HARRISBURG - A Democratic senator from Western Pennsylvania who has been an ally of the natural-gas industry joined the Republican Senate president on a free trip to the Super Bowl, paid for by one of the state's largest energy companies.
Sen. Tim Solobay (D., Washington) had his flight to Texas and his hotel room paid for by Consol Energy Inc., one of the companies drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale.
A spokeswoman said Solobay paid Consol $900 for his own ticket to the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, but gave no details about whether he used his own money or campaign funds to pay for it.
Consol and its executives have contributed $9,600 to Solobay's campaigns since 2000, state records show.
After declining to answer questions on the trip for two days, Solobay refused to emerge from his office to meet with reporters Wednesday. Instead, he sent out his secretary with a typed statement.
"I have always complied to the letter of the law regarding contact with lobbyists and will continue to do so," it read.
Solobay also wrote that Consol, whose Canonsburg headquarters is in his legislative district, is a major employer in the region and that "maintaining a relationship with them is important for my district now and in the future as more jobs are created."
He added: "The notion that this trip could influence my vote in the Senate is absurd. . . . I talked. I listened. In the end, I will always do what is best for my constituents."
In his statement, Solobay, who also accepted a free trip from Consol to the 2009 Super Bowl, did not address whether he intended to reimburse the company for his airfare and accommodations this year. He did not respond to follow-up questions.
Through his assistant, Solobay said only that "after the costs are calculated by Consol, he will be addressing it."
Lisa Scullin, a spokeswoman for the Senate Democrats, said the senator would reimburse Consol once he received a detailed accounting of what the trip cost.
Consol executives did not respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
The Inquirer reported Sunday that Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) also traveled to the Super Bowl this year, compliments of Consol. The company picked up the tab for Scarnati's airfare, hotel, and game tickets.
Scarnati said this week that he had always intended to reimburse Consol in full. He said he would pay for the ticket and hotel out of his own pocket, but would use campaign funds to pay for the flight.
The free Super Bowl travel came at a time when the legislature has continued to be divided over whether - and how much - to tax natural-gas extraction from the shale. Pennsylvania is the largest natural-gas-producing state without such a tax.
Lawmakers had promised to try to negotiate a settlement last year, but the issue fizzled. Newly elected Gov. Corbett has said he did not support taxing the industry, but was not averse to imposing fees.
Solobay, who was a member of the House until this year, has been a strong Democratic voice in Harrisburg for not imposing additional taxes on the industry or, as he has called it, more "regulatory bureaucracy."
Last year, former Gov. Ed Rendell, in a pointed joke, beheaded a Solobay bobblehead doll and delivered the head to Solobay on the House floor, along with a note urging his support for a tax proposal.
"They didn't have a fish head to send over wrapped in newspaper so they sent [the head of] a bobble doll," Solobay told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Still, as a House member, Solobay did vote last year for a bill that would have taxed the industry, surprising many of his colleagues.
Consol has been a steady supporter of Solobay's campaigns. A Consol PAC gave Solobay $5,000 last year and hosted a fund-raiser for his Senate campaign, according to state records and a report by Common Cause Pennsylvania.
Solobay disclosed the cost of the 2009 trip, almost $2,500, in his statement of financial interest. Consol also reported it in its lobbying-disclosure form that year. Both are required to report all hospitality worth more than $650 in the course of a year.
Also traveling to the Super Bowl in 2009 as a guest of Consol was Rep. Paul Costa (D., Allegheny).
In an interview Wednesday, he said that the energy company paid for his airfare, lodging, and ticket, and that he did not reimburse them. He did disclose the $2,271 cost of the trip on his statement of financial interest for that year; Consol also reported it.
"They knew I was a Steelers fan, so they approached me," Costa said. "I was just so excited that I was asked."
He said he discussed reimbursing Consol with some of its representatives, but "time passed. I think I've got ADD [attention deficit disorder]. It got lost in the shuffle."
Costa said he did not go to Texas this year. The company didn't invite him, and he didn't ask.
He said the trip did not influence his decision on whether, and how much, to tax the extraction of natural gas.
"Check my record," he said. "I've been supportive of a tax."
Other lawmakers traveled to the Super Bowl this year, many getting their tickets at face value from the Steelers. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) had most of his trip paid for by the team.
The Steelers have not released a list of public officials who were given game tickets or trips. Dave Lockett, a team spokesman, wouldn't say whether the team had decided to provide the names.
"I just have not gotten [the list] yet," he said. "When I have something, I will provide it to you."
Lockett said again that the team anticipated that officials would reimburse the cost of the tickets and travel. "They know that's expected," he said.
However, he declined to say whether the Steelers actually told any of the officials the amount they should pay, or who, if anyone, has sent a check.
"We're going to let the individual parties address that, in their reports," he said.