Report: Elections in PA get failing grade for corruption
Pileggi: Always room for more improvement
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s elections are ripe for corruption, according to a new national report.
The report, issued by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that focuses on ethics and governmental integrity, gives Pennsylvania a failing grade for transparency in the state’s redistricting process and campaign finance laws. Overall, the state ranks 18th in the nation across 14 categories that also include spending transparency, public accountability and lobbying disclosure laws.
Pennsylvania’s failing grade for campaign finance is attributed largely to the lack of giving limits in state campaigns and political parties not being required to disclose donors, according to the report. The report was released Monday and is based on current state laws and policies.
The “F” for redistricting is because of the state’s partisan map-making process that allows the party in control of the General Assembly to draw favorable districts, which has resulted in a history of districts favorable to politicians instead of voters.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that advocates for more transparent and accountable government, said the report is evidence that Pennsylvania “has a long way to go to restore government integrity.”
“We have to do campaign finance reform, we have to fix the redistricting system and we have to protect the open records system and make that even better,” Kauffman said.
No states did particularly well in the survey, including eight that received overall grades of F. New Jersey received the highest overall score of B+.
Pennsylvania’s overall grade of C- left it tied with Florida, Kentucky and North Carolina.
But the Keystone State scored worst in areas connected to elections, which could be troubling to voters.
Tim Potts, executive director of Democracy Rising PA, which advocates for governmental reforms and contributed to the study, said it should be no surprise that corruption in Pennsylvania is frequently tied to the electoral process.
“Elections are the essential ingredient in a lot of the corruption, because to play the inside game you have to win the outside game,” Potts said. “Job No. 1 is to get elected, so it’s not surprising that incumbents will do anything — legal or illegal — to try to win an election.”
A close link exists between potentially corrupt elections and political corruption in Harrisburg. Most of the recent slew of high-ranking politicians and staff members who have been indicted and convicted were charged with using their elected offices to influence the outcome of elections.
First there was the so-called “Bonusgate” investigation, launched in 2007 by Gov. Tom Corbett when he was the state’s attorney general. The investigation led to the convictions of state Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, and former state Rep. Mike Veon, D-Beaver, along with several staff members who received bonuses for doing campaign work for House Democrats.
A similar case, dubbed “Computergate,” into which Corbett also launched an investigation in 2007, took down former House Speaker John Prezel, R-Philadelphia, state Rep. Bret Feese, R-Lycoming, and House Republican staff members for using taxpayer-funded computer programs to help the GOP win elections.
In both cases, the charges were of theft, conflict of interest and conspiracy, but it was really about winning political power through elections, Potts said.
“All of that was election-related,” Potts said.
Since the investigations and convictions, House and Senate caucuses have ended the practice of giving bonuses for campaign work to political staff members and have passed internal rules limiting a lawmaker's ability to funnel dollars to nonprofit entities, another component of recent corruption trials.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said the culture of Harrisburg has changed after the recent run of investigations.
“I think there is a growing awareness of the necessity of keeping a bright line between governmental activity and government resources, and political activity and political resources,” he said. “There is always room for more improvement in making sure that we have greater transparency.”
As for changes to the redistricting process, Pileggi said he would favor some changes to the congressional process, but not the commission that draws the state legislative districts.
At the congressional level, the majority party in the Legislature can push through a new map — as the Republicans did this year — without any input from the minority party. There is also no requirement for public hearings or testimony, as the state constitution requires for the state-level maps.
The state’s redistricting process recently was thrown into the spotlight after the state Supreme Court rejected new state House and Senate district maps for dividing too many municipalities in opposition to the constitutional requirement that such divisions should be made only when “absolutely necessary.”
But the process itself is still completely political and partisan, with House and Senate leaders charged with drawing the district lines for themselves and their members.
The state’s campaign finance disclosure website, run by the state Department of the Commonwealth, received high marks on the survey for being open and accessible, but the lack of spending limits on state campaigns and transparency when it comes to political party’s fundraising resulted in the low score.
Kauffman said there is some good news in the mostly negative report.
“We recently passed a public access law that is pretty good,” he said. “Our lobbyist disclosure law isn’t bad, either, although it has a huge hole when it comes to reporting or prohibiting gifts from lobbyists. But after that, pretty much everything is down the rat hole.”
Lobbyists in the state are only required to report gifts if the total given from one source in a three month period exceeds $2,500.
Terry Mutchler, the state’s Open Records Officer, said Pennsylvania’s open records law is one of the best in the nation.
“The right-to-know law fundamentally changed the way people access public records of their government,” Mutchler said. “If the government agency chooses to withhold a record, the agency has the burden to prove — with legal citation — why that record should not be available to the public.”