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From the archives 2021

Lawmakers report receiving fewer gifts during pandemic as push for ban continues

by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA |

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) reported receiving just over $8,500 to attend conferences.
Commonwealth Media Services

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Every May, state legislators and other public officials are required to file reports detailing, among other items, whether they received pricey gifts, transportation, or hospitality from lobbyists, businesses, nonprofit groups, or others with a stake in government.

Some years, those reports have revealed lawmakers accepting everything from overseas trips to free entry to black-tie galas on someone else’s dime.

But for many lawmakers, 2020 was a banner year for staying home — and eschewing people bearing gifts, at least according to their limited disclosure forms.

Public filings with the State Ethics Commission show that, with some exceptions, Pennsylvania’s 253 lawmakers did not report receiving anything of great value last year as the pandemic raged, forcing lockdowns and restrictions on travel and in-person gatherings.

The few gifts of note came largely before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Pennsylvania in early March. Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre), for instance, reported receiving just over $8,500 to attend conferences, including $3,828 from the Pennsylvania Bar Association to go to its mid-year meeting in the Bahamas in late January.

Still, the push to ban elected officials from accepting gifts and other perks continues in the state legislature, despite the fact that past efforts have largely been met with indifference and near-total inaction.

Pennsylvania is in the minority of states with no limit on the size or number of gifts elected officials can accept — the only requirement is disclosure.

Even that has its limits: In their statements of financial interest filed with the State Ethics Commission each May, they need only disclose gifts worth $250 or more, and transportation and hospitality worth $650 or more.

Often, elected officials 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.

Over the past decade, state lawmakers have introduced bills calling for various types of bans. Many times, the legislation didn’t even get a hearing. A key state House committee did advance a measure to prohibit lawmakers from accepting cash and limit other types of gifts in 2019, but the full chamber never took a vote.

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 at the time clamored to change their rules to prohibit cash gifts, though that fervor dulled, and the issue got pushed to the legislative back-burner.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, signed an order when he took office in 2015 to ban members of the executive branch from accepting gifts and once again urged lawmakers to do the same as part of his 2021 budget plan.

Activists with MarchOnHarrisburg plan to put public pressure on Corman next month to bring a gift ban up for a vote. The grassroots group has pushed for a ban for years through some unusual means, including raining down dollars labeled “bribe” on lawmakers in the House chamber.

Rabbi Michael Pollack, executive director of MarchOnHarrisburg, said GOP leadership in the state House has committed to supporting a gift ban.

A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) did not directly address the question, but said by email the lawmaker “has always been supportive of bringing more accountability and transparency to elected and other government officials. We are currently examining and reviewing various options to advance those goals legislatively this session.”

In the state Senate, Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) is a co-sponsor of a bill that would ban cash gifts and prevent lawmakers from taking anything of value from those seeking to influence official action.

That leaves Corman, Pollack said, who has faced scrutiny for his ties to lobbyists.

Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Corman, did not respond to Spotlight PA’s questions about whether the senator supports gift ban legislation. Thompson recently told the Capital-Star he “could not comment on a gift ban” but added Corman “supported efforts to ban lawmakers from receiving gifts of cash and gift cards in years past.”

For Pollack, the issue is simple: As long as legislators can accept cash and other gifts, they will be beholden to those with money and power. Those without means will remain unheard.

“I’ve never met anyone outside the state Capitol who thinks this is controversial,” Pollack said.

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA contributed to this report.

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