THE DAILY RANT
"What's black and white and read all over?"

Saturday, June 10, 2006
Posted 3:16 PM by

Private Pa. prison, guards reach agreement

The George W. Hill correctional facility, the only privately managed county prison in the state, has reached a tentative new contract with a union representing its guards.GEO Group Inc. and a union representing guards at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, the only privately managed prison in the state, have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract.

Wayne Wynn, the attorney representing the Delaware County Prison Employees Independent Union, refused to tell the Delaware County Times the amount of raises the proposed pact contains, claiming they were still being discussed.

However, Wynn said they "improved" on an earlier proposal the union shot down last week, which featured raises of between 3.5 percent to 8 percent in the first year, 4 percent in the second and third year and 2 percent in the last seven months of 2010.

The agreement also would: relaxes vacation restrictions, allows mandatory overtime to be split among workers and continue to reward union member with a vacation day for every six months of perfect attendance.

GEO recived a $58 million contract last month to continue operating the publicly-funded county prison through 2007.

Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel, who is paid $20,000 a year to be on the Boca Raton, Fla.-based company's board of directors, has denied any involvement in securing that contract.

"I had no knowledge of the actions taken by the Board of Prison Inspectors until I read about it in the newspapers....," Perzel told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I had no role in the negotiations or selection process. There has been no communication between me and the operational management of Geo Group, Inc. on this or any subject. There has been no communication between me and the Board of Prison Inspectors on this or any subject."

Perzel even went further to say, "I am not involved in the operations or management of the firm, nor am I privy to any sales, marketing or management decisions. I serve in an administration function on the Audit Committee, with financial oversight and reporting responsibilities, reporting to the full board. I am not qualified to comment on the operations or management of the corporation."

Why did GEO Group Inc. pick Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel to be a board member if it wasn't trying to curry political favor?It makes you wonder what he's doing on GEO's board in the first place, doesn't it?

As I wrote in May after Perzel attended a GEO board meeting instead of voting on a proposal for statewide property tax reform, Perzel is the only company director who doesn't hold a masters, doctorate or a law degree. Perzel just has bachelors degree from Troy State University.

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Friday, June 09, 2006
Posted 9:14 PM by

Pa. slots opponent: Take your time

State Rep. Paul Clymer wants a one-year moratorium on Pennsylvania granting any slots parlor licenses so that the law legalizing them can be fixed.

State Rep. Paul Clymer introduced a bill Wednesday that would impose a one-year moratoriun on any slots parlors licenses in Pennsylvania.State Rep. Paul Clymer, the sole Pennsylvania legislator to introduce a bill to repeal 2004's hastily-passed law legalizing slot machines, now wants the state Gaming Control Board to take its time.

In fact, the Republican from Bucks County introduced a bill, H.B. 2730, this week that would impose a one-year moratorium before any slots parlor licenses are issued. It's now in the House Committee on Tourism and Recreational Development for review.

That exactly where his one-page bill to repeal the slots law in its entirety, H.B. 2298, still sits after he introduced it on Dec. 6.

"Because the original bill was passed so quickly, there are many loopholes that could cause serious problems and that we are currently working to correct," Clymer wrote in a press release Wednesday.

By saying it was pased "quickly," Clymer is being polite. In reality, the 145-page slots bill was inserted into a two-paragraph bill requiring background checks for harness racing employees and then passed in the dead of night before holiday adjournment on July 2, 2004, without any public comment.

This after legislators took millions in campaign contributions and gifts from lobbyists for slots parlor hopefuls and other gambling interests since 2000.

"It would be a big mistake to construct and open a casino for business when we have not yet corrected the flawed legislation governing that business," Clymer wrote. "My legislation will provide time for the state legislature to approve and put in place key laws to better ensure that new slot parlors will have the proper oversight from law enforcement, will be located in places deemed appropriate by the host county and make certain the Gaming Control Board is bound by stricter ethics."

Five employees of the gaming board have been fired already, two of which were agents doing background checks on slots parlor hopefuls.

