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Gift disclosures turn up pens, robes, trips for Corbett

Back in March 2012 when Gov. Tom Corbett traveled Europe on a trade mission, he received a suave souvenir – a $275 fountain pen gifted by a public official at an event in Oyonnax, France.

Governor Corbett talks about his budget proposal to increase funding for rape crisis services and prevention education at a press conference held at the offices of Women Organized Against Rape as Kristen Houser (left) and Ralph J. Riviello (right) listen. February 28, 2013. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer ).
Governor Corbett talks about his budget proposal to increase funding for rape crisis services and prevention education at a press conference held at the offices of Women Organized Against Rape as Kristen Houser (left) and Ralph J. Riviello (right) listen. February 28, 2013. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer ).Read more

That was while Corbett was touting Pennsylvania as part of trade mission paid for by the Team Pennsylvania Foundation, a trip that cost nearly $11,000.

Pennsylvania lawmakers, Corbett included, reported the extent of gifts and travels as part of financial disclosure forms due this week with the State Ethics Commission.

The reports give a glimpse into what public officials receive from special interests in their district, across the state or even internationally. But some government watchdogs say gifts for lawmakers should be banned altogether to erase any shadow of buying-off a public official.

Eric Epstein, founder of Harrisburg-based government reform group Rock the Capitol, said gifts, trips and gratuities have strings attached. He questioned how often lawmakers are spending their time with voters, attending town hall meetings in their district, versus spending time on free trips.

"The reality is that legislators are taking gifts from lobbyists while they are working for taxpayers," Epstein said to PA Independent. "Every minute a public official plays golf with the gas industry, travels abroad with lobbyists or receives educational tips at a luxury resort, they are still being paid by the taxpayer, covered by public health insurance and running up a pension bill."

CORBETT: PA Independent has not verified if Gov. Tom Corbett has used the $275 fountain pen he received on his trade mission in France. Here, he signs the 2012-2013 budget in the Capitol rotunda.

According to state law, public officials must disclose gifts valued at $250 or higher, unless given by family or friends. They also must report any transportation, lodging and hospitality paid for worth at least $650.

In addition to the fountain pen, Corbett also reported receiving two Turkish robes and towels, along with a vase and plate, valued at $275. The gifts were presented during an appearance with the Turkish Cultural Center Pennsylvania.

Besides the European venture, Team Pennsylvania Foundation also paid for Corbett's trade mission to Silicon Valley in California, a trip worth about $1,100 according to the disclosure form.

Corbett also reported two trips paid for by the Republican Governors' Association totaling around $2,400, including a winter meeting in Washington, D.C., and a conference in Las Vegas.

And when Corbett went to Tampa for the Republican National Convention last year, the trip's $4,000 price tag was covered by the Republican state party and the state's GOP delegation.

Reports were not yet available for multiple members of the executive office. However, Secretary of State Carol Aichele received gala tickets from the Philadelphia Orchestra Association and the Barnes Foundation, totaling more than $600.

Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch also reported a trip valued at about $1,500 when he was speaker at the annual meeting for the Design Professionals Coalition in Bethesda, Md.

Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley reported receiving nearly $1,000 worth of gifts, accepted on behalf of the commonwealth and himself. The gifts included an autographed baseball bat from the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies worth $100, a first edition of Barry Goldwater's 1960 book "Conscience of a Conservative" valued at $250 and a Waterford bowl valued at $375, presented at the Irish Society Man of the Year dinner.

According to The Associated Press, the legislature collectively reported more than $43,000 worth of gifts and travel. Top lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware; Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny; House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny; and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny did not report any gifts or travel.

But with the $250 minimum disclosure amount, lawmakers may receive gifts that go under the radar of the State Ethics Commission.

Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, is a sponsor of legislation to lower the gift disclosure limit to $50, and travel and lodging expenses to $100. The changes would apply to both lawmakers and members of the executive branch who are required to make disclosures.

Eichelberger announced the legislation in March as part of a bi-partisan package of bills also co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Stack, D-Philadelphia.

The $50 threshold, he said, was set because lawmakers receive small gifts like mugs, hats or pens at many places, which may get cumbersome. But dinners or tickets that otherwise go unreported under current law would be captured with a $50 limit.

"I think the public deserves a little more information about how people spend their time and how much money is being spent on that individual as they do their daily business here in the legislature," Eichelberger said.

Yet some government watchdogs still call for an outright gift ban or full disclosure, saying this is the only surefire way to keep special interests and lawmakers accountable.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of government reform group Common Cause Pennsylvania, said an outright gift ban would be a drastic culture change, but one that lawmakers could learn to live with.

They have elsewhere: Some states, including Kentucky and Wisconsin, forbid public officials from accepting gifts from special interests. Other states put limits on what officials can receive; California's law says lobbyists cannot spend more than $10 on any one individual a month.

Pennsylvania lawmakers, Kauffman said, would simply need to learn to politely refuse gifts or have the giver donate it to charity instead. Lobbyists may welcome the change, as it would mean they are no longer getting hit up for tickets, dinners and favors, Kauffman said.

"In two or three or four years, everybody will be used to the new culture, and people will hopefully stop offering gifts and public officials will know they can't accept them," Kauffman said.

Contact Melissa Daniels at