By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — In a state still living in the shadow of public corruption, Pennsylvania’s own State Ethics Commission, not surprisingly, sees room for improvement.
So do national report cards.
Average, the study concludes, isn’t good enough.
The report was a joint project from government watchdog groups The Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, as well as Public Radio International. The study examined government integrity topics in all 50 states to produce “Corruption Risk Report Cards,” including the capability of ethics enforcement agencies to carry out their duties.
In that context, Pennsylvania ranks 10 out of 50, but only two states — New Jersey and Connecticut — were lauded for their enforcement actions.
Others, Pennsylvania included, were docked points for operating with too few staff members and too little money.
Pennsylvania, like other states, has an ethics commission appointed and funded by the same state government officials it’s supposed to monitor. The Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission is charged with carrying out provisions of the Ethics Act of 1978, which bars state and local officials, employees and candidates from conflicts of interest and requires financial disclosure forms.
John Contino, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, sees ways the state could revamp the Ethics Act to improve enforcement.
“We have been of the opinion that there are areas where the ethics law in Pennsylvania can be strengthened,” Contino said.
One suggestion is redefining “immediate family” to keep public officials from issuing contracts with certain relatives, such as in-laws — a loophole in the Ethics Act. Others include increasing a penalty cap from $250 to $2,000 and creating a new penalty of pension forfeitures.
Another would give the commission access to the same confidential government information available to district attorneys, giving it more investigative reach.
The commission gave these suggestions — among two dozen others — during a hearing last fall, at the same time opposing a bill that would create the Public Integrity Commission, essentially a new board with a different appointment structure. The bill has yet to move from the House State Government Committee, and its sponsor will retire after this session.
Contino said the commission is further restricted in its ability to conduct more investigations because it operates with six vacancies. A total of five investigators are responsible for monitoring ethics behavior for state and local officials, and a corresponding 250,000 financial-interest statements.
“We can definitely open up an investigation on our own accord if we get information,” he said. “The thing is, we’re so inundated with complaints that we don’t have to do that, to look for work. If something comes to our attention where a complaint hasn’t been filed, we can look at it, and we’ve done that in the past.”
The commission relies on state funding, which was held flat at $1.7 million this year. Gov. Tom Corbett recommended cutting $88,000 from the commission’s budget, but the money stayed in the Senate’s final version of the plan. Under Gov. Ed Rendell in the 2010-11 budget year, the commission’s budget was cut by $194,000.
State Integrity picked longtime Harrisburg reporter Peter Durantine to conduct the Pennsylvania investigation. Pennsylvania lost points on the ethics side, in part, because of the small staff and the authority — or lack thereof — given to them under the law, he said.
“The ethics commission doesn’t get fully staffed and doesn’t have real enforcement powers,” Durantine said. “They can issue a ruling, then it’s up to the local authorities — the attorney general’s office or a local municipal prosecutor — to determine whether they should pursue any sort of action.”
The commission has power to issue penalties, to an extent. Public officials charged with a financial interest filing deficiency are fined $25 per day, capped at $250. For lobbyists charged with the same violation, the fee is $50 per day without a cap.
The commission can also issue unlimited restitution for conflict-of-interest violations.
Durantine said he sometimes wonders why Pennsylvania doesn’t have stronger laws for ethics violations, especially when considering recent history. Over the past several years, more than a dozen lawmakers were prosecuted for using millions in taxpayer dollars to help run their campaigns in the “Bonusgate” scandal.
“I can’t remember a year where I did not write about some lawmaker or some state official or some local official getting indicted, being arrested, being convicted or going to jail for violating ethical rules and laws,” said Durantine, who has reported in Harrisburg since the early 90s and now runs a city-centric news site.
The commission has five investigators who bring cases to the seven-member board of commissioners, who make the final judgment on a violation. The governor appoints three members, with four designated lawmakers in the House and the Senate choosing the rest.
All appointments happen without General Assembly confirmation.
Tim Potts is the executive director of Democracy Rising PA, a nonprofit that promotes integrity in government. He said the State Ethics Commission would be more effective if it ran autonomously.
“It needs to be an independent agency to the extent that this board is not controlled by the Legislature, which it is now,” Potts said. “It needs an independent source of funding.”
Potts suggested funding sources such as fines from state courts and pension benefits from officials charged with violating the Ethics Act.
The law needs work, Potts said, calling penalties “puny instead of punitive.”
“They need to be much tougher,” he said. “The third time someone violates the law, they’re no longer eligible to be a public servant. That’s the kind of toughness we need.”