Clymer said he favors Senate Bill 862, which has several key elements to improve the slots law: including giving the state Attorney General's Office greater authority in directing investigations into problem casinos and prohibiting public officials from having any ownership or interest in gaming operations.

The measure has already been approved by the House, but is "unfortunately" still sitting in the Senate Rules Committee awaiting final passage from the General Assembly before going to the governor for consideration.

"It could take months to have this legislation become law, and without these key elements being addressed, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should not be opening any casinos," Clymer wrote.

At least not until the taxpayers have a chance to find out who will benefit most from the slots parlors being jammed down their throats.

Senate Bill 862 would fix many of the problems caused by the late-night holiday passage of the law that legalized slot machines in 2004.But five months after the Gaming Control Board's deadline for applying for slot machines licenses has passed, many of the documents 22 applicants filed have not been made public.

That includes reports that would identify controlling shareholders in the slots parlors, their business debts, criminal histories, and dealings with community groups and gambling regulators in other states.

"We are close to having them ready, but we're not there yet," board spokesman Nick Hays told the Associated Press Friday.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006
Posted 9:57 PM by

This broken highway brought to you by...

The Pennsylvania Turnpike wants to sell sponsorships for everything it can while Gov. Ed Rendell and PennDOT are considering leasing the state's highways to outside companies.The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is considering selling corporate sponsorships along all 531 miles of toll highway, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported today.

Marketing packages wnder the commission's "Mileposts" program could plaster business names on 57 toll plazas, 157 state vehicles and more than 1,000 emergency call boxes placed along the roadway, Joe Brimmeier, the turnpike commission's chief executive officer, told the newspaper.

Do you really care if it's the Geico Insurance Safety Patrol or some other such nonsense that comes to your rescue when your car dies? All you want is the problem fixed so you can get back on the road.

I like that idea a whole lot better than a proposal being considered by Gov. Ed Rendell's administration to privatize at least some of the state's highways.

"This would be a great way to get money to put into immediate repair or construction," Rendell told the Associated Press last month.

A private investor would pay the state to assume control of a highway or rail route, then recoup the cost of the upfront payment, plus interest, by raising tolls or usage fees over the life of the agreement.

My question is why do it all?

The state is currently flush with cash - at last count sitting on a $720 million surplus - so why even consider selling off an asset than can not possibly be maintained for profit without drastic toll hikes.

Rendell said it would be at least a year before his administration reaches a decision on whether the idea is feasible. Then, any proposal would need to go through the Legislature.

Why is PennDOT and Gov. Ed Rendell even considering privatizing the state's highways without first trying to make the department more accountable and efficient?Here's hoping it dies before then. If Rendell really wants more money to fix and build roads, he should seriously consider stop filling Pennsylvania Department of Transportation with patronage employees, like so many of his predecessors, and forcing PennDOT to hold its contractors accountable when they make mistakes.

A study last year found the department paid for at least $7.6 million in mistakes made by contractors in just one district near Pittsburgh.

Keeping it secret

The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency just doesn't get it.

After its own hearing examiner recommended the student loan agency make spending records available to the public, the college loan agency said Wednesday it would continue to keep most of the documents secret.

PHEAA had argumend that the records are exempt from the state's Right-to-Know Law because most of its board members are state legislators, or because disclosure may hurt it competitively.

"PHEAA is engaged in a profitable business, the earnings from which provide significant benefits to the citizens of Pennsylvania," wrote Warren G. Morgan, a retired Dauphin County judge. "That, however, doesn't change the fact that it is a public corporation and governmental instrumentality and that its earnings are public moneys."

The college loan agency PHEAA is hiding from public accountability under the guise that its really arm of the state Legislature. WTF?However, Morgan's decision was non-binding and the agency issued a final order refusing the request for information by The Associated Press, the Patriot-News of Harrisburg and WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh.

Its decision said "undisputed facts compel the conclusion that the legislative members of PHEAA's board are acting as an arm of the General Assembly when they engage in PHEAA activities," wrote chief executive Richard Willey.

