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Gifts, large and small, raise ethics questions

An annual disclosure showed Pa. lawmakers accepting freebies totaling $50,000 last year. Watchdog groups cited this as a reason to tighten laws.

One in an occasional series

HARRISBURG - Last year, then-House Speaker John M. Perzel (R., Phila.) traveled to Las Vegas on the tab of a payday-lending company with keen interests in Harrisburg. The bill: $4,134.

State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), now a candidate for mayor, got four $115 tickets to a 76ers game from a lobbyist.

And when State Rep. Mark Cohen needed a loan, the Philadelphia Democrat didn't have to go far: $6,500 from his longtime aide, lent at no interest.

In all, the men and women of Pennsylvania's General Assembly accepted $50,000 in freebies last year - airfare, hotel stays, sports tickets - according to the annual ethics forms filed by the May 1 deadline.

Perzel, who lost his speakership in January, disclosed that he received about $7,400 in travel-related expenses in 2006. More than half came from Advance America, Cash Advance Centers Inc., a leader in the much-criticized payday lending industry.

The Spartanburg, S.C., company bankrolled a trip Perzel took in January 2006 to the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

In 2005, Perzel voted for legislation pushed by the company and others in the industry to set up new regulations for payday lenders in the state. The bill passed the House, but died in the Senate - in part because consumer advocates opposed it. Some critics contended the bill would have allowed such lenders to charge interest rates as high as 400 percent.

"There is absolutely no connection," said Marty O'Rourke, a spokesman for Perzel, when asked about the Las Vegas trip and the legislator's support for the lending bill.

"There is no prohibition against accepting transportation and lodging from these groups," O'Rourke added, "and, as required by law, he listed it."

Still, such gifts are the kind of things that citizen watchdog groups cite as reasons Pennsylvania needs tougher government ethics laws.

"And let's remember, this is only the tip of the iceberg," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. "A lot goes unreported because Pennsylvania has such high thresholds when it comes to reporting."

In their annual Statements of Financial Interest, state legislators, other officeholders and candidates for office must report any travel and lodging they've been given if it totals more than $650, as well as any gifts worth more than $250.

Common Cause for years has advocated that Pennsylvania follow other states and ban gifts or lower the reporting threshold.

Massachusetts, Wisconsin and South Carolina bar special interests from giving as much as a cup of coffee to a lawmaker, according to the National Association of State Legislatures. In recent years, Congress has banned members from accepting most gifts.

Such a ban, said Kauffman, would curb "the influence special interests have through the general psychology of gift-giving."

Evans, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, accepted four tickets to see the 76ers play the Cleveland Cavaliers in February 2006. The tickets were a gift from a Plymouth Meeting lobbyist, Robert C. Robb, whose clients include gaming and health-care interests.

Evans also reported receiving two $138 tickets to a performance of The Lion King from the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.

"Four tickets to a 76ers game isn't going to persuade Dwight Evans one way or the other on any issue," said Johnna Pro, Evans' press secretary. "Two tickets to see The Lion King, no matter how good the show was, isn't going to persuade him one way or the other."

Cohen, who earns $89,249 a year as House majority caucus chairman, reported receiving a loan from Dorothy Kelly, his longtime aide. Kelly earns $59,600 annually.

Reached Friday, Cohen declined to discuss the loan from Kelly. He has told the Associated Press that he repaid the loan, which he said was slightly more than $6,500.

"She was aware that I was shopping around for a loan, and she offered to pay. She offered to loan me the money," Cohen told the AP. Kelly could not be reached for comment.

House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese reported $6,200 in "travel, lodging and hospitality" last year, including a trip to the Super Bowl in Detroit. DeWeese (D., Greene) said $1,944 of that trip's cost had been paid by the Pittsburgh Steelers - who won the game.

Four days before the Super Bowl, DeWeese, then minority leader, told The Inquirer that he had paid for the tickets. "I have two, and I purchased them at market price," DeWeese said at the time.

His spokesman Tom Andrews said Friday that DeWeese recently had realized that his campaign staff had not repaid the Steelers for the seats and two plane tickets. DeWeese has since repaid the team with campaign money and plans to amend his financial reports, Andrews said.

Others received football tickets, too. As a trustee of the University of Pittsburgh, Sen. Mary Jo White (R., Venango) reported accepting two season football tickets, valued at $350, for the Pitt Panthers.

The largesse wasn't just heaped on legislators.

Last year, state Attorney General Tom Corbett traveled to conferences in New York; Las Vegas; Beverly Hills, Calif.; and Palm Beach, Fla. The Pennsylvania Bar Association, a Chicago-based lawyer group called the Voice of the Defense Bar, and a Washington-based state government think tank covered the cost, which totaled $7,750, Corbett reported.