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December 25, 2013 | By | Posted in Features

With lax gift laws, Pennsylvania’s elected officials enjoy Christmas year-round

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

Pennsylvanians are gathering this week to exchange presents with family and friends, but for some residents of the state, Christmas lasts all through the year.

From Turkish rugs to all-expense-paid trips to the Super Bowl, lawmakers and other high-ranking state officials rack up all sorts of goodies from lobbyists looking to generate some goodwill for their special interests. And thanks to some of the least restrictive laws in the nation regarding political gift-giving, Pennsylvania’s pols have a constant stream of expensive presents waiting to be unwrapped.

FOLLOW THE MONEY: Legislators and other state officials in Pennsylvania can accept as many gifts as lobbyists are willing to give them. The state is one of 10 with no restrictions on political gift-giving, beyond an obligation to report gifts exceeding $250 in value.

FOLLOW THE MONEY: Legislators and other state officials in Pennsylvania can accept as many gifts as lobbyists are willing to give them. The state is one of 10 with no restrictions on political gift-giving, beyond an obligation to report gifts exceeding $250 in value.

Under state law, elected officials must disclose all gifts valued at more than $250, unless they are given by a family member or friend. Transportation, lodging and hospitality valued at more than $650 also must be reported.

The quarterly financial disclosures filed by lobbyists and the annual statements of financial interest filed by state lawmakers give a glimpse at gifts that range from the mundane to the extraordinary.

“These gifts are there for one reason: to create preferred relationships with policymakers that other taxpayers are not able to have,” said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a group which supports reforming the state’s policy for political gift-giving.

Kauffman said he would like to see a full ban on gifts that exceed the value of a cup of coffee, like several others states have. If that’s not possible, he said, then the $250 threshold should be eliminated so all gifts would have to be reported.

And gift-giving in Pennsylvania politics is big business. Lawmakers reported more than $43,000 in gifts on their 2012 financial disclosure forms, according to an Associated Press analysis. That total doesn’t count all gifts valued at less than $250 — which can cover a pretty nice dinner and lots of other things, so the actual total is probably much higher.

From 2007 through 2011, lawmakers reported more than $117,000 in gifts, according to a separate analysis done by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Though the filings for 2013 won’t be available until April, lawmakers in previous years have reported gifts that would surely be on every Pennsylvanians’ wish list.

Sports tickets and souvenirs are hot items.

In 2009, state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, reported getting tickets valued at $4,000 to see the Pittsburgh Steelers play in the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., where they defeated the Arizona Cardinals to win their sixth title. He was the guest of Steelers owner Art Rooney.

In 2010, Corman received $748.75 from Coventry First LLC, a life insurance group in Fort Washington, for tickets to two Philadelphia Phillies baseball games.

SUPER BOWL XLIII: When the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl in 2009, state Sen. Jake Corman was there to see it.

SUPER BOWL XLIII: When the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl in 2009, state Sen. Jake Corman was there to see it.

In 2012, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley got an autographed baseball bat worth an estimated $100 from the Phillies.

Several state lawmakers have reported free tickets to Penn State University football games.

And then there are the free trips.

State Sen. Mike Brubaker, R-Lancaster, got a $10,900 trip to Turkey paid for by Bogazici Atlantik Kulturel Dostluk Veis Birligi Dernegi, a cultural exchange group. Brubaker has also taken trips to Nova Scotia and Taiwan in recent years.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, and state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, attended conferences in Ireland and had the trips paid for by the hosts.

In 2012, Gov. Tom Corbett accepted $1,400 in free travel for a vacation to Rhode Island paid for by John Moran, president of Moran Industries, a Pennsylvania based company that specializes in trucking, rail and warehousing.

Corbett also reported taking a $11,000 trip to France in 2012, with the cost covered by the Team Pennsylvania Foundation, which sponsors trade missions. While there, the governor received one of the more unique gifts reported by state policymakers: a $275 fountain pen.

Corbett also got two Turkish robes and towels, along with a vase and plate, valued at $275 from the Turkish Cultural Center Pennsylvania.

Ten states have full bans on gifts for politicians, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 31 states have monetary limits, ranging from $3 per day in Iowa to the Texas limit of $500 for gifts and another $500 for entertainment per year.

According to NCSL, Pennsylvania is one of just 10 states with no monetary limits on gifts, though Pennsylvania law specifies that gifts may not be given or received if they are intended to influence decisions.

But Michael Coulter, a professor of political science at Grove City College, told the House State Government Committee in September that most people see through that provision.

“For most of the general public, distinguishing between a gift intended to influence and one that isn’t so intended seems like a distinction without a difference,” he said.

And if the gift-giving process was not producing results, it would not continue, Kauffman said.

He said the gifts that don’t get reported can be as important as the big ticket items like the trips.

“It’s not so much the value of the gifts. It’s the relationship that is developed,” he said.

Several bills have been introduced this year to change the state’s law about political gift-giving. Some would ban gifts entirely, while others would place stricter limits on the value and type of gifts that can be given.

But since the September hearing on tightening the state gift laws and other laws pertaining to lawmakers’ ethics, there has been little movement on the issue.

For Pennsylvania’s public officials, it will continue to be Christmas all the time.

Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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