Yet another reason why the state's Sunshine and Open Records laws need to be rewritten to include the Legislature, which is the only entity in state government exempt from their requirements.

That's news to the Luzerne County commissioners Greg Skrepenak and Todd Vonderheid who cast their votes privately by phone Monday to delay their first reassessment in 40 years by one more year rather than voting at a public meeting to halt the process they started this year.

It's nice to know that although the cast may change in my old county, the show remains the same. As you might expect, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader has already has a filed a lawsuit even if the editors there have no idea who their new owner may be.

Finally, it wasn't House Speaker John Pezel who kept his lobbyist disclosure bill secret yesterday after it was introduced in the state House, an aide who requested anonymity told me today.

Instead, the House Chief Clerk's office failed to give the bill a number and send it to the Legislative Reference Bureau for printing.

I tried to call the Chief Clerk Roger Nick's office today at 4:30 p.m., but it was already closed.

The aide said the bill should be printed and posted online sometime Friday. In the mean time, a copy of the measure was posted on the House Republican Caucus' Web site (15.47 MB PDF) this morning, buried at the bottom of a press release that also appeared on Perzel's site.

Perzel sees the light?

He may not be able to catch much of a break from me and the public these days, but Perzel, R-Philadelphia, is starting to get the idea that now may not be the time for the usual Harrisburg shennanigans.

John Perzel pulled the plug on a legislators weekend in Philly that promised them free hotels, meals and sports tickets. Probably a wise idea.Case in point, Perzel has pulled the plug on a "legislative weekend" in Philadelphia at which lawmakers have been treated for the past six years to free hotels, meals and sports tickets, organizers said.

The event had been scheduled for late July and was in its final planning stages when it was canceled.

"He said it's probably not a good time to be doing things like that," Keller told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Of course, if he really wants to prove he has the taxpayers' interests at heart, Perzel should quit his board position with the prison management firm GEO Group Inc., which kept from considering property tax reform last month, and then fire the PR firm he and other Republican leaders have hired at taxpayer expense for $5,000 a month.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006
Posted 11:28 PM by

Perzel introduces lobbyist disclosure bill, but public still can't see it

John Perzel made sure a press release about his lobbyist disclosure bill was posted on his Web site, but the bill iteself isn't there or on the state Legislature's Web site. So much for disclosure.I was hoping to give you an in-depth analysis of state House Speaker John Perzel's "Lobbying Accountability Act" tonight, but, of course, no one in the Legislature - including Perzel - saw fit to actually post the bill online on the same day it was introduced.

Instead, we're left to read newspaper accounts of the measure and a one-page press release from Perzel extolling the bill's virtues.

I have a big problem with that.

This legislation was cooked up by Perzel's secret unnamed "research team," bullet-proofed by a cabal of former lawmakers and judges in closed teleconferences, and Perzel has said he plans to rush it through the Legislature and onto Gov. Ed Rendell's desk by the end of the month.

I have an even bigger problem with the fact that, as I previously reported, the bill does not require lobbyists to disclose each gift or meal they bought, who they bought it for, and why.

Instead, lobbyists would have to file reports on aggregate expenditures if they exceed $2,500 a quarter. How is that "real lobbying reform?"

Citing the same reason, state Rep. Greg Vitali, long a proponent of lobbying reform, called Perzel's bill a "major disappointment."

"Under this bill, the public still has no way to gauge the influence of lobbyists on individual legislators and the important issues they decide; there is no way for people to connect lobbyist spending with legislators or their votes; and no way to determine how the millions of dollars in special interest money being spent in Harrisburg is impacting policies on important issues such as education, gambling and tax reform," wrote Vitali, D-Delaware County.

This is what we waited months for? Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation without a lobbyist disclosure law, a state where registered lobbyists outnumber legislators 800 to 253, and a state where $125 million was spent last year in an attempt to influence the people we pay to make our laws.

All I can do for now, though, is repeat what Perzel said and I'm sure that's the way Perzel, R-Philadelphia, and his taxpayer-funded public relations firm want it.

