HARRISBURG – Overseas trips, tickets to sporting events, and free entry into black-tie galas. Airfare to conferences around the country and corporate donations to community events they sponsor.
These are but some of the gifts, lodging, and hospitality that Pennsylvania lawmakers reported on their annual disclosure forms this month, even as protesters converged on the Capitol to demonstrate the legislature’s steadfast refusal to ban elected officials from accepting such largesse.
The forms, which list gifts received in 2016, show a handful of lawmakers traveled to places such as New Zealand and Hawaii, at times for conferences. Others accepted sporting tickets, which they then shared with people in their districts.
In Pennsylvania, which critics often flog as having the weakest gift regulations in the nation, it’s all legal. As long as elected officials do not promise official action in return and report the gifts on annual statements of financial interest, they can, in theory, accept anything from a dinner to a trip.
“This issue, the gift-ban issue, this is the root of all issues,” said Emmie DiCicco, spokeswoman for March on Harrisburg, a group that advocates for good government reforms, including a gift ban. “If we don’t tackle corruption and our crumbling democracy, we will never see progress on other critical issues.”
Last week, her group walked more than 100 miles from Philadelphia to the Capitol to protest the legislature’s inaction on gift-ban legislation. They chanted. They formed human chains. They staged sit-ins.
Before it was over, 26 members of the group were arrested, most charged with disorderly conduct. And they received little assurance that the legislature would vote on a bill, now stuck in a House committee, that would prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts from people seeking contracts, grants, loans or legislation.
Gift-ban proposals have languished in the legislature for years, despite public calls for reforms. Former legislators say lawmakers resist changes because they enjoy the perks of the job, including being wined and dined by lobbyists and others with an interest in state government.
Rep. Rick Saccone (R., Allegheny), who authored the gift-ban bill, said he finds that mind-boggling.
“I have at least 20 lobbyist groups that have never taken me out for anything,” he said. “They come to my office, they make their pitch, and they go away. And that is how it should be.”
Still, the gift-ban issue gained traction and urgency after a 2014 scandal that revealed some House members had accepted envelopes stuffed with cash from an undercover informant posing as a lobbyist for law enforcement.
Both chambers clamored to change their rules to prohibit cash gifts – but then the fervor to pass stronger bans dulled, and the issue got pushed to the legislative back burner.
As it stands, Pennsylvania’s law places no limit on the size or number of gifts. Elected officials need only disclose gifts worth $250 or more, and transportation and hospitality worth $650 or more. Often, they provide few details about a gift other than its worth and who paid for it — and sometimes, it’s hard to even discern that much from their reports.
In 2016, members of the House and Senate took in tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and hospitality, their financial interest statements show.
Rep. Eli Evankovich (R., Westmoreland) reported accepting what appears to be a $5,987 trip from New Zealand’s Parliament, as well as $2,363 in lodging, transportation, and hospitality from the American Council of Young Political Leaders, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that seeks to introduce “rising political and policy professionals to international affairs and to each other,” according to its website.
Evankovich said he was interested in the American Council of Young Political Leaders trip to New Zealand because that country is a leading destination for immigrants seeking jobs. “The entire reason I went was to find out is there something New Zealand is doing that Pennsylvania could emulate,” he said.
Trip members traveled around, staying in a different hotel each night, and meeting with local officials and members of parliament to learn how New Zealand approaches governing.
“There was no room to breathe,” he said. “This wasn’t a leisurely trip.”
Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia) claimed a $750 gift from the host of a festival in Nigeria.
In an interview Tuesday, Harris said he traveled to Nigeria to receive a humanitarian award for his legislative work on criminal justice issues from a Nigerian king who last year had visited the Pennsylvania legislature.
He said the trip held both professional and personal value. He believes the trip will help create new business and educational opportunities between Pennsylvanians and Nigerians, including the possibility of launching college-based student exchange programs between Nigeria and state-based schools.
But he also said it sparked a quest to discover whether his ancestors hail from the country.
“Do you know where your family is from? I don’t,” said Harris. “Our history was stolen from us. I have to identify with the whole continent. I am African American.”
He said when the Nigerian king looked at him upon giving him the award, he said: “You, my brother, look Nigerian.” Others he met there told him the same thing.
Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Philadelphia) reported receiving $10,193.02 in transportation and hospitality from the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, including for a December summit in Waikiki, Hawaii.
In an interview last week, Cruz, who is the organization’s president, said he has to attend its conferences. He said the events are no game: He required members to check in at hearings and speaking engagements to make sure they were there.
If it were up to him, Cruz said, he would not have chosen to hold the event in Hawaii, saying it took too long to get there. But the organization’s previous president had made a commitment to members from Hawaii to hold the meeting there, in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he said.
“The conferences we go and attend help us understand how we can be helpful to the people we represent,” he said.
Several Republican legislators, including Reps. Chris Dush of Jefferson County and Brian Ellis of Butler County, accepted lodging and hospitality for meetings, summits, and conferences from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a membership organization of state legislators who believe in limited government, free markets, and federalism.
House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) reported no gifts — just a plane ride, worth $2,681.99, from Penn Waste Inc. The company is owned by Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York) — someone Turzai, who is seriously considering a run for governor next year, would have to edge out in the primary to win the Republican nomination.
House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said Turzai accepted the plane ride because he was crunched for time trying to make the wedding of a staffer in another part of the state. Turzai appreciated that Wagner stepped up to help him out, according to Miskin.
Saccone, the sponsor of the House bill that would ban most gifts, said the goal is to prevent lobbyists from trying to influence lawmakers with gifts, meals, and other enticements.
But he said changing the culture in Harrisburg will only come if voters press their legislators to do so; it is not something that will happen organically.
“If it gets to the floor, it will pass,” said Saccone. “Who can stand there on the floor of the House and say, `No, I think we should keep these gifts’? They could, but I guarantee those people will be in jeopardy with their own taxpayers.”
Note: This story was updated May 30 to include comments from Rep. Jordan Harris.