Leaders call for creating a new panel to fight Pennsylvania corruption

Following a slew of corruption cases and scandals involving state officials, a bipartisan group of legislators and civic leaders called Monday for a new way of restoring public trust in Pennsylvania government.

The group wants to create a Public Integrity Commission, with investigative and subpoena powers, to replace the state Ethics Commission.

The proposed panel would cost an estimated $4 million, its supporters said - about twice the Ethics Commission's budget.

"The cost of this commission pales in comparison to the cost of corruption that has plagued this state," one of the proposal's principal sponsors, State Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester), said on Monday.

Even as Schroder and other representatives touted the proposal Monday on the terrace of the Independence Hall Visitor Center, former state House Speaker Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) was in a Harrisburg courtroom for a preliminary hearing on charges arising from the Bonusgate scandal.

DeWeese is accused of using his state-paid district office staff to run his campaigns. He is one of 25 current and former legislators and staffers charged with crimes in the investigation.

"Perhaps the saddest part of this event is that no one questions the 'why,' " State Rep. Eugene DePasquale (D., York) said Monday. "We all know why. The system is broken, we need to fix it."

Unlike the Ethics Commission, the seven members of the proposed Integrity Commission could not be elected officials. Candidates would be nominated by a committee of law experts, district attorneys, and members of government advocacy groups. The committee would submit 15 names to the governor who would then send seven to the Senate for approval. No more than three of the seven commissioners could belong to the same political party.

In addition to investigating possible corruption, the commission would be charged with submitting annual reports to the General Assembly and making recommendations on any institutions it deems vulnerable to fraud.

The proposed bill has 17 bipartisan co-sponsors, including DePasquale, Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) and John Yudichak, (D., Luzerne), who represents the county where two judges were charged in the so-called "cash for kids" scandal last year.

In 2007, a bill to make the Ethics Commission more autonomous failed.

"I'm not sure why it didn't go anywhere," Schroder said, "but I think the atmosphere and the time is much different than it was even in 2007. I mean, look at the people who have been dragged away in handcuffs. Look at the people who have been indicted, convicted."

Schroder said he had reached out to leaders in the Senate and was encouraged by the response. But he also said the measure faced an uphill battle.

The Pennsylvania Crime Commission investigated public corruption from 1960 until it was disbanded in 1994. Allen Hornblum, a former member, said the state had suffered the consequences of weak oversight.

"When you start sending more members of the legislature and judiciary to prison than you do Mafia members, you know something is radically wrong," Hornblum said.

Peggy Kerns, director of the Denver-based Center for Ethics in Government, said the vast majority of 42 state ethics commissions had the power to subpoena, investigate and enforce laws.

"Once all the convictions for Bonusgate and kids-for-cash are done," Schroder said, "once trials are held and convictions run their course, the last thing we want to have happen is for the pendulum to start swinging back the other way."

Contact staff writer Julia Terruso at 610-313-8110 or jterruso@phillynews.com.