"The bill amends the state's Crimes Code to make any effort to influence legislative action or administrative action a racketeering activity under the state's corrupt organizations law," Perzel's press relase says. "In addition, if a state official or employee, as defined in the act, offers, solicits or accepts any financial benefit in exchange for a decision, opinion, recommendation or vote, or any benefit as consideration for a violation of a known legal duty, it would be considered bribery."

But the proof is in the pudding.

Failing to post the bill online for the public to read makes Perzel the stern Pink Floydian schoolmaster shouting, "How can you can have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?"

None of this should come as a surpise, considering the state has repeatedly failed a national test on disclosing lawmakers' conflicts of interest, and even the governor can't seem to fill out his annual ethics form correctly.

Only in Pennsylvania folks.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Posted 8:20 PM by

Did Gov. Ed Rendell violate Pa.'s ethics law?

The governor accepted $3,420 worth of VIP passes to minor league baseball games and three football jerseys last year, but claimed neither gift on his latest conflict of interest form.

Gov. Ed Rendell wears one of three New England Patriots jerseys he received from Mitchell & Ness in Philadelphia before he paid off a bet by attending a Sixers-Celtics game in Boston last year to sing the national anthem. The jerseys were valued at $720 but were never declared as gifts.Although Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell says he wants tighter restrictions on gifts to public officials and more lobbyist disclosure in the state, the governor may have broken the lax existing ethics law by failing to publically report any of the gifts he's received since taking office in 2003.

Rendell has claimed he hasn't received a single present that was worth more than $250 - the legal minimum by which he would be required to report a gift on his annual statement of financial interest.

But the governor's own inventory of gifts shows that isn't so.

Rendell lost a highly-publicized Super Bowl bet with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and had to attend a Sixers-Celtics basketball game on April 3, 2005 wearing a New England Patriots football jersey. Mitchell & Ness, a Philadelphia sports apparel maker, gave three jerseys worth $720 to the governor, his wife and son for the trip, the Scranton Times-Tribune reported on May 28.

I questioned those jerseys in my May 7 blog post, "No gifts? Not-so-fast Eddie," which included a picture of the governor wearing his Patriots jersey singing the national anthem in front of the crowd.

The Times-Tribune also reported that Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed gave Rendell four season passes to Harrisburg Senators minor league baseball games, valued at $2,000, and later added $700 worth of Senators VIP passes and parking passes.

But the newspaper failed to question either gift in context with the governor's annual ethics form.

So why didn't Rendell report those gifts on his statement of financial interest, which is supposed to spell out such gifts in order to declare any potential conflicts?

"He does not consider it gifts to him," Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for the governor, said. "They were given to the governor's office and are available for use by a large number of people."

As for the jerseys, Ardo said, "He feels that whole wager was on behalf of the Commonwealth and was more a matter of state business than personal business. ... He has no intention of keeping that Patriots jersey."

He also said that since First Lady Midge Rendell is also a federal judge, the couple eschew any gifts from lobbyists and pay for their own travel.

Ardo insists Rendell isn't accepting any gifts for himself, but rather, "he accepts gifts on behalf of the Commonwealth. He plans to leave all the gifts given to him with the Commonwealth."

Told the law makes no distinction between gifts like that and gifts accepted for personal use, Ardo replied, "I don't know. I'm not an attorney."

Vince Dopko is an attorney. In fact, he's chief counsel of the state Ethics Commission - the agency that supposed to police conflicts of interest in Pennsylvania.

He said the commission only has the staff and time to do "spot audits" on some of the "tens of thousands" of statements of financials interest it receives annually, but will investigate if somebody files a formal complaint.

But citing a confidentiality clause in the state Ethics law, Dopko could not say whether the governor's filing has been probed or whether anyone has filed a formal complaint about it with the agency.

The confidentiality clause carries the same penalty - up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine - as any violation of the ethics law being alleged.

Meanwhile, three of the state's seven ethics commissioners were appointed by Rendell. The governor, along with the Legislature, also has final say over the commission's annual budget.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of the good government group Common Cause, said that while the amount of money in question may be small, "We may have to check that out."

