Why is Pennsylvania so corrupt? It's a question that you hear over and over, right after the latest headline about the Kathleen Kane soap opera, or the latest court appearance by indicted longtime U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, or the stunning case against ex-state treasurer Rob McCord, or the plethora of convictions or allegations against state legislators, from Bill DeWeese and John Perzel and Ron "Happy Birthday to Ron Waters" Waters, to the felony conviction of a former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, to the latest reports there's a probe of the Philadelphia DA's campaign spending. There's a lot more where that came from, but there's only so many hours in the day, right?
It all reminds me of a question that people were asking back when I started working at the Daily News -- 20 years ago this month! Why, people asked in 1995, is Pennsylvania so corrupt. Remember Buddy Cianfrani and Abscam and "money talks, BS walks"? Remember a guy named Vince Fumo? Nothing ever changes around these parts. What is the deal?
We've heard a lot of unsatisfying answers. The political-science eggheads will tell you about the Industrial Revolution and the rise in Pennsylvania of what they call "transactional politics" -- blue-collar folks, recent immigrants, etc., depending on their neighborhood committeeman to help navigate City Hall, and not caring when the bosses took something for themselves. But the Industrial Revolution died 50 years ago. Why is bribery still alive?
It's been argued by some that ignoramus politicians are produced by ignorant voters. My experience is that identity politics is strong here -- regardless of whether you identify more with the NAACP or the NRA or NORML or NASCAR -- and the quest for reformers is weak. And bad elections that lead to bad politicians result in bad laws which -- among other things -- lead to more bad elections.
Pennsylvania has some of the nation's most law laws regarding ethics. Pennsylvania has some of the nation's most lax laws regarding lobbying and gifts. Pennsylvania has some of the nation's most lax laws regarding campaign finances. It's almost like there's a pattern. Last year, Pennsylvania officials looked to Kentucky for help on the issue of ethics reform. Maybe those wags who joke about how backwards our state can be by calling it Pennsyltucky have it all wrong.
Maybe when Kentucky does something dumb, we should call them Kensylvania. Just a thought.
Here's another thought. The worst corruption in Pennsylvania -- the kind of moral rot that wastes or misuses millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars, usually to the benefit of those who finance political campaigns -- is the kind that's perfectly legal. That's not a defense of politicians who don't blink when a two-bit lobbyist offers a cash birthday gift, or who allegedly craft a scheme to use government aid to pay their campaign debts, or even forward porn from their state computers. That brand of corruption is immoral, wrong, embarrassing, and wrong, and did I mention that it's wrong.
It's just small potatoes, dollar-wise compared to other stuff that goes on around these parts. It was just last year we were talking about Comcast's political fundraising for Gov. Corbett, and the $34.5 million tax break for a new office tower for one of the world's more prosperous corporations. In the same vein, what about Pennsylvania's fracking gas drillers? Talk about a tax break! Pennsylvania is the only major drilling state in America without a severance tax on energy production. Even blood-red Texas has one. That unadressed situation by lawmakers benefits Big Oil and Gas to tune of hundreds of millions every year.
That money could go to Pennsylvania's school districts, boosting education spending -- the biggest driver of economic growth there is -- and helping regular folks with their property taxes. But the legislature is led by people like Sen. Joe Scarnati, the Republican state senate president pro tempore from a borough called Brockway in rural north-central Pennsylvania. Scarnati has told Wolf, in so many words, that if he wants a tax on fracking he would have to pry it from his cold, dead hands. Most recently, he went on the radio to claim that the tax on drillers would cost 250,000 jobs, a number that experts say they have no fracking idea where he came up with it.
The first time I ever heard of Joe Scarnati was in 2011, when it came out that he had attended the Steelers' Super Bowl win in Texas that year -- courtesy of one of the largest Marcellus Shale drillers, Consol Energy, which paid not only for his ticket but for plane fare and his hotel. When it was reported in the media, Scarnati said he would pay the company back. Actually, his campaign would. Not because the trip was illegal. Incredibly, that kind of thing is perfectly legal in Pennsylvania, as long as you list it on a form every May. But Scarnati's campaign paid because he was embarrassed.
Not too embarrassed, though, to accept more than $500,000 in campaign contributions from oil-and-gas interests between 2007 and 2014 -- nearly twice the next highest lawmaker in energy donations -- all so Scarnati could run in his rural district with minimal opposition. Big Gas could give as much as it wanted, legally, since Pennsylvania is one of just a few states in the nation with no contribution limits. Clearly, the industry saw Scarnati's campaign as a good investment.
Heck, ex-Gov. Tom Corbett got a reported $336,000 (did I mention, legally) in contributions during his political career from just one guy!...a Montgomery County lawyer, entrepreneur and GOP activist named Vahan Gureghian. Most recently, Gureghian has been in the news as head of the management firm that runs the largest charter school in the troubled Chester Upland School District.
Gureghian has also been in the news in Florida, where a trust fund linked to him and his wife is now selling a mansion that had been under construction in Palm Beach. For $84.5 million. Some folks have asked how much of Gureghian's wealth is the result of charter-school management, but there's no way of knowing; he's mostly declined to open the books of the private management company, even though its payments from the charter school originate from taxpayer dollars.
Now, the Gureghian-managed Chester Community Charter School and the other charters in Chester Upland are under pressure from Wolf, the man who defeated Corbett last fall; the administration is trying to reduce payments for special-ed students by $20.7 million, nearly the amount the district is in the hole. It's not just Chester where experts claim the formula is a screwed up. Two years, the state school board association said charters statewide were making a $200 million annual profit on the system. A profit for teaching special-ed kids, when classrooms are starved for resources. Think about that.
But, hey, it's legal. The formula was set in 1997 and despite the apparent problems, Corbett and lawmakers showed little interest in fixing it. Now Wolf is at least trying to do something. Maybe it means that elections have consequences. Or maybe not. This is still, at the end of the day, Pennsylvania, where all is fair in money and politics.