Goodbye, Mr. Cohen . . . or not?

Medical Marijuana
State Rep. Mark Cohen, elected in a special election in May 1974, lost to community organizer Jared Solomon in the 202nd district.

I, for one, will miss Mark Cohen.

Not that we're close. Far from it.

But I've written about him for decades, often with relish. And now he's leaving the legislature after decades.

And, well, seems a shame not to offer thoughts on his record 42 years in the state House representing the good folks of lower Northeast Philly.

So take a deep breath for a look back (and forward) at the style and story of - let's just say in the spirit of the holidays - an unusual public servant.

A Democrat known for pushing hikes in the minimum wage and for enactment of medical marijuana, he'll be remembered as our legislature's sometimes squirrely king of perks.

He possessed unparalleled skills for padding his salary with tens of thousands of dollars a year in expenses called per diems, currently $185 per day - money with no accountability, no receipts required.

He was master of milking the system for books, travel, and pay for working holidays - Christmas, Easter, Labor Day, Yom Kippur, you name it - all perfectly legal under House rules since, hey, it's only taxpayer dough.

He justified expenses on grounds he was constantly busy. But he found time to get an MBA and a law degree while serving full-time in office.

(He says he didn't use expense money for tuitions.)

Oh, and it wasn't unusual to see him in the Capitol, standing or walking alone in hallways, talking to himself. Probably adding up all that money.

And don't think his leaving might save you money.

His pension's more than his salary. He says it's around $98,000 a year (although I and others using right-to-know requests calculate it's actually higher). His final salary was $85,338. But his claimed expenses push his annual take well into six figures.

And wait! He may not be done. He's looking to run for judge next year.

And he says it's "certainly possible" he'll file for Common Pleas and Municipal Court then play ballot-position lottery and run for the one he's slotted higher.

Clever, no?

If elected, he'll get a raise: Common Pleas pays $176,572; Municipal, $172,486.

He'll be 68 next year. But due to the wisdom of statewide voters who this year approved a ballot question extending the mandatory retirement age of judges to 75, he could serve in office seven more years - and further boost that pension. This potentially means more of the shake-your-head type stories his career gifted to media, starting with me.

Back in the 1990s, I reported he ran up more than $104,000 in expenses in one legislative session. That included $44,000 in per diems; $11,000 in airline tickets to fly between Philly and Harrisburg because, he said, "driving wears me out" (he was 41 at the time); $5,700 in parking fees, mostly at Philadelphia International.

When I asked what sort of work he did on all the weekends and holidays for which he claimed per diems, he said, "Preparation."

Others since reported his doings. Like spending $28,000 of your money on 800 books during 2004-05, including The Book of Positive Quotations and AOL for Dummies; or, perhaps my favorite, retroactively filing invoices to collect $1 payments in 2011 after per-diem rates increased by $1.

And in 2014, fellow-Philly Rep. Brian Sims, then backing a primary opponent of Cohen's, took to social media with this: "Virtually every single person in the Capitol has a story about Mark being lost in a bathroom or arguing with the plants."

Well, maybe not virtually every single person.

Ah, but now Cohen's leaving, to be succeeded by community organizer Jared Solomon, who beat him in the spring Democratic primary.

But consider: Cohen worked in a place with little regard for reputation or image, a place where abuse of tax-dollars is legal and common under its rules.

He did what our legislature allows; just longer, more ardently than others.

He's a poster boy for a problem. But even without him the problem remains.