He also said the situation is precisely why the state needs to strengthen its ethics law and pass a lobbyist disclosure law.

The national Center for Public Integrity recently gave the state a failing grade for the second time in seven years because of the poor amount of information disclosed about government officials' potential conflicts of interest.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation without a lobbyist disclosure law after its previous one was declared unconstitutional in 2002 by the state Supreme Court.

The state House has been working toward a new law, and Speaker John Perzel has promised to have one on Rendell's desk by the end of the month.

Rendell didn't wait for it.

"We've waited so long and nothing happened," Rendell said on March 15 when he ordered most lobbyists who seek to influence officials and employees of the executive branch of state government - which includes all departments and agencies - to register and say on who's behalf they are lobbying. They must also begin reporting their total spending as of July 1.

However, the lobbyists don't have to report each individual item or meal they buy or name who it benefited.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell accepted $2,700 worth of tickets and parking passes to the minor league Harrisburg Senators baseball team, which is owned by the city, and has letting his staff use them even though the gift was never publically declared.For that type of disclosure, interested taxpayers would have to review each official's annual statement of financial interests. The state-required form is completed by almost all elected and appointed officials, candidates and many employees of Pennsylvania.

The bulk of the forms are filed with the state Ethics Commission every year, said Dopko, the commission's chief counsel.

"It's physically impossible to do an analysis of every form that's filed," Dopko said. "The commission does spot audits."

By filling out the form and signing it, each public servant is saying the information is true and correct under Pennsylvania's Unsworn falsification to authorities law and the state Ethics law. Violations of either are misdemeanors.

Most, but not all of the forms are posted online at the commission's Web site for the public to read. However, the forms of state agencies and public officials and employees of local governments including school districts, townships, municipalities, authorities, etc. are filed only with their employers and must be requested in person.

Rendell's statements are online, which is where I obtained them.

The governor has repeatedly filled in a box to show that he has not received any gifts that would have to be disclosed in each of the last three years.

But Rendell is handed gifts every time he attends a public event, which means he gets "hundreds" of them every year, Ardo, Rendell's spokesman, said.

"Virtually everything he gets is to commemorate a visit. The vast majority of gifts are things like T-shirts, baseball caps and food baskets. ... I've never seen him get anything that would be considered valuable except for its sentimental value. I can assure you and the readers that not a T-shirt, cap or coffee cup has influenced the governor's decision."

Food baskets often end up at homeless shelters or soup kitchens. What isn't given away goes to the governors mansion, where it is inventoried and either stored or put on display.

Ardo said there are two complete lists of gifts Rendell receives. One that is kept by the governor's correspondance office, the other by his state-owned mansion, where at least some of the food items are served to guests.

I requested copies of both lists from Ardo a week ago. There is no argument that they're public records, but the governor's office is still redacting the home addresses and phone numbers of donors.

Although Common Cause and other groups favor an outright ban on gifts to state officials, Rendell does not.

"Lobbyists do educate legislators and government officials," Ardo said. "The governor would support reasonable limits on gifts. But that needs to be worked out in conjunction with the Legislature. ... If a bill reaches the governor's desk that's both reasonable and effective, he would support it."

He declined to be more specific saying, "What is reasonable varies by perception."

RENDELL'S STATEMENTS OF FINANCIAL INTEREST

Below are statements of financial interests filed with the State Ethics Commission by Gov. Ed Rendell since he took office in 2003.

In order to read them, you must have Adobe's pdf reader installed in your browser. To down a free copy, click here or on the icon below:



Ed Rendell 2005 form

Ed Rendell 2004 form

Ed Rendell 2003 form

A LOOK AT RENDELL'S CABINET

Which member of Gov. Ed Rendell's cabinet accepted the most gifts last year from lobbyists? To find out, click here.

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Posted 8:06 PM by

Pa. revenue head accepted $4,000 in gifts and meals

Pennsylvania Revenue Secretary Gregory Fajt accepted about $4,000 worth of meals, golf and tickets to a political event from lobbyists last year.Although there are 669 lobbyists now registered to make their case to Pennsylvania's executive branch of government, only four members of Gov. Ed Rendell's cabinet reported accepting outside gifts or trips last year.

