobbyists' registration and expense reports for audits by independent auditors the department hires.

Editor's Note: This is one of an occasional series examining lobbying in Harrisburg.

Brad Bumsted and Mike Wereschagin are Tribune-Review staff writers. Contact Bumsted at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com. Contact Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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