Public Safety & Justice

Do We Need New Rules About Lobbying and Conflicts of Interest?

by | April 7, 2014

By Amy Worden

At the turn of the 20th century, when robber barons ruled the Pennsylvania Capitol, lobbyists were known to toss bags of cash through the transom vents above the doors of lawmakers' rooms at the Penn-Harris hotel.

The ethical climate in Harrisburg has vastly improved since. But news last month that four Philadelphia lawmakers were caught on tape allegedly taking cash or gifts from a lobbyist has stoked new calls for reform.

Pennsylvania is not alone. Organizations that monitor ethics laws nationwide say the last decade has brought tighter state laws involving gift-giving, lobbying, and conflict of interest, some driven by similar scandals.

In New Jersey, a string of lobbyist-funded junkets, including trips to Hawaii and New York Yankees tickets, led to restrictions on what lobbyists could give and lawmakers could receive. Florida imposed a sweeping gift ban after revelations about a slot-machine company's spending on legislators. After enduring its own graft allegations, the California legislature is considering bills that would put a $200 limit on gifts from a single source.

"It is a trend both in receiving and giving of gifts to lawmakers," said Peggy Kerns, executive director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Many times, it's the public perception of what gifts can provide, the quid pro quo. You can't always say there's a quid pro quo, but the public is skeptical."

No charges have been filed against the Philadelphia Democrats who together allegedly accepted $23,000 in cash and gifts from a lobbyist working secretly for the state Attorney General's Office. But the case has already stirred change.

Last week, a bipartisan joint committee issued new House and Senate rules banning most cash gifts, with the exception of gifts between close family members and non-lobbyist friends. The document allows members to continue to accept campaign contributions that are "otherwise authorized by law."

Swift action

A similar scandal was the driving factor in Virginia. After reports last year that the departing governor, Bob McDonnell, and his wife had accepted $165,000 in loans and luxury gifts from a businessman, the new governor, Terry McAuliffe, acted on a campaign promise within days of taking office. In January, he signed an executive order imposing a strict $100 gift cap on members of the executive branch and their families. He also established the state's first Ethics Commission.

There is still no such limit on Virginia lawmakers, nor does an ethics commission oversee its legislative branch.

Eight states have no ethics commission. Others, such as Delaware, have no gift reporting requirements or limits on a gift's value. Pennsylvania has had an Ethics Commission since 1979 and stricter thresholds on gift reporting since 2006. Lawmakers and the governor must now report any source who hands them at least $650 in gifts in a year or any single gift worth $250 or more.

The commonwealth still places no limit on the value of such gifts, including travel and meals.

'Justifiably irate'

"Taxpayers are justifiably irate at the corrupt and unethical actions they have seen over the past several years, and the most recent revelations of improper conduct have made the situation much worse," said Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), who wants to ban cash gifts and will hold hearings in the next month on the issue. Nine states have adopted zero-tolerance polices.

Florida is among those with a "no-cup-of-coffee" law, which bans virtually all gifts. Its only exception: flowers delivered on the opening day of the legislative session.

"Some scholars say we have the most rigid laws banning of gifts, public records, and code of ethics, and I wouldn't argue that," said Jeff Hendry, director of the John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government at Florida State University.

"Two public officials can't get together in public or private and discuss policy," Hendry said. "It's a level of scrutiny that some say has gone too far."

Many in Pennsylvania, among them good-government advocate Barry Kauffman, say nothing short of a full ban will stop what he called "the ongoing litany of scandalous behavior" from lawmakers and other governmental agencies. Members of the Liquor Control Board and Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission have also been stung by allegations of ethics violations or pay-to-play corruption in the last year.

"At minimum, there should be a cash ban," said Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania. "It should never have been permitted in a modern era when we need to rein in the abuse of power and influence."

Gov. Corbett has accepted thousands of dollars in gifts and hospitality from business leaders since taking office in 2011. His spokesman, Jay Pagni, said Corbett supports a ban on cash gifts, but stopped short of saying the governor would support a complete gift ban.

"He believes in full transparency and will work with the legislature to restore trust in government officials," Pagni said. "Recent events have eroded that trust and it's important to regain that."

Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware) has been pushing for tougher ethics laws, including a gift ban, for 22 years. "You feel like the toy robot that keeps hitting the wall," he said.

Senate President Joe Scarnati's chief counsel, Drew Crompton, said he thinks a total gift ban could be unwieldy and difficult to enforce. Would that mean returning or destroying flowers from a constituent? Plaques from civic clubs? Coffee mugs from a local business?

Some states have exceptions for gifts under $10 or $25 or for certain promotional items.

Since 2006, the New Jersey Assembly has had among the nation's toughest gift laws. There is no ban on cash gifts, but the policy applies to any gift, favor, service, or other thing of value, including cash gifts, Mark Holmes, deputy director of the New Jersey Ethics Commission, wrote in an e-mail.

The strict reporting requirements there led to a record low last year in lobbyist spending on Garden State lawmakers -- $4,100, less than half the amount in 2009 and down from $163,375 in 1992.

Jeff Brindle, executive director of the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission, said the changes were the result of a general reform movement and increased scrutiny by reporters and watchdogs.

"It's gotten to a point now that the legislators are paying for meals for lobbyists," he said. "It's not the other way around."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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