But only one of those really stands out.

The biggest recipent by far was state Secretary of Revenue Gregory Fajt. He reported receiving approximately $4,000 worth of gifts, including meals, rounds of golf and attendance at a congressman's political event.

PNC bank, Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling - a statewide law firm with gambling interest clients, and two gas companies - Sunoco and Columbia Gas, paid for most of it.

A former state representative from Allegheny County, Fajt (pronounced "Fight") also previously worked as a partner for the law firm of Leech Tishman Fuscaldo & Lampl in Pittsburgh.

General Counsel Barbara Adams accepted $950 in gifts from Duane Morris L.L.P. of Philadelphia - one of the nation's largest law firms, but wrote that the reason for them was "departure after 28 years and traditional attendance at Pa. Society Dinner" in New York City. Adams previously chaired the firm's finance practice group and was a member of its partners board before accepting her public post.

Insurance Commissioner Diane Koken listed a $1,335 trip paid for by the European Union, but no gifts. She is also president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which has been looking at overseas opportunities.

Secretary of Public Welfare Estelle Richman listed two trips at $1,000 each paid for by the MacArthur Foundation. One to the Institute of Medicine and the other to the National Health Policy Forum.

Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Rendell, declined to talk specifically about Fajt's gifts and those accepted by other cabinet members, but did say, "There are limits to what they can accept. Gov. Rendell expects high ethical standards throughout his administration."

Ardo refused to detail what limits Rendell has set and the governor's March 15 order requiring executive branch lobbyists to register and detail their spending, sets no dollar limits on the gifts they can bestow. Neither does the code of conduct for executive branch employees imposed in 1984 by then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh.

ED RENDELL'S CABINET

Unless otherwise noted, the following 27 members of Gov. Ed Rendell's cabinet did not report receiving any gifts or trips last year, according to their statements of financial interests. Some listed outside jobs, which have also been noted.

General Counsel Barbara Adams - $950 from Duane Morris L.L.P. of Philadelphia. Reason for gift: "Departure after 28 years and traditional attendance at Pa. Society Dinner."

Secretary of Corrections Jeffrey Beard

Secretary of Transportation Allen D. Biehler

Secretary of Planning & Policy Donna Cooper

Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cort├ęs

Secretary of Legislative Affairs Steve Crawford

Secretary of General Services James P. Creedon

Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources Michael DiBerardinis

Secretary of Aging Nora Dowd Eisenhower

Secretary of Revenue Gregory Fajt - Approximately $4,000 worth of gifts: Two rounds of golf for $500 at Laurel Valley Country Club paid by PNC Bank, Attendance at Congressman John Murtha's event for $1,500 paid by PNC Bank, Burgess-McCormack event for $300 paid by Pa. Business Roundtable of Harrisburg, Dinner for two at Aquavit Restaurant in N.Y. for $500 paid by Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling of Pittsburgh, Dinner for two at Pennsylvania Society Dinner in N.Y. for $600 paid by Columbia Gas of Canonsburg, Pa., two rounds of golf at Robert Jones Course for $600 paid by Sunoco of Harrisburg.

Director of Health Care Reform Rosemarie Greco - Board member of Exelon and Sunoco, and a trustee of PREIT-Rubin and SEI Mutul Funds.

Secretary of Health Calvin Johnson

Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Director James Joseph - Listed National Guard, the city of Hazleton and The Vanguard Group as sources of income.

Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll

Insurance Commissioner Diane Koken - Under transportation, lodging and hospitality listed $1,334.62 paid by European Union.

Secretary of Administration Joe Martz - Employmed as senior vice president and managing director of municipal services for ACS Inc. of Dallas, Tx., and board memberships of Pennsylvania Employees Benefit Trust Fund of Harrisburg, Delaware River City CDC of Philadelphia and PRWT Services of Philadelphia.

