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Expert: Campaign reform not likely in Pennsylvania

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Monday, May 31, 2010

HARRISBURG — Prosecutors in court documents call it Pennsylvania's "illegal campaign culture."

A statewide grand jury last week, among numerous recommendations, said "all campaign work on legislative time must be eliminated."

"In the eyes of this grand jury, it is beyond dispute that numerous legislative employees have for years spent an enormous amount of time working on political campaigns when they were supposed to be performing their legislative duties," the grand jury said.

An ex-Democratic House employee is in state prison for stealing public resources for campaigns. He's serving a recently imposed 21-month to 5-year term. Nine others have been convicted and await sentencing on charges of stealing from taxpayers for campaigns.

In addition to working on campaigns on state time, some Democrats were convicted of participating in a secret system to dole out $1.4 million in bonuses to staffers who did campaign work.

Ten House Republicans are accused of participating in a scheme to use $10 million in state computer programs and equipment to give the GOP an edge in elections.

The grand jury stopped short of a recommendation that some analysts say the General Assembly should consider: a state version of the federal Hatch Act. The 1939 law prevents federal civil service employees from engaging in partisan activity. It applies to state and local workers if they're paid with federal money. Certain employees are exempt, including about 3,000 under the president.

In Pennsylvania, "they ought to consider a flat, outright ban," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

"If there's a (state) Hatch Act, you can't say you'll work for the campaign even after work," he said.

Madonna said some exemptions could be created for top positions, such as chief of staff.

Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne Law School, said most state acts of that nature apply to agencies rather than legislatures.

Given what has occurred in Pennsylvania, Ledewitz said, "You know ... maybe it's time."

The inherent problem is that any changes require legislative approval and the Legislature is in no rush to address these reforms, said Jerry Shuster, who teaches political rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh.

"You've got to take it out of their hands," Shuster said.

He recommends a commission, established by law, that would decide matters of ethics for the Legislature. It would be composed of mostly citizens and some lawmakers.

But the formation of such a group would require legislators' approval.

"I don't know how you do it. It truly starts with them," Shuster said.

Ledewitz said he didn't see a lot in the grand jury report that would deter the type of criminal activity that has surfaced.

The grand jury recommended eliminating the separate information technology departments for Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House. Doing so, the grand jury said, would make it harder to hide computer programs devoted to campaigns.

The Legislature should prevent caucus staff and campaigns from using the same vendors, the grand jury said. That would help prevent a caucus from subsidizing computer contracts used by campaigns, as allegedly occurred with House Republicans, the grand jury said.

The grand jury suggested ending the floating "lunch hour" when legislative employees leave during the day to do campaign work at partisan legislative committee offices; and eliminating the "comp time" workers use to leave their state job for campaign duties and "split time" when they go to campaigns but receive taxpayer-financed health and pension benefits.

Widespread use of legislative staffs for campaigns isn't new, the grand jury said. Scandals dating to the 1980s plagued New York, New Jersey, Washington state and Wisconsin.

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