HARRISBURG — Officials in 18 counties accepted hundreds of dollars in trips, meals, and other gifts from companies selling voting machines ahead of the 2020 election, a review by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s office has found.
Many of those perks were given over the last two years, as the state was moving to require counties to buy more secure voting machines, DePasquale said at a news conference Friday.
Though the gifts are legal under the state’s ethics rules as long as they are properly disclosed, DePasquale said no official in a position to decide contracts should accept gifts from anyone with a financial stake in the process. DePasquale advocated a gift ban for all government officials, much like the one Gov. Tom Wolf imposed on his administration’s appointees.
“It doesn’t matter if the gifts were large or small,” said DePasquale. “My problem is that anyone who accepted them, period, could have been swayed by some of those perks.”
He added: “Our evidence is not that anyone violated the law. In fact, I think the crime is that nobody did violate the law, because this wasn’t illegal.”
The auditor general’s review relied on counties to self-report all gifts from vendors dating back to 2013. The majority of the 67 counties, including Philadelphia and Allegheny, reported being unaware of any.
Others reported that elections officials accepted expenses-paid travel to Las Vegas; tickets to a wine festival, distillery tour, or amusement park; and access to an open bar at a conference.
In Bucks County, officials reported receiving a promotional folding chair, worth an estimated $8.05; several dinners at conferences; and the cost of several tickets to ride Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Incline, a trolley-like car that scales a hill and gives an often-photographed view of the Steel City.
In Delaware County, one official attended cocktail parties at conferences where the tab was picked up by a vendor. The official also reported accepting “tchotchkes.”
Many of the gifts were given after the 2016 presidential election raised questions about election security and spurred calls nationally for updated voting machines. Last April, Pennsylvania election officials required counties to replace their voting machines by the 2020 primary with newer models that can produce a paper record.
State officials have estimated the cost as high as $150 million statewide.
In Pennsylvania, public officials are allowed to accept perks, but they have to disclose them on annual statements of financial interest if the gifts are worth more than $250, and if the lodging, transportation, and hospitality is worth more than $650.
DePasquale said he found instances where it did not appear that county officials reported the gifts. As a result, he said, he intended to refer some of his findings to the state Ethics Commission, which can impose fines.