Gov. Corbett's latest gift: A Bunch of baloney

No matter how thin you slice it, it's still baloney.
Alfred Emanuel Smith, 4-term Governor of New York

The baloney served to you this week came in the form of a complaint filed this week by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to the State Ethics Commission – all based upon a fishing expedition launched by Philadelphia Daily News reporter Will Bunch.

Bunch’s report, based upon properly filed state disclosure reports by Tom Corbett, found that the governor and his wife received $11,343 in gifts during 2010-2011. That’s right -- $11,343 in gifts. We will get back to that number shortly.

Other than the PA Democratic Party, no one has formally contested the legality of those gifts. To date, no one is claiming that there may have been any undeclared gifts.

I went on a fishing expedition of my own to see how Republicans – friends and foes – felt about Corbett’s gifts.

Reached at his home, former State Rep. Sam Rohrer, Corbett’s 2010 primary opponent, politely declined to comment. So did anticipated 2014 Corbett primary challenger, Bruce Castor.

But Barry Kauffman, Executive Director of Common Cause/Pennsylvania, who was interviewed in the Daily News story, was not so shy about leveling his criticism at Corbett. “The buck stops at the top,” Kauffman told me.

On the flip side, Ana Puig, PA State Director for FreedomWorks, a conservative non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., rushed to Corbett’s defense. "If we don't stop looking for reasons to put down Gov Corbett while finding fault in everything he does and every decision he makes, we will end up with a progressive for Governor in 2014. How about we start mentioning some of Corbett's accomplishments, which have been many, during the past two years instead?"

PA GOP spokeswoman Valerie Caras went right to the heart of Bunch’s report. “Governor Corbett has created one the most open and transparent government in Pennsylvania history and he has remained fully compliant with Pennsylvania law in his disclosures. For Democrats to manipulate Governor Corbett's openness to score political points cheapens the process.”

We’ll talk about the Democrats and some of their past PA governors in a moment.

But Caras’ statement seemed to be the message that most Republicans I contacted expressed.

Steve Welch, who was endorsed for U.S. Senate by Tom Corbett in last year’s Republican primary before eventually losing in a 5 man primary to Tom Smith, had this to say: ”Tom Corbett is the most transparent governor that Pennsylvania has ever seen. We have a governor that wakes up every day, working to make Pennsylvania more business friendly, to create jobs in the commonwealth, to make sure companies that are here stay here, and to make sure new companies start their business in PA,” said Welch, who is active as a founding partner of Dream IT Ventures.

How about local Philadelphia reform-minded Republican activists, many of whom – like me – are independent, don’t take orders from Harrisburg and didn’t necessarily vote for Corbett over Rohrer last time around. Where do we stand?

“Governor Corbett was doing the business of the Pennsylvania people,” said Dr. Seth Kaufer, a Gastroenterology/Hepatology Fellow at Hahnemann University Hospital. Kaufer also served as an alternate delegate at the 2012 Republican National Convention. “Politicians are expected to attend all kinds of public meetings, forums, and events with constituents, and they are criticized as elitist if they skip them. The article unfairly tries to paint the governor as abusing his power, but in fact, he has one of the most transparent administrations in the country. The allegations pale in comparison to the real abuses of our Philadelphia politicians, and I think the local media should focus more attention on City Hall and less on witch hunts.”

Steven C. Boc, an attorney who serves as the Chairman of the Philadelphia Federation of Young Republicans, echoed Kaufer’s sentiments. “Corbett has been extremely transparent. His acceptance of these so called "gifts" is not illegal. Some of these events can be very beneficial to the commonwealth. There are some events the Gov. should attend and if the taxpayers don't have to foot the bill that's a good thing.”

Erik Jacobs is Chairman of the Temple College Republicans. “While many are quick to criticize Corbett's actions, we must look at the whole picture,” Jacobs quipped, adding, “He did not break the law and did not engage in legislative activity that may have been influenced as a result of any of these gifts. Moreover, where were these types of stories when Governor Rendell and others were accepting similar packages in the past?”

Back to the Daily News report. According to Bunch, “experts say Corbett's behavior is unusual in a couple of ways.”

I’m not sure what “unusual” means, but it doesn’t mean illegal.

Bunch goes on to assert that “critics argue argue that Corbett may have violated” the 1980 Code of Conduct, established during the Thornburgh Administration, that bans officials in the executive branch from receiving gifts from those doing business with the state.

If that’s the case, then Corbett is the least of our worries. $11,343 pales in comparison to $300,000.

$300,000? Whaddya mean?

In a report by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2006, reporter Tom Barnes disclosed that then Gov. Ed Rendell, in the midst of his reelection campaign, took a $300,000 contribution from the Democratic Governors Association.

No big deal, right? That’s a legal contribution, right?

