CAN WE sleep better now that the Delaware River Port Authority board has enacted sweeping reforms of its operations?
The changes hammered out by the DRPA board Wednesday include a ban on using toll revenues for economic-development projects and on DRPA employees from taking gifts, hiring family members or crossing the bridges for free.
Well, let's see how the last set of "sweeping reforms" in Pennsylvania worked out.
That would takes us back to 2007, when the state House enacted a package of rules to limit perks and increase transparency. These reforms were called "historic" and members of the House assured us that it was a new day.
"Things are changing . . . it's palpable," said Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, at the time.
DeWeese was indicted in 2009.
Former House Speaker John Perzel was indicted in 2009. Former state Rep. Mike Veon was convicted and is now in jail.
And Wednesday the FBI and IRS raided the offices and business of state Rep. Bill Keller.
So, no, we don't think we're going to sleep anytime soon.
The federal investigation of Keller (and Traffic Court Judge Robert Mulgrew) is short on details, and there's no assumption of guilt. Aside from the now-familiar sight of federal agents' carrying boxes out of lawmakers' offices, there's another troubling similarity between Keller's and other case: the involvement of a taxpayer-funded nonprofit organization started by the lawmaker. Investigators are looking at finances related to the Keller's South Philadelphia Area Revitalization Corp. (SPARC), a nonprofit he established.
They're also looking at records from Keller's sporting-goods business, which got paid to produce T-shirts . . . for his re-election campaign.
Back in 2007, those sweeping Harrisburg reforms from the House included a new rule prohibiting lawmakers from establishing or operating nonprofits designed to get state funds directed by those lawmakers. While that may have been a good start, there are enough loopholes in the rule to drive a taxpayer-funded leased car through.
For example, the change was a rule, not a law. As activist Tim Potts of Democracy Rising points out, rules are the junk food of governance: passing easily through the system and providing little nourishment. For another, all the nonprofits that lawmakers had created prior to the change were grandfathered in. That means there are still plenty that get money directed by their patrons. This is a cozy but despicable arrangment, and helped bring the downfall of Veon, who channeled public money through his nonprofit.
Another problem: This rule was not adopted in the Senate. So although the change might have had some impact, there's still plenty of opportunity for abuse. (ex-Sen. Vince Fumo's nonprofit, Citizen Alliance, is the poster child for that abuse.)
Nonprofit creation by lawmakers is not inherently bad, and not all are ruses designed to get free public money. But given the lack of oversight over money that flows to such groups, the practice should be outlawed.