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Grand jury calls for sweeping Pa. legislative change

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania legislature lives in a " 'time warp' of public corruption" and needs to make sweeping changes, including cutting staff, instituting term limits, and going part-time, according to a damning report by an investigating grand jury.

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania legislature lives in a " 'time warp' of public corruption" and needs to make sweeping changes, including cutting staff, instituting term limits, and going part-time, according to a damning report by an investigating grand jury.

The 34-page report, delivered to top legislative leaders Monday afternoon, describes a culture that has allowed corruption to flourish, in many cases unchecked.

It also finds that campaign-related work consumes an enormous amount of time for many state employees.

Among other recommendations, the grand jury that has spent two years investigating the so-called Bonusgate scandal said the legislature could become a part-time body and still complete its work.

That, in turn, would allow it to cut staff and salaries, the report said.

The report also proposed that all hiring be done by a nonpartisan human resources department to prevent "partisan hires" by the four legislative caucuses.

Those party caucuses, Democratic and Republican, came in for scathing criticism - especially regarding their funding. "Taxpayer-Funded Political Caucuses Must End," says a subtitle of the report.

In addition, the grand jury recommended that special multimillion-dollar "leadership" accounts be eliminated or, at the least, that all expenses be made public.

Some of the changes would require changes to the state constitution.

As the report put it: "The grand jury calls upon the General Assembly to leave its 'time warp' of public corruption and pass legislation . . . to address the rampant public corruption of the General Assembly. The people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, whom the elected legislators are supposed to serve, deserve no less."

The report noted that grand jurors sought testimony from Alan Rosenthal, a political science professor at Rutgers University who has studied U.S. legislatures for 40 years. He concluded that Pennsylvania legislators had not caught up with ethics and accountability standards that most states have adopted.

The "time warp" quote comes from Rosenthal's testimony: "It's still doing what all the states did in the 1950s and 1960s." He noted that the laws against spending public money on campaigning had been enacted by legislators. "For them to be expected to obey the laws . . . is not asking a lot of your legislature."

The report said there was ample evidence of those laws' having been violated.

"In the eyes of this grand jury, it is beyond dispute that numerous legislative employees have for years spent an enormous amount of time working on political campaigns when they were supposed to be performing their legislative duties," the grand jury wrote.

The 2,800 legislative employees amount to nine for each representative and 17 for each senator, the jury said.

"Despite the best efforts of numerous witnesses before the grand jury, nobody was able to justify such a large number of employees for this body," the jurors wrote.

The report noted that if legislators in either party wanted to add state-paid staff, all they had to do was go to their caucus leader and ask for it - no explanation needed.

"In some instances," the grand jurors wrote, "the reason for requesting additional staff members has been to compensate for the incompetence of existing staffers." Grand jurors were "appalled by this practice."

Among other reforms, the grand jury said the legislature should:

Stop per diem payments to lawmakers for time in Harrisburg, or at least tie those payments to actual expenses.

Convert the General Assembly into a part-time body, impose term limits, and give House members four-year terms, like their Senate counterparts. House members now serve two-year terms.

Combine the House Democratic and GOP print shops, technology departments, and personnel offices. Hire based on "standardized, published job descriptions."

Cease constituent services related to the Department of Transportation, described in the report as a wasteful means of currying favor with voters at taxpayers' expense.

Impose tougher ethics rules, halt payments and benefits to staffers on leave to campaign, and ban aides from entering campaign offices during work hours.

Revamp the budget process, making line items more descriptive and halting per diems if a budget is not passed by June 30.

The grand jurors spent the last two years investigating illegal use of public resources and legislative employees to perform campaign work - an investigation that came to be known as Bonusgate.

The probe has resulted in criminal charges against 25 people, including some of the most powerful legislators in both parties. So far, three people have been convicted, two have been acquitted, and seven have pleaded guilty.

On Monday night, Brett Marcy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne), said his office was still reviewing the report and would not comment on specific recommendations.

Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was angry that the grand jury had issued what he said amounted to a "policy directive" that ignored the separation of powers.

"We are elected by the people," Evans said. "I can't get past the fact that people make the decisions, not a select, secret group."

The issuance of such a report by an investigating grand jury is "rare," Commonwealth Court Judge Barry Feudale noted in his preface. But Feudale, who supervised the grand jurors, said he had told them that they had the right to take such a step.

"One of my first thoughts when I read the report was the line uttered by the broadcaster in the satirical movie Network - 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore,' " Feudale wrote. "However . . . having read the report and recommendations numerous times, I have come to the conclusion a different aphorism may be more reflective of the recommendations. [T]he grand jury's admonition to the legislature may be, 'Heal thyself.' "

To read the grand jury's report, go to: