IS BRIBERY legal in Pennsylvania politics? Thanks to the arcane rules that govern campaign donations, it's nearly impossible to know.
But a new Pennsylvania Common Cause study tracking donations from the gaming industry to state lawmakers over the last seven years suggests that anyone wanting to connect the dots can end up with a fairly ugly picture. During that time, nearly $17 million in contributions flowed to lawmakers from people with a stake in the gaming industry, including lawyers and lobbyists who represented gaming clients.
The report identifies the top donors - Ira Lubert, associated with the planned Valley Forge casino, tops the list at $455,000, with Peter DePaul & family, with interests in Foxwoods casino, a close second - as well as the top recipients. No surprise that Gov. Rendell has cleaned up at this particular table with contributions exceeding $1 million. Former state Sen. Vince Fumo, architect of the gaming bill, comes in second, at $400,000; Rep. John Perzel comes in third, at $236,000.
Even as lawmakers were cashing the checks, they were considering allowing casinos to come to Pennsylvania. The odds are good that all of this campaign cash played a role in the eventual success of the legislation.
The report comes out as state lawmakers are considering two major expansions of gambling: the legalization of table games such as blackjack in casinos and of video poker in bars. (Pushed by Rep. Bill DeWeese, who is on the list of top-20 recipients of gaming money.)
Based on the report, it's a safe bet that campaign contributions are again flowing in Harrisburg.
Common Cause has called on lawmakers to voluntarily disclose contributions from gaming interests. (Right now, they don't have to disclose any information on contributors until they're spending money trying to influence elections.)
They're pushing for reform that would mandate reporting and would set limits on donations. But we think it's equally critical to make sure donations can be tracked in real time.
During nonelection years, campaign committees have 12 months to file a report with the Department of State. In fact, political-action committees are required to file reports only if they have tried to influence an election in the past year.
That means lawmakers holding hearings or voting on the expansion of gambling - or on any law - could be receiving huge donations from the interested parties . . . and we'd have no way of knowing for a year.
This must change. The state should require campaign committees to provide monthly reports and make them accessible to the public online. We need to know who is giving money to our elected officials and how much, and see the link between fundraising and legislating.
The billions of dollars of recovery-act money coming into the state - much of which will be spent on construction contracts for infrastructure improvements - makes this especially critical.
The current system is based on the idea that campaign contributions are primarily to influence elections. In reality, money flows just as often to influence laws. If democracy is going to be as corrupted as this, let's at least be able to see the evidence sooner.