Well, the year before, in 2005, Gov. Rendell took a trip to Las Vegas where he encouraged gambling interests to contribute to the Democratic Governors Association. They ended up contributing $417,000.

Strangely enough, casinos opened for business in Pennsylvania in 2006.

While the Rendell Administration denied any “quid pro quo” was going on, then Republican State Committee Chairwoman Eileen Melvin said it best: “Pennsylvanians are a lot smarter than Ed Rendell thinks. Ed Rendell should do the right thing and return the contribution immediately and apologize for, at the very least, skirting the spirit of the state gaming legislation he signed into law.”

Let’s do some basic math: $300,000/$11,323=26.5. I’d say that Gov. Rendell getting 26.5 times the number of gifts than Corbett speaks, well, volumes.

Or how about the late Governer Robert Casey? Back in 1993, within hours of announcing that then Governor Casey would require a heart and liver transplant, doctors suddenly found compatible organs – ones which often take months to locate. Was it just good luck, or was it a powerful politician with great connections trumping the poor and powerless? We’ll probably never know, but Casey surgeon John Fung said at the time, "We were concerned about people's perception that this smacks of favoritism or conspiracy."

They do say that there’s no gift like the gift of life, right?

Seeing hypocrisy, other local activists were not so gentle with the Daily News’ report.

Tania Gail publishes a popular conservative blog, Midnight Blue Says. Gail didn’t mince words: “He [Bunch] should be focusing the same line of inquiry regarding Michelle Obama's 'gifts' as First Lady of the United States. I'm really not interested in this type of partisan hackery.”

Kevin Kelly, founder of the local Republican group, the Loyal Opposition, made the attack personal to Bunch. "I find it curious that Will Bunch doesn’t write a single word about hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars stolen and squandered through fake nonprofits such as the Germantown Settlement or fees paid to the wife of a sitting Supreme Court Justice, reported just yesterday,” said Kelly, adding, “His selective outrage is completely transparent, but typical of a leftist blinded by his ideology."

I immediately reached out to Bunch and decided to delay the publication of this story until Bunch had the opportunity to comment, which I knew he would.

While Bunch and I do have drastically different political ideologies, I can say without reservation that he is the reporter that I greatest respect in Philadelphia. When brought me on board, my editor asked me if there was anyone I wanted to say hello to at the newspaper. I told him there was just one person – Will Bunch. We walked over from the snazzy section of the building into the heart of the blue state territory of the Daily News, and I saw my new colleague but old friend working away in his cubicle, with his back to me. We had to wait a few minutes as Bunch was muckraking away, but it was worth it. I was so thrilled to see Will, and I told him how he was the one person I wanted to see.

And that wasn’t because we agreed with each other. We often don’t.

But it’s because Will is a muckraker and a damned good one. And regardless what his ideology is, he has always been an equal-opportunity, bipartisan basher when he’s felt he’s seen an injustice.

So here’s what Will said to me via email: “Three things. First, by way of background, the Corbett story was actually a follow-up to a piece I did back in January about one of the gifts -- the Rhode Island yacht vacation, and how the donor's facility was under scrutiny by the state DEP at the time. After that ran, readers contacted me and suggested I look at all the gifts; one told me about the 1980 Governor's Code of Conduct and how Corbett appeared to be in violation. I would have been pretty poor as a journalist if I had not followed up.”

I can’t disagree with that logic. You gotta finish what you start.

Will continued: “Look, the reality is that Philadelphia has far, far fewer journalists working -- especially in investigative reporting -- than it did 20 or even 10 years ago. Readers are lucky that one of them -- Craig McCoy -- is looking into McCaffrey and another -- me -- is looking at their governor. That's better for readers than if we were both writing the same thing. I get this criticism all the time and it's bizarre -- why aren't you writing about the story I already know all about!!!!! That makes no sense. You should be berating me for the stories I haven't written that you DON'T know about.”

Very true. And I can tell you that thanks to McCoy’s reporting, people like Kevin Kelly had the opportunity to circulate McCoy’s expose on McCaffrey via the Loyal Opposition listserv.

Finally, Will made it very personal to me: “Finally, John, as someone who ran against Bob Brady in the 1990s, you know first-hand how aggressively I've reported on him and many other Democrats over the years (especially Ed Rendell, who's had to give back campaign donations because of my reporting.) Since you're more familiar with my record than many readers, I hope you'll remember that in writing this piece.”

I do remember, Will. And I agree with everything you said above. You are the best this city’s press has, Will. If I can accomplish 1/10th of what you’ve done for your readers, I’d be a happy trooper. But it doesn’t mean I won’t metaphorically beat you up from time to time (and vice versa), with this being an example.

Corbett’s small fries compared to many others. Make that a small order of fries with the extra large baloney sandwich, please.