Secretary of the Budget Michael Masch

Secretary of Environmental Protection Kathleen McGinty

State Police Commissioner Col. Jeffrey Miller

Inspector General Donald Patterson

Secretary of Public Welfare Estelle Richman - Under transportation, lodging and hospitality listed $2,000 paid by MacArthur Foundation: $1,000 for Institute of Medicine and $1,000 for National Health Policy Forum.

Secretary of Banking A. William Schenck III - No gifts or trips, listed deferred compensation and executive retirement plans from Washigton Mutual Bank (formerly Great Western Bank) as a source of income.

Secretary of Labor and Industry Stephen Schmerin - practicing attorney, owns 51 percent of Ed Ray Realty of Gibsonia, Pa., listed LIUNA of Washington D.C. as a source of income. He previously was employed as counsel for the AFL-CIO in Pittsburgh.

Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff - listed ownership of Pen Col Farms of Millville as a source of income as well as 600 acres in Columbia County where Pen Col is paid not to farm for environmental reasons.

Adjutant General of Military and Veterans Affairs General Jessica Wright

Secretary of Community and Economic Development Dennis Yablonsky

Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak

DID GOV. ED RENDELL BREAK PA.'S ETHICS LAW?

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell accepted gifts worth more than $250 last year but never declared them. To find out why, click here.

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Monday, June 05, 2006
Posted 3:22 PM by

Pa. lawmakers still failing disclosure test

While New Jersey's Assembly now ranks 10th in the nation for drastically improving its reporting of lawmakers' potential conflicts of interest, Pennsylvania's Legislature hasn't improved much since 1999.

Merriam-Webster defines ethics as the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group. Some state lawmakers in Pennsylvania need to be reminded of that and so does the state Ethics Commission, given how low Pa. ranks in the nation for disclosure.First the good news. Pennsylvania has climbed six spots over the last seven years from - 39th to 33rd in the nation - for making public information on state legislators' private income, assets, and conflicts of interest available.

The bad news: the state is still failing a 43-question survey by The Center for Public Integrity that measures access to information on whether legislators stand to gain personally from actions they take in office.

The nonprofit, non-partisan group produces original investigative journalism on issues of public concern.

The center's test graded New Jersey with a C for scoring a 76 out of a possible 100 on its disclosure of Assemblymen's potential conflicts of interests. It now ranks 10th in the nation, up from 30th in 1999.

The center graded Pennsylvania just a 56 out of 100 when the test was completed in April.

The state actually scores well at requiring ethics information to be filed in the annual statements of financial interest required of all statewide elected officials, candidates and most appointed positions. It also does well at making it available to the public, despite my many complaints about the state Ethics Commission's Web site.

But it scored just a 40 out of 83 on the extent of information and the level of detail legislators are required to report on the forms.

Pennsylvania failed the Center for Public Integrity's test because of the small extent to which legislators must report their potential conflicts of interest annually.As an example, the report cites the case of state Rep. Merle Phillips, R-Sunbury, who has used rules and his position as majority caucus administrator to insert budget provisions aimed at increasing access to chiropractic services.

However, Phillips' statement of financial interest did not require him to disclose that his son, Michael A. Phillips, is a chiropractor.

The form did, however, require him to report the $640 worth of Pocono 500 tickets and parking passes he received from Wanner Associates of Harrisburg and $403.52 worth of Penn State football tickets, parking passes and food the university provided him.

Phillips admits he has taken bills drafted by the Pennsylvania Chiropractic Association and introduced them into the Legislature as his own, making it appear as if he wrote them. Gene Vino, executive vice president of the association, called the central Pennsylvania lawmaker "one of our leading advocates" in the legislature.

Phillips, 71, told the center he has no investment in his son's business and that he "had felt strongly about chiropractic even before my son was involved."

But his case does beg the question as to how many other potential conflicts of interest are not being disclosed by the current forms Pennsylvania legislators fill out annually?

Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation without a lobbyist disclosure law, after the state Supreme Court declared the old one unconstitutional in 2002 because it established rules for lobbyists who are also lawyers.

