Pennsylvania public officials take gifts because they can

Pennsylvania Daily Life
Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

I always enjoy the annual state Ethics Commission filings showing gifts, travel, and whatnot taken by our public officials.

First, I savor the comic value of putting in the same sentence “our public officials” and “ethics.”

But I also like to remind folks that our ethics law isn’t a window into our ship of state — it’s a screen door on a submarine.

It’s full of holes, reliant on the honesty of those filing. There’s no limit to what they can take, so long as they admit taking. There’s no way to know if filings are accurate or complete. And they don’t have to report gifts from friends as long as the “friend” isn’t a lobbyist.

The law is so lax that we’re a national leader (finally in something!) at making our electeds gifted.

Filings for 2016 include lots of trips, tons of tickets, a whiff of hypocrisy (looking at you, Josh Shapiro), and one strange airplane ride.

And, as the Associated Press reported, the $145,000 total grab is higher than in recent years, more than triple the take of four years ago.

So, bravo, public servants, you’ve made something grow in Pennsylvania.

Let’s eye some detail based on reports by the AP and on Philly.com.

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who suggests he’s running for governor next year, took $2,681 worth of “transportation” from Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York), who says he’s running for governor next year.

I can see Wagner, in the heat of a primary, paying to transport Turzai out of state. But this was a one-way ride in a six-passenger jet from the Butler airport, near Turzai’s home, to Harrisburg so Turzai could attend a staffer’s wedding.

The jet was from Wagner’s solid waste company. Wagner tells me Turzai is “a Republican colleague” who needed a favor.

I don’t know, could be a trap. Maybe in a GOP debate, Wagner nods at Turzai with something like, “Look at this guy. He takes anything. He took a jet ride from me. I take nothing. No gifts. No travel. No pension. No perks. So, think about this when voting: I took him for a ride; don’t let him take you for one.”

Politics can be a trip.

Speaking of which, Rep. Eli Evankovich (R., Westmoreland) took an $8,350 trip to New Zealand. Something about wanting to learn if New Zealand is doing stuff Pennsylvania should copy. He since has announced he won’t seek reelection. Maybe moving to New Zealand?

Philly, of course, is well-represented.

Democratic Rep. Jordan Harris took a trip to Nigeria. Democratic Rep. Angel Cruz took trips to D.C., Boston, Orlando, and Hawaii. Democratic Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, awaiting trial on corruption charges including bribery, took trips to D.C., Florida, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, and Iowa (for an “Urban Ag Conference”), perhaps thinking her future travel just might be restricted.

Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Speaking of which, 76ers tickets were big last fall despite (maybe because of) dismal play: The team finished 14th of 15 in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Democratic Rep. Donna Bullock took $5,000 worth of tickets “for constituents.” Democratic Rep. Joanna McClinton took $1,200 worth, “donated” to students.

And Democratic State Attorney General Josh Shapiro took $2,139 in Sixers tix plus $810 in Pittsburgh Penguins hockey tix for, says a spokesman, “his personal use.”

This is the same Shapiro who as a 2016 AG candidate listed a “comprehensive gift ban for public officials” as the top priority of his “Integrity Agenda.”

None of this rises to the extraordinary level of Philly DA Seth Williams’ gift-grabbing, but should that be the bar?

The ethics law should be tightened or, better, replaced with a gift ban such as Gov. Wolf signed the day he took office for those under his jurisdiction.

Even if pols give away what’s given to them, they benefit from sharing what isn’t theirs to share.

Plus, gifts suggest being on the take. They create an appearance of conflict and greed. They further erode trust in public service — which, in Pennsylvania, can often fade to a faint notion.