The path toward a corruption-free Capitol?

After years of corruption scandals in Harrisburg, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to create a state Public Integrity Commission with the power to investigate public officials and employees and recommend criminal charges.

The commission, or PIC as it's being called for short, would employ trained law enforcement officials that could investigate public corruption "at all levels and in all three branches of government," said Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester), the prime sponsor of legislation to create the commission. It would send annual reports to the legislature which could include recommendations for legislative or administrative changes.

More importantly, said Schroder, it could subpoena witnesses and documents, seek immunity orders to obtain information from people who invoke their 5th amendment rights, and refer criminal violations to other law enforcement authorities, including the state Attorney General's office. 

"Public corruption is nothing new in Pennsylvania," said Schroder."In fact evidence of it can be found throughout our history. While the nature of offenses may have changed over the years, the motivation and impact remain the same: the offending public officials gain wealth and power while the people who elected them lose their hard-earned money and their sense of trust in the people they elected to serve them."

The commission would be made up of seven gubernatorial appointees, no more than three members from any political party. 

It is expected to cost about $5 million a year, and be financed through an independent funding stream: in 2009, the legislature established an $11.25 surcharge for certain court filings. That surcharge expires next year, but lawmakers want to extend it and use a portion of it - $2 out of every $11.25 - to pay for the commission's work.

"This prevents the commission from being an officially partisan body," said Tim Potts, founder of Democracy Rising Pennsylvania. "That is a remarkable declaration that the Public Integrity Commission intends to serve all of our citizens, with preference for none."

Added Potts, a onetime legislative staffer: "I've been around long enough to know that partisanship is ingrained in this government ... So this is an important step toward a less partisan government that better represents our people, who are far less partisan than our political leaders."

Schroder's bill does have co-sponsors in the Senate, including Sen. Ted Erickson (R., Delaware). But its future legislative course is far from mapped out. The legislature has been loathe to make any major reforms in the last few years, even as scandal after scandal - Bonusgate topping that list - has unfolded in the Capitol.

In fact, the grand jury investigating Bonusgate issued a scathing report last year, saying the legislature was stuck in a "time warp" of corruption and proposed a long list of reforms. The report has largely gone unheeded.

House Republicans are pushing a number of good government bills this session, but government watchdogs have said they don't go far enough.

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