Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Grand jury slams a corrupt Pa. Capitol

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania legislature lives in a " 'time warp' of public corruption" and needs to make sweeping changes to its operations, including cutting staff, instituting term limits, and going part-time, according to a damning report by the long-running state grand jury investigating corruption in the state Capitol.

The 34-page report, delivered to top legislative leaders Monday afternoon, describes a culture that has allowed corruption to flourish, in many cases unchecked. It also finds that campaign-related work consumes an enormous amount of time for many state employees.

Among other recommendations, the grand jury said the legislature could become a part-time body and still complete its work. That, in turn, would allow it to cut staff and salaries, the report said.

The report also proposed that all hiring be done by a nonpartisan human resources department to prevent "partisan hires" by the four legislative caucuses.

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  • Those party caucuses, Democratic and Republican, came in for scathing criticism in the report - especially regarding the source of their funding.

    "Taxpayer-Funded Political Caucuses Must End," says a heading of a section of the report.

    In addition, the grand jury recommended that special leadership accounts be eliminated or, at the least, that all expenses be made available to the public.

    Some of the changes would require changes to the state constitution.

    As the report put it: "The grand jury calls upon the General Assembly to leave its 'time warp' of public corruption and pass legislation . . . to address the rampant public corruption of the General Assembly. The people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, whom the elected legislators are supposed to serve, deserve no less."

    The report noted that grand jurors sought the expertise of Alan Rosenthal, a political science professor at Rutgers University who has studied U.S. legislatures for 40 years.

    Rosenthal concluded that the Pennsylvania legislature had not caught up with ethics and accountability standards that most other states have adopted.

    The "time warp" quote comes from Rosenthal's testimony: "It's still doing what all the states did in the 1950s and 1960s." He noted that the laws against spending public money on campaigning had been enacted by legislators. "For them to be expected to obey the laws . . . is not asking a lot of your legislature."

    The report said there was ample evidence of those laws' having been violated.

    "In the eyes of this grand jury, it is beyond dispute that numerous legislative employees have for years spent an enormous amount of time working on political campaigns when they were supposed to be performing their legislative duties," the grand jury wrote.

    "All campaign work on legislative time must be eliminated and this will result in a surplus of legislative work unless rapid, meaningful change occurs."

    The 2,800 legislative employees amount to nine for each representative and 17 for each senator, the jury said.

    "Despite the best efforts of numerous witnesses before the grand jury, nobody was able to justify such a large number of employees for this body," the jurors wrote.

    Among other reforms, the grand jury said the legislature should:

    Eliminate, or at least make more transparent, the special "leadership accounts" that give House leaders millions of dollars in discretionary spending to control.

    Stop per diem payments to lawmakers for time spent in Harrisburg, or at least tie them to actual expenses.

    Convert the General Assembly into a part-time body, impose term limits, and give House members four-year terms.

    Combine the House Democratic and Republican print shops, information technology departments and personnel offices. Hire based on "standardized, published job descriptions."

    Cease constituent service work related to the Department of Transportation, described in the report as a giveaway to businesses and a wasteful means of currying favor with voters at taxpayers' expense.

    Impose tougher ethics practices, halt all payments and benefits to staffers on leave to campaign, and ban compensatory time. Keep legislative employees from entering campaign offices during work hours.

    Prohibit using the same vendor for legislative and campaign purposes.

    Revamp the budget process, making line items more descriptive and halting per diems if a budget is not passed by June 30.

    The grand jurors spent the last two years investigating illegal use of public resources and legislative employees to perform campaign work - an investigation that came to be known as Bonusgate.

    The probe has resulted in criminal charges against 25 people, ranging from junior staff members to some of the most powerful legislators in both parties.

    So far, three people have been convicted, two have been acquitted, and seven have pleaded guilty.


    Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

    This article includes information from the Associated Press.

    Angela Couloumbis INQUIRER HARRISBURG BUREAU
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