By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
A Pennsylvania state senator is accused of using taxpayer money to throw her annual birthday bash, a campaign event.
State Sen. LeAnna Washington, D-Philadelphia, is charged with theft of services and felony conflict of interest after a grand jury found she may have used her office for political and financial gain, Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced Wednesday.
Washington is accused of directing Senate staff to perform campaign work over eight years and using intimidation and verbal abuse to coerce them, even though staff knew the practice was illegal, according to the grand jury. Washington allegedly cut salaries or fired staff who disagreed with the practice, according to a news release announcing the charges.
“The evidence will show that Senator Washington pressured her staff into performing political activities using taxpayer dollars for her own personal benefit,” Kane said in the release.
Washington did not immediately return calls for comment Wednesday.
The charges against Washington come after Pennsylvania’s bonusgate scandal, which left two former House speakers in prison and led to more than 20 convictions when taxpayer resources were used for political purposes.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, which advocates governmental accountability and transparency, said the allegations raise serious concerns.
“With everything that has happened in the last few years, you’d think public officials would have taken note and gone the extra mile to ensure they are not using state resources for political purposes,” Kauffman said.
Washington’s case involves the misuse of $100,000 in state money, according to the indictment. Though that is considerably less than the crimes charged during other recent scandals, Kauffman said, the state ethics law is a bright line that cannot be crossed.
Kane’s office noted that, in the wake of the criminal convictions of other legislators, Washington sponsored a resolution regarding ethics rules in the Senate, “yet at the same time she and her employees — at her direction and under her supervision — were allegedly violating the very criminal laws the policy was based upon.”
The charges against Washington center around allegations she used state employees and equipment at her district office to organize an annual birthday gala that doubled as a campaign fundraiser. In the weeks and months leading up to the July event, the task took up most of the staff members’ time, the grand jury found.
Taxpayer-funded staffers tracked fundraising invitations, created invitations, stuffed and stamped envelopes and kept track of campaign contributions and expenditures to forward to Washington’s campaign treasurer, according to Kane’s announcement.
The grand jury, the attorney general said, also found signs for the fundraiser, as well as congratulatory signs “celebrating family milestones and other deliverables for Senator Washington’s campaign activity,” were printed at the Senate Graphic Design Department in Harrisburg.
Washington faces up to 12 years in prison and a maximum fine of $25,000, if convicted on all charges.
First elected to the state House in 1993, Washington served as a representative for 12 years before her election to the state Senate. She is the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Aging and Youth Committee and serves on the Appropriations Committee.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, released a statement calling Washington a “strong and effective public servant” and indicating that its now up to the justice system to address the charges against her.
“It is critical to remember that the presentment is only the first step in the process,” Costa said. “Senator Washington will now have the opportunity to defend herself in a court of law.”
Eric Boehm contributed to this story.