In Pennsylvania's Legislature, the grab goes on

Former state Rep. Jim Wansacz

DOES THE FACT that the Legislature runs a shameless system of doling out daily expenses encourage abuse of tax dollars and help line the pockets of pols?

As they say in some political quarters, you betcha.

So here's another tale from Harrisburg's House of Horrors.

This story was brought to light by Harrisburg CBS21 TV's Christopher Papst.

Last week, Papst updated a piece he broadcast in February about former state Rep. Jim Wansacz, a Democrat from Lackawanna County, the Scranton area.

As a legislator, Wansacz bought a house within walking distance of the Capitol, yet continued to charge taxpayers for overnight stays.

Lawmakers get per diem expenses up to $163 for food and lodging for any day they claim to do legislative business, whether in session or not.

I've railed about per diems for years since no receipts are required, they're tax-free, members can claim anything, and some claim weekends and holidays. And who knows how the money's spent?

These unregulated payments are considered legal by lawmakers who write the laws despite a provision in the state Constitution that lawmakers shall receive salary, mileage and "no other compensation whatever."

They taint the entire institution.

Wansacz collected $163,000 in per diems while in office from 2000 to 2010.

He bought a rowhouse on Harrisburg's 2nd Street in 2003 for $72,000.

CBS21's Papst now reports Wansacz has sold the house - for a $43,000 profit.

Wansacz's back home these days but remains in public service as a Lackawanna County Commissioner. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Here's why his story is relevant.

It's an example of what can happen when no one cares or watches. Without oversight, per diems can be used for anything, including real-estate investment.

Then lawmakers cover for one another and refuse reforms.

The Harrisburg TV station reached out to eight lawmakers. Only one, Harrisburg area Republican Rep. Sue Helm, responded.

She said since Wansacz's actions were legal, he should keep the money.

But just because a thing is legal doesn't mean it's right.

Not all lawmakers take per diems, but the system costs taxpayers millions every year and media regularly report abuses.

This has gone on for decades.

In 1990, I reported Philly Democratic Rep. Mark Cohen collected more than $100,000 in total expenses, the largest single chunk of that ($44,062) in per diems, more than any of 253 lawmakers.

Last session, lawmakers collected nearly $4 million in per diems, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and Cohen (who also bought a house in Harrisburg) took the second highest amount, $54,205.

Cohen was edged out of the top spot by Rep. Dom Costa, D-Pittsburgh ($55,495).

No one in leadership presses for moderation, or audits, or at least plainly needed regulation requiring receipts.

It's part of a pattern of disregard for public dollars and public trust.

Like keeping slush funds with your money, taking automatic annual raises regardless of performance, having health and pension benefits better than most constituents have and gerrymandering districts to remain in office.

Per diems are icing on a cake that lawmakers can have and eat, too.

There is, believe it or not, a House Committee on Ethics. I called its chairman, Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks County, to ask why there's no accountability for per diems, why there's no investigation into lawmakers using per diems to buy houses.

He did not return my call.

His committee web page shows no meetings, no votes, no legislation and no records available.

No surprise.

So it goes. And so it will until GOP House Leader Mike Turzai, Democratic House Leader Frank Dermody, GOP Senate Leader Dominic Pileggi, Democratic Senate Leader Jay Costa or somebody with clout and a sense of decency steps up and says, "Enough."