Bipartisan support is coalescing in the state House for a new state commission with authority to investigate corruption in local and state government.
The proposal for a so-called "Public Integrity Commission" was developed by state Rep. Curt Schroder, a veteran Chester County Republican, after scandals in Harrisburg, where legislative leaders allegedly used tax dollars to pay campaign workers, and in Luzerne County, where two judges allegedly took kickbacks to send kids to private detention facilities.
The proposed commission has quickly secured backing from about 20 lawmakers in both parties and an assortment of good-government groups, including Common Cause/Pennsylvania, the League of Women Voters and Democracy Rising.
Within hours of a kickoff news conference yesterday on Independence Mall, the proposal drew two more endorsements - an enthusiastic embrace from the Democratic candidate for governor, Dan Onorato, and more tentative support from his Republican opponent, state Attorney General Tom Corbett, whose spokesman said that he likes the idea but wants a closer look at the details.
As described by Schroder, the commission would be a permanent investigative agency, staffed by law-enforcement personnel, to take over the current duties of the state Ethics Commission with expanded powers "to root out and prevent public corruption at all levels of government."
It would have no authority to prosecute public officials. Those decisions would rest with county prosecutors, the state attorney general and U. S. attorneys in the state's western, eastern and middle districts.
But the new commission would have power to issue subpoenas, share investigative information with other law-enforcement agencies and use grants of immunity to compel testimony from reluctant witnesses, Schroder said.
"They will have the full investigative powers as other law enforcement agencies have right now," Schroder said, " . . . but much greater ability to delve into public corruption and do this on a full-time basis."
He estimated the cost of the new agency at $4 million a year - roughly double the current expenses of the Ethics Commission - but suggested that corruption is costing taxpayers much more.
The proposal has no realistic prospect of passage in the remaining weeks of the current two-year session, to run out at the end of November, Schroder acknowledged. But he was introducing and promoting the bill, he said, to build up public pressure for the next legislative session, starting in January.
Six co-sponsors joined Schroder at yesterday's news conference - Reps. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne; Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery; Eugene DePasquale, D-York; Kate Harper, R-Montgomery; Bryan Lentz, D-Delaware; and Mike O'Brien, D-Philadelphia - the only trace of the city's legislative delegation.
Schroder said that he'd received critical advice from two former members of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission - Temple Law professor Charles Rogovin and writer Allen Hornblum.
The Crime Commission, created in 1968, focused much of its attention on organized crime but occasionally dealt with other issues, including Philadelphia police corruption.
The commission's probe of ties between then-state Attorney General Ernie Preate and gambling figures in northeastern Pennsylvania spurred a federal probe that put Preate in prison for mail fraud - but also led the legislature to shut down the agency in 1994, Hornblum said.