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Hearing witness calls for gift ban for elected officials

HARRISBURG - A longtime good government advocate told a Senate panel today that Pennsylvania’s ethics and lobbying laws regarding gifts are seriously flawed and must be “dramatically strengthened.”

HARRISBURG - A longtime good government advocate told a Senate panel today that Pennsylvania's ethics and lobbying laws regarding gifts are seriously flawed and must be "dramatically strengthened."

At a hearing before the Senate State Government Committee Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, urged lawmakers to approve a ban that would elevate the state from its position in the bottom quarter among states' for ethics laws.

"The incestuous linkage between gifts, campaign contributions and public policy must end," said Kauffman, whose group has advocated for tougher ethics laws in Pennsylvania for 40 years. "There is no justification for those seeking action or favors from the government to provide anything other than information to public officials."

A bill being proposed by committee chairman Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster) would institute a wide ban on gifts and hospitality.

Under current law, legislators may accept gifts of any amount - including cash - as long as they disclose them. The disclosure applies to gifts over $250 and cumulative hospitality - such as event tickets or dinners - over $650.

His testimony comes a month after The Inquirer reported four sitting lawmakers from Philadelphia were caught on tape accepting cash from a lobbyist wearing a wire. The sting was conducted under former attorneys general and Attorney General Kathleen Kane declined to prosecute those involved, saying the case was flawed. Kane has since said she will refer the case to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

Meanwhile, calls in the Capitol have grown for an overhaul of the state's relatively weak ethics laws.

In March, a bipartisan joint committee issued new House and Senate rules banning most cash gifts, with the exception of gifts between close family members and non-lobbyist friends. The policy allows members to continue to accept campaign contributions that are "otherwise authorized by law."

The Senate earlier this month passed a bill banning cash gifts, which is now before the House.

Two decades ago a scandal that sent the Kentucky House Speaker and other lawmakers to federal prison galvanized changes in that state's ethics law, a top official with the state's ethics commission told the Senate panel.

Now Kentucky is considering among the states with the most comprehensive and restrictive ethics law, including a full gift ban.

John Schaaf, counsel for the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, testifying before the committee in Harrisburg, said since the law went into effect in 1993 no lawmaker has been investigated by any law enforcement agency, let alone sent to jail.

He said the Kentucky state law will tighten even more in July when amendments take effect banning all lobbyists from contributing to legislators or legislative candidates and ban lobbyists' employers and PACs from donating to candidates during the three-month legislative session.

-Amy Worden