Pa. lawmakers rack up $117K in freebies
HARRISBURG — Some Pennsylvania lawmakers took free trips to Ireland, Poland, Taiwan and Turkey. Others accepted tickets to Steelers, Penn State, Pitt and 76ers games, according to financial disclosure statements filed with the State Ethics Commission.
Gifts included a $300 Turkish rug to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and Super Bowl tickets worth $4,000 provided to the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.
The Tribune-Review scrutinized five years of financial statements filed by House and Senate leaders, chairmen of key committees such as Finance, Transportation, Insurance and Judiciary and the gaming oversight panels. Those lawmakers received more than $117,000 worth of subsidized travel, lodging and gifts from 2007 through 2011, the latest complete records available.
“The problem is, these types of activities are designed to affect public policy,” said Barry Kauffman, lobbyist for Common Cause of Pennsylvania. Gifts and subsidies, often from special-interest groups, “create favored relationships,” he said.
“Nobody's giving a gift and not expecting a return on investment,” said Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capital, a government reform group.
State ethics law requires lawmakers and other public officials to file annual disclosure statements, which include a section for reporting gifts of $250 or more and travel and hospitality exceeding $650.
Many lawmakers did not accept gifts or travel. Those who did accept deny that it influenced their votes.
The ethics law, they say, provides the intended transparency on gifts and trips.
Government watchdogs say lawmakers appear more restrained following legislative scandals in recent years.
“I don't hear of the ‘booze cruises' or junkets to Fort Lauderdale,” Kauffman said.
Even so, some lawmakers maintain close ties to lobbyists.
Disclosure forms show that, between 2007 and 2010, House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, accepted $3,181 in hospitality and lodging from Greenlee Partners, a Harrisburg lobbying firm with a broad base of clients who include utility and energy companies. A 2009 report that itemized spending by date suggested Smith regularly met with Greenlee representatives, who logged expenditures ranging from $7.40 to $94 on various dates.
Smith spokesman Steve Miskin said Greenlee did “what any good lobbyist does. They bring information and help educate the legislator — who does it affect, and how and why? A good legislator will want to hear both sides.”
Miskin said lawmakers try to discourage gifts and travel paid by others, even though that's legal.
Democratic House Whip Mike Hanna of Lock Haven said mores began changing with new lawmakers in recent years.
Hanna reported $1,277 in hospitality from Penn State in 2007, when he chaired the House Agriculture Committee and attended an agricultural conference held in conjunction with the Iowa-Penn State football game. The following year, he reported receiving football tickets valued at $746 from the university; he and his wife attended two home games. After 2008, Hanna reported no gifts or hospitality.
Hanna said lawmakers, who once jumped at taking advantage of the university's football perks, became cautious about accepting gifts that trigger disclosure requirements.
“There are probably still a fair number of legislators who see a game a year, but once you get beyond one game, you've crossed the reporting limit,” he said.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre County, in 2011 received $3,366 worth of Pittsburgh Steelers tickets. In 2009, the Steelers paid $669 for his lodging and provided $4,000 tickets to the Super Bowl in Tampa, where the Steelers snagged their sixth ring in a win against the Arizona Cardinals.
Team owner Art Rooney Jr. is a friend, Corman said, and the Super Bowl tickets resulted from that friendship.
But, Kauffman said, Rooney probably has many other friends who didn't get tickets.
Sen. Michael Brubaker, a Lancaster Republican who heads the Senate Finance Committee, apparently logged the most miles — taking trips to Turkey, Taiwan and Nova Scotia. He said those trips weren't underwritten by groups with business in front of the General Assembly.
Brubaker reported $10,090 for a trip to Turkey paid for by a cultural exchange group. He brought home the Turkish rug, a gift from his hosts, the Bogazici Atlantik Kulturel Dostluk Veis Birligi Dernegi. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office paid $5,400 for his trip to Taiwan. He traveled to a Regional Policy Forum in Nova Scotia, which cost $2,364.
On domestic trips, the National Assembly of Sportsmen spent $1,143 for Brubaker's stay at the plush Nemacolin Woodlands in Fayette County. He listed $1,072 for a trip to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the State Agriculture and Rural Leaders annual meeting. He traveled to Chicago with a $588 subsidy from the National Conference of State Legislators.
“My travel doesn't cost taxpayers a penny, and it's not paid by groups with interests before the Legislature,” Brubaker said. “When you are traveling internationally, you are sometimes given a gift. Sometimes it is awkward not to accept.”
House Democratic Caucus Chair Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill traveled to Poland and Ireland in 2007 to attend a National Taxpayers Conference. The conference or its sponsors covered Frankel's $6,830 tab. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, traveled to Dublin in 2010 for a State Legislative Leaders' Foundation conference. The foundation paid his $2,147 travel cost. Corporations comprise the foundation's principal funding source.
“Ireland was facing economic challenges very similar to Pennsylvania,” said Pileggi's spokesman, Erik Arneson. “Those discussions had direct relevance to issues Pennsylvania was addressing at the time and continues to address this year. No taxpayer funds were used.”
State Rep. Mike Vereb, the Republican caucus secretary, tallied $10,017 in gifts — more than any House leader.
Vereb, of Montgomery County, accepted $1,017 in hospitality from Bristol, Va.-based Alpha Natural Resources, one of the country's largest coal producers, to attend a luncheon with his wife in New York City during the 2010 Pennsylvania Society gala.
But $9,000 of the gifts he listed never crossed his hand. The money came in checks from corporate interests who underwrote an annual family fun festival for Vereb's constituents between 2007 and 2011. An assortment of companies gave increments of $500 to $1,000, including Comcast, Exelon and its subsidiary PECO, the state's largest electric and natural gas utility, and drug maker Wyeth, now part of Pfizer.
Vereb said the money helped pay the tab for a family-oriented festival open to all residents of his district, with hot dogs and drinks, National Guard and police demonstrations, miniature golf and go-kart rides.
“Even though the money went directly to the vendors and I'm not touching it, I always felt it was better to disclose it,” Vereb said.
In 2010, Rep. Tom Caltagirone, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, reported a $1,292 gift from Vintage Importers of Pennsylvania. On its website, Vintage Importers identifies itself as a distributor for “small boutique producers of fine wines from around the world.” Caltagirone, of Reading, did not return calls.