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DN Editorial: That Ol' Harrisburg déjà vu

It's bad that more pols got caught; it's worse that nothing's being done

Defendants in the corruption sting cases, clockwise from top left: Louise Williams Bishop, Michelle Brownlee, Harold James, Ronald Waters, Vanessa Lowery Brown, and Thomasine Tynes.
Defendants in the corruption sting cases, clockwise from top left: Louise Williams Bishop, Michelle Brownlee, Harold James, Ronald Waters, Vanessa Lowery Brown, and Thomasine Tynes.Read more

THE LATEST arrests of three state lawmakers on corruption charges may bring familiar feelings of disgusted deja vu to state and city residents.

The three - state Reps. Louise Williams Bishop and Michelle Brownlee and former state Rep. Harold James - became the latest crop of corrupt officials caught up in a sting operation, the center of which was lobbyist-turned-informant Tyron Ali's disbursement of cash gifts to lawmakers. None of the gifts, ranging from $750 to $2,000, was reported.

Late last year, after state Attorney General Kathleen Kane dropped a probe of the sting, District Attorney Seth Williams took it on and charged two other state lawmakers: State Rep. Ron Waters allegedly took $8,750, and Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown reportedly pocketed $4,000.

As stomach-turning as these cases are, there is, unfortunately, something even more sickening: the refusal from the General Assembly to even pretend to care or take action on corruption.

Following the news of the sting last year, House and Senate members went through some mild motions, drafting at least one law that would impose a cash ban.

Even that simple rule was too much to stomach for these greedy money-grabbers. It went nowhere.

This endless cycle of disgusted deja vu by now follows a familiar pattern: scandal, cries for reform, then . . . crickets.

Occasionally, one lawmaker emerges who vows to tackle this seriously. Back in 2005, it was Rep. Josh Shapiro, who acted after General Assembly members approved big raises for themselves in the middle of the night. Shapiro was smart and dedicated to ethics reform. But having hit the brick wall of greed, even he ultimately ran screaming from Harrisburg. (He's now the chairman of the Montgomery County Commission.)

The latest presumptive white knight to come forward seems to be state Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Perry/Dauphin). Teplitz, elected in 2012, co-founded the government-reform caucus and is pushing for a slate of changes that would include independent audits of the General Assembly, eliminating legislative cost-of-living raises, redistricting and gift bans.

Good luck with that.

Tote up the arrests, indictments and jail sentences meted out to Pennsylvania lawmakers, even in the past 10 years, and it's hard to see how any meaningful reforms will happen. Maybe it's illogical to expect that this body, accustomed to reaping the rewards of such a sweet job with few rules and even fewer questions, would have any incentive to police themselves or hold themselves to higher standards.

The state ethics commission reviews and enforces regulations, but doesn't have the power to make laws. And while the voters have a say in holding lawmakers accountable at the ballot box, well, so far that's proving to be an imperfect system for meaningful change, at least for the specific rules governing lawmaker behavior.

But maybe if a few more of them were in the room - say, as part of the Government Reform Commission, helping to draft the rules and laws - along with other experts on reform, the conversation could be more productive.

Why shouldn't citizens be more directly engaged in lawmaking? (We can almost hear the screams from state legislative offices at the prospect.) Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania isn't a hotbed of direct democracy.

But in this era of "creative disruption," it's time to start applying those principles to Harrisburg.