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John Baer | Guv, the blonde & lobbying law

QUESTION: What do you get if you mix a stunning blonde lobbyist/former TV news anchor with Gov. Rendell and a private eye?



What do you get if you mix a stunning blonde lobbyist/former TV news anchor with Gov. Rendell and a private eye?

Answer: A lot more fun than a legislative "special session" on energy.

The mix - if a ranking GOP state senator has his way - is a heat-making possibility coming to a public hearing near you soon. As your Legislature returns from summer break, as your governor prepares to kick off the special session on energy on Monday, Harrisburg Sen. Jeff Piccola offers, um, a diversion. Piccola, who sought and then abandoned a bid for the GOP nomination to oppose Rendell last year, is investigating lobbying by a major film company, Lionsgate, and a friend of the guv's, Leslie Merrill McCombs, and a $75 million tax credit for film and TV companies working in the state.

The credit was part of a negotiated state budget settlement in July. The problem is that the company and the guv-pal apparently violated a new lobbying law by failing to properly register as lobbyists with state officials. That's what Piccola says he's looking at. He's hiring a private eye and wants one or two Senate hearings. He chairs the Senate State Government Committee, which has lobbying oversight. But he's causing twitters.

McCombs is a former anchor for WPGH-TV, Pittsburgh, a professional narrator. She appears as an actress in the Lionsgate TV series "The Kill Point" on Spike TV and is a lobbyist for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

She's also a friend of Rendell's. They're occasionally at dinner and sporting events together in Pittsburgh. And campaign-finance records show she gave Rendell $4,000 for his re-election last year.

(More on McCombs, including her voice-over sampler - "I like my salsa the way I like I men, zesty and exciting" - is available at

Asked to comment on the Piccola probe yesterday, Rendell said, "The last person to hire a private detective to look into something in the state Senate got indicted."

Fellow Philly Democrat Vince Fumo allegedly used a P.I. to spy on an ex-girlfriend. Rendell lamely added, "Only kidding."

Then Piccola joined the kidding. Told about Rendell's comment, Piccola said, "I don't have a girlfriend to spy on."

(Oh, yeah, another lobbyist for the Hollywood tax credit is former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon, of Beaver County, defeated in last year's election for his role in the Legislature's '05 pay grab, and reportedly under investigation as part of a probe into legislative bonus pay. As one Capitol insider says, "It's a GOP trifecta: Eddie, a blonde and Veon. Film at 11!")

The story, initially reported by the online news service Capitolwire, suggests the state's lobbying law is ineffective and unenforced. There are penalties for failing to comply, including daily fines, and enforcement falls to the state Ethics Commission.

One wonders why Piccola needs a P.I. or a hearing. Why not just refer the case to the commission? Unless there's more at work here. It is, for example, difficult to imagine that if any of 100 other lobbyists was unregistered for a specific client at a specific time, anyone would notice or care.

We are, after all, the last state in the nation to enact a lobbyist law. Also, if actress Leslie McCombs looked like actor Leslie Nielsen ("Airplane!" "Naked Gun"), would there be such hot pursuit? Rendell notes that nobody needed to influence him on the Hollywood tax credit: "I was on board with this idea when I was mayor of Philadelphia."

McCombs declined to be interviewed. Instead, she sent an e-mail: "I've amended my filings with the Commonwealth and am in full compliance with the law. This legislation has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars for the film and television industry thus far, and I'm thrilled to be a part of the incredible economic impact for Pennsylvania."

Plus, it's a lot more fun than a "special session" on energy. *

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