The annual statements of financial for most elected and appointed public officials in Pennsylvania can be found at the state Ethics Commission's Web site. However, it's eLibrary leads a lot to be desired.However, under a state Senate rule, lobbyists have been voluntary disclosing the total amount of money they spend, who their clients are and on what issues they're lobbying. In 2005, 800 registered lobbyists spent $125 million hoping to sway the state's 253 legislators, Senate figures show.

TOMORROW: I'll ask whether Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell violated the state's Ethics Law, and tell you which of his cabinet members accepts the most from lobbyists.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006
Posted 1:25 PM by

Will Pa. lawmakers revisit property tax reform soon?

Council Rock school directors - who operate one of the richest districts in the state - decried the last attempt at reform Thursday, saying it unfairly limited their spending, even as they passed a $153 property tax increase.

Twenty school districts have come out against the property tax reform bill Gov. Ed Rendell wanted but the state House tabled before recessing three weeks ago.When Pennsylvania lawmakers return to Harrisburg tomorrow after a historic primary ousted at least 17 incumbents - including the top two Senators - the state budget will probably dominate their time before the summer recess.

But beneath it on the legislators' to-do list will be the business they left behind three weeks ago - statewide property tax reform.

On May 2, a proposal supported by Gov. Ed Rendell passed the Senate, 40-9. But the House tabled a vote on House Bill 39 a day later, saying the measure did not do enough to give property owners a break. By Rendell's own estimate, it would have saved the average homeowner $200, but increased taxes by a lot more than that on working renters.

Opponents of the measure are already calling for that bill to be killed for varying reasons. Some want a new bill written that eliminates school property taxes entirely as a source of revenue for the state's 501 districts.

The Council Rock School Board isn't one of those. Instead, it became the 20th district to adopt a resolution against H.B. 39 last week because the measure would limit school spending to the rate of taxpayers' wage increases, unless the district obtained voter approval to spend more in a referendum.

Council Rock joined 20 other districts to stand against the idea of letting voters have a direct say over property tax hikes last week, even as school directors raised property taxes again.On Thursday, Board members said they are against such a proposed referendum because it "improperly [makes] scapegoats of public school districts for funding issues that have been caused mainly by factors outside of their control."

The state used to pay half of the district's costs, but now only covers 17 percent, the directors said. Statewide, the Commonwealth's contribution to schools is about 36 percent, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in January.

Council Rock, the district I graduated from in 1985, is located in Newtown, Bucks County and is one of the most affluent school systems in the state. Its lucrative teachers contract is often cited by unions in other districts during contract negotiations.

Yet, citing higher salary and benefit costs, as well as rising energy prices, which left a $5 million hole in next year's $178.5 million budget, Council Rock school directors voted unanimously Thursday to raise property taxes by about $153 or 3.5 percent for the average homeowner in the district - to about $4,447 a year.

Superintendent Mark Klein said the tax hike would still be below the threshold by which the district would be required to have a public referendum if H.B. 39 became a law.

The nearby Bristol Township School District, which is far-less-affluent, became the first district in the state to put such a referendum to voters in the May 16 primary. It was overwhelmingly rejected.

But in the long run, the vote didn't matter. The referendum only covered a small portion - $48 for the average homeowner - of that district's proposed tax increase - $200 - and Bristol's school board was able to find enough money to offset the ballot question's lost revenue.

Despite $550,000 in lower than expected health care costs and a $300,000 "insurance settlement," the average Bristol Township taxpayer will still pay about $152 more next year under the district's proposed budget.

Across the state, Pittsburgh-based Stop Taxing Our Properties (STOP) is saying enough is enough.

Bristol Township school directors became the first in the state to ask voters to approve a small portion of their planned property tax hike. The voters overwhelmingly rejected it and the board made up the money elsewhere.Pennsylvania should eliminate all property taxes by passing a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax and a 1 percent increase in the state income tax, Bob Logue, the group's organizer told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

"What we need now is a large group of angry people who don't just call their legislators once but call them constantly," Logue said, citing the successful popular movement that ousted incumbents last month. "The public has to get angry and involved."

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