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Pa. breeding ground for corruption, experts say

| Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015, 10:50 p.m.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.
Tribune-Review
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.
Former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed appears for his preliminary arraignment at District Judge William Wenner's offices in Lower Paxton Township on July 14, 2015,
Dan Gleiter | PennLive.com
Former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed appears for his preliminary arraignment at District Judge William Wenner's offices in Lower Paxton Township on July 14, 2015,
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia, and four others have been indicted in federal court for racketeering conspiracy.
Alex Wong | Hulton Archive
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia, and four others have been indicted in federal court for racketeering conspiracy.

HARRISBURG — By mid-2012, eight of Pennsylvania's former legislative leaders were in prison, and former House Speakers John Perzel, a Republican, and Bill DeWeese, a Democrat, briefly shared a cell.

They were among more than 30 public officials with ties to the state Capitol who had been convicted of corruption charges by state, federal and local prosecutors.

It never ended.

Since 2013, 11 state officials — including five former legislators and former Treasurer Rob McCord — have been convicted in cases ranging from bribery and extortion to theft. In many cases, they agreed to plea bargains and offered pleas to conflict of interest. McCord pleaded guilty in February to extortion.

There appears to be no end in sight.

Federal prosecutors last week charged U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia, and four others with a racketeering conspiracy, including bribery and misappropriation of money. They maintain their innocence.

Former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed has been charged with 499 counts of theft, bribery and tampering with evidence filed by Attorney General Kathleen Kane. His attorney predicts he will be vindicated.

Kane is expected to find out soon whether she will be charged by the Montgomery County district attorney's office. A statewide grand jury recommended charging Kane with perjury and obstruction of justice, concluding that she leaked secret documents to a newspaper, lied about it and tried to cover it up. Kane insists she has done nothing wrong.

“The learning curve in Pennsylvania seems to be a very slow one when it comes to political corruption,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Pennsylvania is the fifth most corrupt state in the nation, according to a study released last year by the University of Hong Kong and Indiana University at Bloomington, based on federal prosecutions. The Keystone State might be ranked higher if state statistics, which accounted for many of the convictions, were factored in.

Why there is so much public corruption in the state isn't clear.

Laurel Brandstetter of Stanton Heights, a former state prosecutor, believes it's because the Legislature didn't enact major reforms when scandals rocked House Democrats — and later Republicans — for using public resources for campaigns. The grand jury that recommended criminal charges against Democratic staffers and lawmakers, for taxpayer-paid bonuses for campaign work, had urged sweeping changes.

Its recommendations included returning to a part-time legislature, eliminating partisan caucuses, limiting members to one district office and reducing lawmakers' benefits and staff.

The General Assembly largely ignored the May 2010 report by the so-called “Bonusgate grand jury.”

When such a report is shelved, “That sends a huge message,” Brandstetter said.

“There's an old-school quality to Pennsylvania (politics),” she said. “I don't know that Pennsylvania has seen the structural changes that other states have. You have old-time politicians ruling the roost.”

Mark D. Schwartz, a Bryn Mawr lawyer and former Democratic House staffer, said too much money is available.

“There are too many ways to siphon money out of the system,” he said, citing state funds, campaign money and nonprofits founded or influenced by lawmakers.

“I blame the professionalization of the Legislature,” starting in the 1970s, Schwartz said. That “has meant more corruption.”

Borick said money might be a big part of a federal investigation that led to searches and seizure of records from city halls in Allentown and Reading. The investigation has the appearance of a “pay-to-play” probe in which campaign donations influence contract awards, Borick said.

If that's true, the case might be a “post-Bonusgate brand of abuse of power,” Borick said.

Influence peddling is a “more indirect means of leveraging public resources for the political gain of officials,” he said.

No charges have been filed.

Michael Cassidy, a former House Democratic staffer who teaches political science at Temple University in Philadelphia, said he believes Pennsylvanians are witnessing the result of more aggressive prosecutions that may be going too far.

“It probably is bordering on that now,” Cassidy said.

Such an environment discourages people from seeking public office or staying in office, Cassidy said. He thinks more aggressive prosecuting is a more logical explanation than saying that “officeholders are more corrupt than in times past.”

David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, an independent government reform group in Philadelphia, wrote last week in a Web update to followers that “impropriety by elected officials unfortunately creates an air of suspicion about politics in general.”

That may contribute to declining voter turnout, he said.

“Persistent corruption is a factor which degrades confidence in our political system and leads to capable people deciding not to run for office, voters deciding to stay at home, and encourages an unhealthy stasis in government and the policies which emerge from our leaders,” Thornburgh wrote.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Staff writer Gideon Bradshaw contributed.

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