The state House may probe potential ethics violations by some of its own members, but it’s unlikely an independent investigator will be appointed to examine the case.
The crazy week in Harrisburg began with allegations Attorney General Kathleen Kane shut down a sting operation targeting Philadelphia political officials — including, allegedly, four members of the House Democratic caucus. Good-government groups, in turn, called for an independent investigation into the sting operation, Kane’s claims it was botched by the previous attorney general and alleged bribes to some lawmakers.
In such a tangle of political and ethical issues, legitimate questions arise about who — if anyone — is best positioned to unravel it all.
“That was written under the assumption that they are going be looking into it,” said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.
But the House commission would review only violations of ethics rules and codes of conduct that apply to lawmakers, Miskin said, and would not be able to examine potential criminal offenses.
An investigation, if it does take place, would be behind-closed-doors.
Lawmakers found guilty of breaking ethics rules could be given a variety of punishments, with censure the worst possible penance — a form of legislative banishment that means a member can’t be on the House floor during session and cannot be recognized to speak.
The commission would not have jurisdiction to examine Kane’s role in shutting down the sting operation or the role of previous attorneys general in botching the operation.
With so many things the House’s internal commission would be unable to do, it’s no surprise there have been calls for an independent review by outside counsel.
Zach Stalberg, executive director of the Committee of 70, a Philadelphia-based good-government group, said there’s no other way for the tangled and conflicting claims to be sorted out.
“Frankly, given the rash of political corruption cases involving state legislators, it would be hard for the public to have confidence in a probe of its members by the state House Ethics Committee,” Stalberg said last week.
There’s just one problem. The state law allowing the General Assembly to appoint an independent prosecutor expired in 2003. It wasn’t renewed because it hadn’t been used in a long time — two long-time staffers in Harrisburg said they could not recall a single instance when it was used — because of persistent fears that it could be used for partisan purposes.
In this case, though, there are already plenty of partisan tangles.
The Philadelphia Inquirer broke the story with an explosive report March 17 that relied on several unnamed sources who claimed Kane shut-down the investigation after taking office last year, in part because it was targeting fellow Democrats.
Kane didn’t back down. She held a Monday news conference to slam the Inquirer’s sources and defend her decision to shut down the sting operation. She claimed it was botched for a variety of reasons; most important, there was no one to verify the state’s key informant in the stings.
Since then, she has hired her own outside counsel and threatened to sue the Inquirer.
Regardless of whether the evidence could have been presented to a jury, the sting reportedly netted several city and state officials accepting bribes. That’s what the House Ethics Commission would look into, if they so choose.
Ellen Kaplan, vice president for the Committee of 70, said the group did not have a position on whether the law allowing independent counsel should be re-instituted, but she maintains an independent review is the only way the truth can be uncovered.
“So many of the disputed facts and allegations present conflicts of interest for traditional law enforcement,” she said, referring to the involvement of Kane, along with possibly now-Gov. Tom Corbett, who was attorney general from 2005 through 2011, and Linda Kelly, who was appointed to finish Corbett’s second term.
According to media reports, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to investigate.
“Without an independent counsel, without any partisan or personal interest in the outcome of the case, who will investigate the facts in a way the public can trust?” asked Kaplan.
Corbett is facing re-election in November with a pack of Democratic hopefuls — and a Republican primary challenger — looking for anything that could damage his already-low poll numbers.
Kane is a rising star among Democrats — not only in Pennsylvania but, to a degree, nationally — and has hinted she may run for U.S. Senate in 2016.
Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.
The Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.