Editorial: Why should taxpayers be on the hook for lawmakers' legal fees?

Former state Rep. Bill DeWeese was convicted of theft of state resources. His attorney fees were paid for by taxpayers.

As a member of the Pennsylvania House, Bill DeWeese's base salary was $82,000 — all taxpayer money. Earlier this year, DeWeese was convicted of theft of state resources, for staffing his election campaigns with state — being paid with taxpayer money. This week, WHYY's Dave Davies reported that $84,000 in attorney fees for DeWeese's defense was paid for with - you guessed it — taxpayer money. And there's no indication that it will be paid back.

Why have taxpayers been so generous to DeWeese? One of the many perks provided to state legislators is coverage of legal fees related to their work. The coverage stops once an indictment is made or a charge is filed, and state law technically says that if an elected official is convicted, he or she has to reimburse the public. But, except in one recent case — Allegheny County prosecutors recently filed a motion to get convicted state Sen. Jane Orie to repay the state $1.3 million in legal fees — neither prosecutors nor the Legislature has sought repayment of these costs.  

The total amount of money that taxpayers have ponied up in legal fees for lawmakers is unknown, but they've chipped in on many of the cases in which 25 politicians and their aides have been convicted in just the past four years. That includes the $1.2 million in legal fees accrued by convicted Sen. Vince Fumo.  

There is actually an argument for taxpayers providing some legal coverage to elected officials. It would be a problem if frivolous lawsuits or investigations could bankrupt a legislator — only the rich could afford to govern.  

But, as with health insurance, we're not sure why legislators think that they're entitled to a Cadillac when most Pennsylvanians get a bicycle. DeWeese was represented by big-shot attorney William Costopolous. You know what the state offers you if you're accused of a crime? The limited resources of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.  

Nor should prosecutors and the Legislature look the other way on collecting repayment from officials convicted of crimes. These folks did not get into legal trouble while doing their jobs; taxpayers don't pay them to steal from taxpayers. They were, by definition, not doing their jobs. Make them pay us back.

This It's Our Money editorial also appeared in the Daily News.