AS OUR HAPLESS Legislature returns today from extended summer break, dragging its 11 percent approval rating with it, seems a good time to talk about a state gone wrong.
More precisely, a new book by Pittsburgh Tribune-Review journalist Brad Bumsted, Keystone Corruption: A Pennsylvania Insider's View of a State Gone Wrong (Camino Books).
If I were in charge, there'd be a copy on each lawmaker's desk in the House and Senate chambers.
Maybe, just maybe, reading it could move a few to start restoring a semblance of respectability to the institution they inhabit.
The book chronicles Pennsylvania's sorry political history, from indictments of those who designed the Capitol to modern corruption cases of county judges, a Supreme Court justice, an attorney general and Vince Fumo, John Perzel, Bill DeWeese, et al.
Bumsted reports on bygone bad guys and recent recalcitrants.
He notes, for example, that the massive bronze Capitol entry doors bear small bronze heads of officials responsible for the building.
Two of the sculptured beans, including architect Joseph Huston's, represent men convicted of fraud for jacking the cost of the Capitol from $4 million to $13 million - in 1906 dollars.
"Huston's likeness," Bumsted writes, "fittingly, is over the keyhole."
As a Capitol reporter and columnist, Bumsted's been looking through that keyhole since the early 1980s.
He's amassed a deliciously detailed record of the ugliness inside:
* Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp's years (1971-79): Four Cabinet members, including the State Police commissioner, seven lawmakers, 11 Democratic Party officials and 28 Department of Transportation employees convicted.
* The 1987 suicide of Republican state Treasurer Budd Dwyer, convicted of taking a $300,000 bribe for awarding a computer contract. He put a .357 magnum in his mouth and pulled the trigger at a news conference (on live TV) the day before he was to be sentenced.
* Ernie "The Attorney" Preate, who went from GOP contender for governor in 1994, to ex-attorney general sentenced, to prisoner in 1995.
But it's the Legislature's crimes and misdemeanors that leap from Bumsted's pages:
* America's largest "full-time" legislature is in session 80 days a year at a cost to taxpayers of $300 million.
* It hiked its own pensions 50 percent in 2001 and voted itself annual raises.
* It passed giant pay raises in 2005, and was later forced to rescind them after a (rare in the state) public outcry.
* And there was "Bonusgate," a term actually coined by Bumsted in 2007:
Leaders in both parties handed out $3.6 million in taxpayer money to staffers, many for working on campaigns. Some got five-figure dough on top of six-figure salaries.
A memo from DeWeese, the now-jailed, then-incoming Democratic Speaker: "Since this bonus payment is of an extraordinary nature not widely received by your colleagues, we cannot stress strongly enough the need for you not to discuss this with any other staff person or member."
There followed multiple investigations, related and not, with impressive and disgusting results: 38 public officials charged, eight legislative leaders jailed and $14 million in tax dollars spent on legal fees for their defense.
The book also has many shake-your-head moments:
* A tearful Fumo - convicted of 137 felony counts - at his 2009 sentencing: "I acquired power so I could use power in a good way."
* And Perzel, the now-jailed former GOP speaker - he pleaded guilty to taking taxpayers for $10 million in computers and programs to help Republicans - testifying at the 2011 trial of a colleague:
Attorney: You presumed, did you not, Mr. Perzel, to run for governor of Pennsylvania?
Perzel: Did I presume to do it? Yes.
Attorney: You presumed to seek the highest executive-branch office in this state while you were continuing to steal state funds, isn't that right?"
The big picture?
A state that enables sleaze: porous campaign-finance laws, no-limit political contributions, no term limits, an elected judiciary to sanction legislative actions, incumbent-protective gerrymandering, no initiative and referendum, and continuing cycles of corruption, waste and disservice to taxpayers.
As former legislator, now lobbyist John Milliron is quoted in the book, "The place does not change."
So welcome back, lawmakers. May I suggest some reading?