Make corrupt public officials pay legal fees

In recent scandals involving Pennsylvania lawmakers, it’s bad enough that public officials illegally squandered state funds to pay for expenses in their election campaigns. But there has been a hefty, additional price tag: multimillion-dollar legal bills for the private lawyers paid with taxpayer money in response to mounting investigations.

Even after guilty verdicts in more than two-dozen cases known collectively as Bonusgate and Computergate, the state has been left holding an estimated $15 million tab for legal advice that — at least in the spirit of a 1996 anticorruption law — should have been repaid by the pols being packed off to jail.

Former State Sen. Jane C. Orie

As an Inquirer investigation revealed Sunday, though, the state Attorney General’s Office — under Linda Kelly and Gov. Corbett before her — for years has taken a narrow view of the state’s reach under the law mandating reimbursement for legal fees.

The stance, for the most part, has been that much of the outside lawyering was devoted to defending the state legislature’s institutional interests, rather than to shield officials later found to be corrupt. As such, the officials contend the fees are not recoverable.

That view is disputed by some legislative insiders, and by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who called the institutional theory “nonsense” in the recent corruption conviction of Republican former State Sen. Jane C. Orie, who was ordered to repay the state.

What appears to be a gaping loophole in the 1996 law has left the state with legal bills stemming from federal corruption cases as well, including that of jailed former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and disgraced former Philadelphia City Councilman Rick Mariano. In the Fumo case, the Senate’s tab was $1.2 million. For Mariano, city taxpayers were stuck with $82,000 paid toward his extortion defense.


Is the public victimized twice when corrupt officials aren’t forced to repay state legal fees?

Of course, were it not for the corrupt acts that trigger such investigations, there would be no legal expenses — and that argues for lawmakers to close the loophole.

Even before that happens, state officials need to shed more light on the legal fees themselves. It’s far more difficult than it should be for the public to even assess the legal spending for Harrisburg misconduct. General Assembly officials cite either client confidentiality or slipshod record-keeping for not revealing details. Ultimately, taxpayers are the clients here — and they shouldn’t be kept so much in the dark.

While the Orie case proved to be the rare instance where the state sought legal fees — Zappala won a $110,000 assessment against Orie — it also left unrecovered another $1.1 million supposedly spent to defend the Senate itself.

The financial picture with these corruption cases is a bit less bleak for taxpayers, thanks to the courts’ imposing $5.5 million in fines. But it would be in taxpayers’ best interest if the state attorney general pushed for tougher rules to put officials on notice that the full price for violating the public trust includes every dollar spent on outside counsel in a corruption case.