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HARRISBURG — A far-right Pennsylvania state senator is the subject of a new ethics complaint that alleges he helped incite the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.
Ethics complaints against state lawmakers are rare, according to a source with knowledge of the process, which is cloaked in secrecy and seldom results in a public resolution.
State Sen. Art Haywood (D., Montgomery) filed the complaint against colleague Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) with the chamber’s Ethics Committee at an undisclosed date in January, his spokesperson told Spotlight PA. The complaint is based on a report from a national watchdog organization that documents Mastriano’s apparent efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
At a news conference, Haywood said that Mastriano used his “Senate-derived bully pulpit” to aid Trump’s attempt to unlawfully secure the presidency while violating his oath of office to protect and uphold both the state and federal Constitutions.
“The Senate is a place in Pennsylvania that must represent integrity and commitment to public service and law,” he added.
Mastriano has called the complaint a stunt and has consistently denied wrongdoing in the aftermath of the 2020 election. First elected in a 2019 special election, the GOP state senator unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2022 on a platform of Christian nationalist politics.
It’s up to a committee of six state senators to decide what to do next about the complaint. Here’s what you need to know about the process, possible punishments, and more:
What is the Ethics Committee?
Both the state House and Senate have ethics committees. Their role is to accept complaints, investigate them, and suggest punishments for legislators who violate chamber rules.
The process differs in each chamber.
In the state Senate, complaints may allege “unethical conduct in violation of a Senate Rule, statute or constitutional provision governing the ethical conduct of a Senator.” That could include using tobacco products in this body’s chamber or committee rooms, taking bribes, or using state resources for political purposes.
The chamber rules do not specify who can file a complaint, mandating only that the complaints be submitted in writing; “be sworn or affirmed by the person filing the complaint”; and “detail the alleged unethical conduct in question and specify the Rule, statute or constitutional provision allegedly violated.”
Once filed, the complaint is considered by a six-person committee that is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans appointed by the state Senate president pro tempore.
What is Mastriano accused of?
A spokesperson for Haywood told Spotlight PA that as of Jan. 12, his office “cannot speak” on the complaint “until we receive guidance or a response from the [Ethics] committee.”
However, the spokesperson added that a report from the Washington, D.C.-based good-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, “covers the basis of the complaint.”
The report, titled “The case for expelling Doug Mastriano from office,” was released in April 2023 and documents Mastriano’s alleged efforts to aid the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
That includes using campaign dollars to charter buses to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021; joining Trump’s supporters “within the restricted area of the Capitol grounds … before ultimately leaving”; and apparently playing a role in Trump’s “fake electors” scheme.
“There is compelling evidence that Mastriano is disqualified under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment,” CREW’s report says. “He should be investigated and, if the evidence is substantiated, held accountable by the Pennsylvania Legislature, including possible expulsion from the Chamber.”
CREW has been involved in other efforts to hold Republican officeholders accountable for the events of Jan. 6. For instance, the group helped argue the court case that kicked Trump off Colorado’s 2024 ballot, citing the 14th Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear Trump’s appeal.
Haywood said nine months passed between the release of the CREW report and the filing of his complaint because “that is the amount of time it took to put the evidence together in a way that I feel comfortable advancing.”
In a Jan. 2 statement released after Haywood announced the complaint, Mastriano deemed it a “partisan PR stunt” and called CREW a “far left activist organization.”
“I do not need a lecture on the U.S. Constitution. I volunteered to defend it while serving our nation for over 30 years as an officer in the U.S. Army,” Mastriano concluded. “This stunt will not intimidate or silence me.”
State Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) and Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) declined to comment on the complaint.
How often does the Ethics Committee investigate lawmakers?
It is unclear how often the state Senate’s Ethics Committee investigates lawmakers, as the panel’s work is confidential.
However, according to a source who has a history with the committee, because of the collegial dynamics between the upper chamber’s party leaders, an issue that would go before the committee is “usually headed off before it gets there.”
The committee may go years between hearing complaints, said the source, who requested anonymity to discuss the committee. This also means that many individuals may not know it exists.
“Not everybody even knows about this committee. There's not much talk about it, so people don't always know to go to it,” the source said.
Eric Fillman, who served for seven years as Democratic counsel for the state House Ethics Committee, also said complaints were “not frequent in the past.” During his tenure, he said, he dealt with “several.”
A spokesperson for Ward told Spotlight PA that the committee’s membership was last updated in March 2022, and currently consists of:
State Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R., Washington)
State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D., Allegheny)
State Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D., Philadelphia)
State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia)
State Sen. Gene Yaw (R., Lycoming)
There is one vacancy due to the resignation of former state Sen. John Gordner (R., Columbia) in December 2022. Ward will fill that vacancy soon, the spokesperson added.
What would an investigation look like?
Under chamber rules, after a person files a complaint “that conforms with all the requirements,” the committee has up to 60 days to determine whether to launch a preliminary investigation. At that point, either dismissing or launching a preliminary investigation requires a majority vote of the committee, meaning bipartisan support is necessary.
If the committee decides to continue with an investigation, the senator subject to the complaint is sent a copy of it and given a chance to respond. The committee has up to 60 days to engage in further fact-finding.
At that point, the committee can either dismiss the complaint and issue a letter to the subject explaining its rationale, or continue with a full investigation. If at any point the committee ties, the inquiry ends.
If the committee members choose to move forward with an investigation, they can conduct it themselves or hire independent counsel.
All testimony, documents, records, data, statements, and information received by the committee in the course of any investigation “shall be private and confidential,” according to the chamber rules, unless the subject requests a public hearing or the committee releases a final report.
To issue a final report, the committee’s members must agree that “a finding of unethical conduct … has occurred.” A majority of the committee’s members must sign the final report, which is then sent to the senator in question.
The report is then sent to the chamber’s parliamentarian, who distributes a copy to each senator and places the report on the state Senate’s voting calendar.
At that point, according to the rules, the report “shall be acted upon by the Senate within 10 legislative days of the adoption of a temporary rule setting forth rules of procedure for the orderly disposition of the report by the full Senate.” It takes a majority vote of the 50-member body to accept or reject the committee’s findings.
If the report is accepted, the senator “may be subject to sanction by the full Senate,” according to the rules. Possible consequences include a warning, a written reprimand, an official censure, or an expulsion. The latter is rare.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, just 122 state legislators nationwide have been expelled by their colleagues since 1788. Four of those expulsions were in Pennsylvania, the center said. The most recent were two in 1975; the causes have ranged from mail fraud to spitting in another member’s face.
Reports often don’t get a full vote.
Fillman, the former state House ethics counsel, said the committee never issued a final ruling that then got a full chamber vote during his seven-year tenure.
“The work is laboriously long. It’s tedious,” he said. “And people were being prosecuted on a separate track in the courts, so resignations occurred before the committee’s work was concluded.”
Spotlight PA’s Katie Meyer contributed reporting.
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