Baer: The quiet consequences of corruption

State Sen.Larry Farnese talks during a town hall meeting on Thursday, May 12, 2016.

BECAUSE IT never ends and no longer surprises, another round of charges and a criminal plea involving Pennsylvania public figures pretty much gets a shrug.

It shouldn't, but for citizens outside the circles of politics it does.

For them, two more names - Larry Farnese, John Estey - are but interchangeable stickmen in games long seen as shady.

Last week, connected Philly lawyer Estey, former top aide to Gov. Rendell, pleaded guilty after pocketing $13,000 during an elaborate sting designed to catch others. And Farnese, a Philly state senator, was charged with using a $6,000 bribe to, almost laughably, win a ward leader election.

And what happened?

Some predictable reactions (including, "oh, more Democrats, what a shock!"). But also further, if subtle, damage to the fundamentals of representative government.

Insiders played connect-the-dots guessing who's next in the Estey sting. Others wondered why $6K for a ward-leader gig you'd think you'd get for a $60 gift card to Olive Garden.

Yet for most weary watchers of Pennsylvania's ongoing parade of perfidy masquerading as public service, there's little curiosity and no punchline.

Instead, there are knowing nods of, "yeah, they all do it;" and additional attrition of whatever's left of faith and trust in government and politics, and in those involved in either arena.

These cases, and so many before them, cheapen the concept that entry into public life and use of the public process are purposeful acts for public good.

How can such concepts stand in a state that's a breeding ground for public crime?

You know the highlights: eight legislative leaders imprisoned at once in 2012; the state's treasurer, Rob McCord, last year pleaded to attempted extortion; the state's attorney general, Kathleen Kane, and one of its longest-serving congressmen, Chaka Fattah, charged with crimes. And so forth.

There are other costs.

A 2014 Indiana University study, "The Impact of Public Officials' Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending," found the most corrupt states - of which we, of course, are one - cost taxpayers significantly more than less corrupt states.

Corrupt states spend more on probes, prosecutions and prisons and tend to have (as we do) lax laws on ethics and campaign finance, favored treatment of donors, inflated contracts, reduced investments in education and deficit state financing.

Sound familiar?

Corruption costs money, saps hope, hurts government, undoubtedly helps depress voter turnout and maintains our state as a land of low expectations.

"It gets old," says David Thornburgh, chief of watchdog Committee of Seventy.

But he wonders if the state could learn from Philadelphia, "even though I can hear howls of laughter at the thought that Sodom and Gomorrah by the Delaware would have something to teach on ethics."

Thornburgh notes former Mayor Nutter took office (in 2007) as a reformer after a pay-to-play scandal. Now city campaign-finance laws, gift bans and ethics laws are stronger than the state's. The city has a chief integrity officer. And Nutter's eight-year administration was, says Thornburgh, "pretty squeaky clean."

Clearly, doesn't mean all Philly pols fly straight. But those in City Hall seem better behaved than those connected to the Capitol.

Extending such behavior beyond City Hall is, says Thornburgh, "a challenge."

He's right. Because those connected to the Capitol would have to make that happen. And all that's happening is awaiting what's next/who falls in the wake of a plea in a sting case and charges against a senator - consequences be damned.

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer