"What's black and white and read all over?"

Saturday, May 06, 2006
Posted 9:18 PM by

Pa. legislative leaders well-traveled, connected

State Rep. Mike Veon claims he holds no real estate interests and didn't accept either gifts or paid trips last year.Pennsylvania's legislative leaders didn't just take their salaries last year along with a now-repealed pay raise.

They also accepted income from outside sources, some gifts and had their trips to conferences, meetings and even China last year covered by somebody else, according to their most recent statement of financial interests filings, which were due May 1.

Most state officials, candidates, nominees and employees are required to file the form in order to declare any possible conflicts of interests they have. Failure to file can result in a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Of the forms for top House and Senate leaders I examined today, only two claimed not to own any real estate and one of them - powerful state Sen. Vincent Fumo - actually admitted he did.

Both he and House Minority Whip Michael Veon also claimed not to have received any gifts or free trips.

The most well-traveled among them was House Minority Leader H. William "Bill" DeWeese, of Waynesburg, Greene County. He listed his occupation as a "full-time state representative," but took seven trips outside of his district over 39 days, worth a total of $15,000.

The forms of DeWeese and Veon are the most interesting considering DeWeese punished 15 Democrats who voted against last year's legislative pay raise by removing them from committee leadership posts. DeWeese and Veon were the only state lawmakers to vote against repealing it after statewide outrage. DeWeese later caved in and voted for the repeal on its second vote, leaving Veon as the lone dissenter.

House Minority Leader H. William 'Bill' DeWeese took seven trips worth $15,000 over 39 days last year on somebody else's dime.Most of DeWeese's trips were on behalf of the non-profit State Legislative Leaders Foundation of Centerville, MA, of which he is a director. But from Aug. 4 to Aug. 9, 2005, he was part of a delegation of state legislative leaders to China. The trip's cost - $4,630 - was paid by the Taipei Economic & Cultural Office of New York.

DeWeese also accepted $800 worth of unspecified event tickets from Orbital Engineering Inc. of Pittsburgh.

The former speaker listed as another source of his income Community Bank of Carmichaels, Pa. However, he is not listed among its management or board of directors.

DeWeese was one of five legislators to have his trip to a "mid-year meeting," which cost $2,495, paid for by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

Senate Majority Leader David 'Chip' Brightbill's had a $2,905 trip paid for by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill's trip for $2,905.50 was also covered as was Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer's trip, worth $3,038; Veon's $2,905.50 trip, and Senate Minority Leader Bob Mellow's $3,126.50 trip.

Jubelirer, of Hollidaysburg, Blair County, also had a $2,500 bill picked up while he was attending the Senate President's Forum in Princeton, N.J.

Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer took two trips last year totaling more than $5,500, but didn't pay a penny.He drew revenue from JCK&H Realty in Altoona, of which he owns 25 percent, and the Altoona law firm of Jubelirer, Carothers, Krier & Halpern, of which he owns less than 10 percent.

Brightbill listed his only other source of income as Lincoln Village/Budget Self-Storage, which he owns in Lebanon.

Mellow, of Peckville, Lackawanna County, filed three almost duplicative forms. They said he owns part of two accounting firms - a half-partner in James J. Mellow & Co., and quarter-partner in Mellow and Merkel. He also is a shareholder in real-estate and insurance company Giordano Associates Inc. and a director of Old Forge Bank.

House Majority Leader Samuel H. Smith of Jefferson County, drew revenue from two properties he owns in Punxsutawney, as well as a sale of stock in NAC Carbon Products Inc. of Punxsutawney.

House Majority Leader Samuel H. Smith had his hotel bill while attending President Bush's inaugural paid for by Reliant Energy.Smith listed $800 in Pro-Am gifts from the Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational and had his $856 hotel bill for attending the President Bush's inaugural paid by Reliant Energy of Houston, Tx.

Veon, of Beaver Falls, Beaver County, filed two forms with the state Ethics Commission. One as a state representative, the other as a director of the Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System.

Both listed him as co-chairman for the not-for-profit Beaver Initiative for Growth and said he accepted no gifts, trips and had no real estate interests.

The most expansive form of the day went to Fumo. The veteran Philadelphia Democrat isn't a legislative leader, but is minority chairman of the powerful Senate appropriations committee.

Fumo listed his occupation as "senator; banker; attorney" and claimed he received no gifts or transportation expenses. He also claimed he had no real estate interests after he transferred a rental property on South 13th Street to his son, Vincent E. Fumo III.

State Sen. Vincent Fumo claims he accepted no gifts or trips last year and has no real estate interests, but later listed five properties from which he's drawing an income.But later in the form,listed five properties as sources of income including four in Philly, one in Jupiter Island, Fla. and one in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Not the kind of mistake one would expect from a member of Mensa.

His many sources of income include: Chairman and shareholder of First Pennsylvania Bank, a board member of Independence Blue Cross, and director/chairman of PSA Service Corp., PSB Bank Corp., and Transnational Mortgage Corp. all of 1835 Market St., and numerous partnerships.

In addition to being a lawmaker, Fumo is also a member of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority, a trustee of the Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System and a designee on the Delaware River Port Authority.


Below are the latest statements of financial interests filed with the State Ethics Commission by some of the state's most powerful state legislators.

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:

Sen. David "Chip Brightbill

Rep. H. William "Bill" DeWeese

Sen. Vincent Fumo

Sen. Robert Jubelirer

Rep. Samuel H. Smith

Rep. Michael Veon 1

Rep. Michael Veon 2

Sen. Bob Mellow 1

Sen. Bob Mellow 2

Sen. Bob Mellow 3


Friday, May 05, 2006
Posted 11:02 PM by

Perzel pile on

John Perzel, Pennsylvania's speaker of the house, is catching flack across the state for attending a corporate board meeting for a prison management firm rather than performing his state duties while the House debated a property tax reform proposal this week.I don't like journalistic or political pile ons.

They're ugly, messy, stupid and nobody ever really learns much from them. Usually, I just stand on the sideline, laugh at the morons and wait for the high emotions and feeding frenzy to ebb.

For that reason, I declined the opportunity last summer to go the suburban New Jersey home of former Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens for his front lawn impromptu press conferences and sit-up-fest.

But I just can't help myself when it comes to Pennsylvania Speaker of the House John Perzel's mysterious disappearance from the property tax reform debate this week.

Maybe, it's because "The Speaker," as Perzel calls himself in his latest annual statement of financial interests (PDF), would prefer for the public not to know who gives him and other state lawmakers anything, even though his form details more than $34,000 worth of gifts he received last year.

That's not the only way he has been lining his pockets.

While state representatives here were tableing House Bill 39 until after the May 16 primary election, Perzel was enjoying free hospitality at the luxurious Boca Raton Resort & Club in Florida, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Friday.

Perzel stayed in a room that normally costs between $259 to $400 a night and the Philly Republican made about $5,000 attending the annual shareholders meeting of GEO Group Inc. Perzel, 55, has been on the company's board of directors since last year.

Never heard of GEO? Me neither. So I did a little research.

GEO primarily builds and operates prisons. Last year, its 10,000 employees ran 61 jails around the world - including the 1,785 men, women and kids serving time at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thorton, Pa., which GEO expanded in the late 90s while the company was known as Wackenhut Corrections Corp.

The Delaware County medium-security jail is the only privately run prison in Pennsylvania. In 2002, the Philadelphia Prison System started sending hundreds of its inmates there whenever Philly's slams are filled.

"The Speaker" knows how to rule the state House with an iron fist, but what does he know about running a company or a prison?

John Perzel stayed for free in the luxurious Boca Raton Resort & Club and made $5,000 while attending a board meeting for GEO Group Inc., a prison management firm this week.He certainly stands out like a sore thumb among GEO's board of directors. He's one of only two directors from Philly. (The other is Richard H. Glanton, Exelon's senior vice president for corporate development.) He's also the only one who doesn't hold a masters, doctorate or a law degree. Perzel just has bachelors degree from Troy State University.

Yet, Perzel is on the board's audit and finance, compensation, independent and corporate governance committees.

Directors of GEO are paid an annual retainer of $20,000, $1,500 for each board meeting they attend and $1,000 for each committee meeting they attend, according to a 2003 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the last such filing I could find spelling out the board's compensation.

Each director also receives annually from GEO an option to purchase up to two thousand (2,000) shares of common stock of GEO. Perzel now owns 2,700 shares, valued at $38.10 each at Friday's close, for a total worth of $102,870.

How did Perzel land such a cushy part-time gig? Here's one conspiracy theory for you: The company intentionally makes political ties and contributions in order to gain business.

Hill is run by the Delaware County Board of Prison Inspectors, which was chaired for 13 years by Springfield Township Republican Party boss Charles P. Sexton Jr. until he retired in January.

GEO's $33 million annual deal to run Hill - Delaware County's single largest expenditure of tax dollars - expires with the prison board on May 31. Sexton decided to put the contract out to bid last year, but denied that his decision was based on problems at the prison, according to the Delaware County Times.

GEO has paid out hundreds of thousand of dollars to settle wrongful death lawsuits, fired several employees who committed serious crimes of their own and struggled to keep drugs out of the prison. It has let the wrong men walk out - three times in as many years - and kept an innocent man imprisoned last year.

The company and a rival, Management and Training Corp., are now in a bidding war for the contract. Having "The Speaker" on the company payroll certainly could help sway a local prison board.

Is John Perzel on the board of GEO Group Inc. to make sure it lands the $33 million annual contract to run the George W. Hill Correction Facility - Pennsylvania's only privately run prison?Besides, Perzel and Sexton know each other. They were both among Pennsylvania's 75 delegates to the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.

Perzel also served on area charity boards with the late G. Fred DiBona Jr., chairman of Independence Blue Cross who was also a board member of both GEO and Exelon until he died of cancer last year.


Posted 11:00 PM by

Perzel's cup runneth over

Look who's laughing all the way to the bank. It's Pennsylvania Speak of the House John Perzel.Pennsylvania Speaker of the House John Perzel is dead-set against publically listing the gifts lobbyists bestow on state representatives and is hammering out a "disclosure law" behind closed doors.

But Perzel detailed gifts totaling $34,315.80 in his latest annual statement of financial interests (pdf) filing on March 6.

The state requires all elected officials and public employees to fill the form out each year to make public their conflicts of interests.

Perzel received numerous cash gifts from companies during his Jan. 4, 2005 swearing in ceremony. Among them: $3,000 from Wachovia Bank, $1,000 from Comcast, $500 from the Hospital and Healthsystem Association, $500 each from PECO Energy and Exelon, $250 from the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association.

Then there were the trips.

The law firm of Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling gave Perzel a $500 ticket to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla. on Feb. 6, 2005. The Eagles lost the game to the Patriots. Klett Rooney represents the Steelers in all legal transactions except players' contracts.

The "Association Promoting Relations Between PA, USA & Fujian Province, China" paid $12,500 for a "realtionship-building" trip to the province from July 11-20. The association is chaired by Julie Wong, a Philadelphia real estate broker, developer and former banker.

Advance America, Cash Advance Centers Inc. then paid $4,134 to send Perzel to Las Vegas for the 2005 National Speaker's Conference from Sept. 28 to Oct.2.

While he was in Sin City, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation gave Perzel $2,231.80.

All of this was on top of the $112,689 he makes as Speaker and the $20,000 he receives for being on the board of GEO Group Inc.

To read more about Perzel's involvement with GEO, click here.


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

Rep. John Perzel


Thursday, May 04, 2006
Posted 10:37 PM by

No news is good news this week

Even some of the poorest elderly folks in Pennsylvania would still get less than a $1,000 worth of property tax relief out of the $1 billion the state would get from slot machine parlors under a plan the state House tabled Wednesday - to the dismay of Gov. Ed Rendell.While a lot of stuff is going on in Pennsylvania and New Jersey this week, not a heck of a lot is actually being accomplished.

And that may just be the best news of all.

In Pennsylvania, the Legislature tried to ramrod into law what Democrats called a property tax "reform" proposal, tied in part to an expected $1 billion windfall from legalizing slot machine parlors, in time for the May 16 primary election.

In reality, the measure did little to cap school expenses - the primary source of higher property taxes - but forced school districts to put a referendum on next year's primary ballot. It would ask voters if they would be willing to switch 25 percent of their school property taxes onto an income tax.

A "Yes" majority vote then would effectively lessen the tax burden on property owners and increase it on working people who rent.

The state Senate passed the measure Tuesday 40-9, with eight Republicans and one Democrat dissenting. But to the surprise of many in Harrisburg, the House tabled the bill (H.B.39) and adjourned for a month.

"The majority of members feel we can do more and do it better," House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, told reporters afterward.

That lead House Minority Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver, to angrily declare, "The idea that you can't pass this bill and start tomorrow on a bill that would go further is ridiculous and absurd."

House Minority Whip Mike Veon, who championed both the slots law and last year's legislative pay hike, now faces a primary challenge without the political benefit from either bill - other than campaign funds from gambling interests.Veon led the fight for the slot machine law and property tax reform was supposed to be its public benefit. He also championed last year's now-repealed legislative pay raise and as a result, now faces a primary challenger.

Gov. Ed Rendell, who campaigned four years ago on the promise of a 30 percent cut in property taxes, said he liked the House-Senate compromise which formed the bill and was "absolutely stunned" lawmakers didn't send it to him to sign.

Even Gov. Ed Rendell's bully pulpit couldn't stop the state House from tabling a tax reform proposal he has long supported.Rendell said he thought Democrats had a House majority in favor of the measure, noting his staff counted 88 Democrats and more than 20 Republicans who supported it out of 203 state representatives.

"In what world is zero dollars of tax relief better than $1 billion? It boggles the mind," Rendell said today.

More boggling is the fact this fiery debate is so heated now, even though it may be months before the first of 14 slots parlor licenses are issued and up to a year before the first quarters roll into a machine.

Or even longer, Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board chairman Tad Decker warned today. He said the licensing of slot-machine parlors could be delayed because police background checks on the slots suppliers are taking longer than anticipated.

Decker expressed his concern at a public meeting less than five months after police commanders and the Gaming Control Board seemingly resolved a yearlong dispute over who should perform tens of thousands of background investigations. Police have promised the completed checks by the end of May, a month behind the board's schedule.

Tad Decker, chairman of the Pennsylvania's Gaming Control Board, warned Thursday that the board is a month behind schedule on issuing slots parlor licenses.His comments also came two weeks after Michael Ray Rosenberry, an agent in the board's investigations and enforcement bureau, was arrested after officials learned his college degree came from an online diploma mill

Rosenberry, 41, of Harrisburg, was charged by state police on April 21 with two counts of false swearing and three counts of unsworn falsification, all misdemeanors.

Over in New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine is having nearly as bad a week as Rendell.

Amid soaring oil prices last week, Corzine proposed allowing gas stations to offer self-service pumping, which he estimated could save consumers up to six cents per gallon. New Jersey and Oregon are the only two states that require full-service.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine's idea to allow self-service gas pumping as a means of lowering prices went up in flames this week.But the proposal drew an outcry from angry citizens who flooded the governor's office with 1,400 phone calls and e-mails. On Tuesday, Corzine admitted defeat and dropped the idea, saying, "It doesn't seem like it's been overwhelmingly embraced."

On top of that humiliation, Corzine and state lawmakers learned today that the state will likely collect fewer tax dollars this year than originally projected.

Corzine has already drawn heat for some budget cuts he's proposed, including curtailing spending in the state's poorest schools and a new tax on each hospital bed in the state.

While New Jersey Gov. Jon Cozine is catching heat for some of his proposed spending cut amid a projected $5 billion budget deficit next year, he will probably be praised for killing lawmakers' Walking-Around-Money grant program today.However, this year's shortfall could push next year's anticipated budget deficit to $5 billion, state Treasurer Bradley Abelow said.

This in a state that has had casino gambling in Atlantic City since 1978.

Abelow said that in light of his new projections, he could not rule out moves such as cutting property tax rebates and slashing a proposed $1.3 billion contribution to the public employee pension system.

One cut Corzine can be proud of, though, is the freeze he placed in March on the $25 million left in a political slush fund state assemblymen handed outs as grants before he took office.

That's all that's left of the $128 million which once filled the Property Tax Assistance and Community Development Block Grant program lawmakers set up two years ago. The program is identical to the Community Revitalization Program grants or WAMs (Walking-Around-Money) Pennsylvania legislators have been using for decades on their pet projects and then touting as political capital.

In New Jersey, more than 80 percent of the groups that received the $100 million in grants over the past two years were from legislative districts controlled by Democrats, the Associated Press reported today.

State lawmakers blew more than $100 million on pet projects over the last two years in mostly Democratic districts, the AP reported today."It was the ultimate example of self-serving politicians using the state's coffers as their personal piggy bank," said David Robinson, an attorney from Cranford who filed a lawsuit to stop the grant program before Corzine froze its funds.

Corzine told Abelow today to stop further handouts and to deposit the remaining money into the state's treasury.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's WAM program continues unabated.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Posted 7:01 PM by

Today is white collar crime day in Philly!

Today is White Collar Crime Day in Philly. Did you embezzle, sell your office, take a kickback, steal, defraud or otherwise cheat your company or taxpayers, yet? Why not? It's the American way.Today is white collar crime day in Philadelphia. But rather than write about lawyers giving criminals in suits a better defense for their ill-gotten money, I thought I'd celebrate by focusing in on some folks keeping up our great national tradition of greed and corruption.

First off, Harrisburg lobbyist John J. O'Connell pleaded guilty today to a felony mail fraud charge stemming from his embezzlement of as much as $169,000 from Pennsylvania Law Watch, a nonprofit group he founded to lobby for tort reform, in order to pay off his gambling debts.

The mail fraud charge O'Connell, 36, of Marysville, faces has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But U.S. District Judge Sylvia Rambo postponed sentencing until the completion of a pre-sentence report, which is due by June 27.

That's when we might know if O'Connell agreed to cooperate with authorities and wear a wire while lobbying state lawmakers in exchange for leniancy.

There was one sign today that he did. The judge and prosecutor didn't make him elocute - which means the defendant has to admit his guilt by fessing up to what he did in open court for the world to hear.

Instead, he only gave "yes" or "no" responses to questions asked by Judge Rambo (Love that name!) about the plea agreement he reached with federal prosecutors in January.

O'Connell didn't speak to reporters after he left court either, but did issue a brief statement: "Today marks another step of recovery in a 20-year battle with a gambling addiction. I am sorry to all those in my life who have had to deal with a long history of erratic behavior and for the public scrutiny of the last several weeks."

Maybe it was all that on-the-job stress that forced him to bet on 13 baseball games in one day, of which he lost money on 12.

Which reminds me, Pennsylvania is still the only state in the nation not to have a lobbyist disclosure law yet in its House of Representatives. House Speaker John Perzel, who is friends with O'Connell, is working on one in secret, but it won't require lobbyists to show every meal or gift they give lawmakers or even explain why.

Contrast that to an ethics bill the U.S. House approved tonight. Republicans, acting after recent ethics scandals, voted late tonight to require prior approval of lawmakers' privately paid travel, to disclose special-interest provisions in legislation, and to require lobbyists to reveal more about their work influencing Congress. The bill passed 217-213, with only eight Democrats voting for it, because it would do little to prevent corruption abuses such as those by convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R., Calif.).

Speaking of Abramoff, the Secret Service agreed Monday to turn over White House visitor logs that will show how often the current king of Washington corruption scandals met with Bush administration officials - and with whom he met.

But presidential spokesman Scott McClellan cautioned reporters Tuesday not to "view it as a complete historical record."

Oh Jackie boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling. And so is your cell mate Bubba.Abramoff represented Indian tribes in their dealings with Washington politicians. He pleaded guilty in January in Washington to federal charges stemming from an investigation into his ties with members of Congress and the Bush administration. He also pleaded guilty to fraud charges in Miami concerning a multimillion-dollar purchase of SunCruz Casinos gambling fleet in 2000.

Administration officials have refused to say how many times Abramoff, who raised at least $100,000 for President Bush's re-election, has been to the White House. Bush has said he doesn't know Abramoff.

If Abrahamoff is the king, that makes U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay the crown prince of D.C. corruption - or at least alleged money laundering.

But DeLay raised more money to pay legal fees after abandoning any effort to return as House majority leader than he did in the immediate months following his indictment in Texas last year on money laundering charges, the Associated Press reported Monday.

Also in Washington, Mark A. Belnick, the former top attorney at Tyco International Ltd., is paying a $100,000 civil fine to settle regulators' charges involving $14 million in loans he got from the company.

Belnick was actually acquitted in July 2004 of criminal charges of stealing millions by accepting an illegal bonus and abusing company loan programs.

But thanks in part to his helpful advice, former Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski and former chief financial officer Mark Swartz were convicted of grand larceny, conspiracy, securities fraud and falsifying business records in order to loot about $600 million from company coffers.

The company itself agreed last month to pay a $50 million civil penalty to settle Securities and Exchange Commission charges that its previous management violated securities laws, cooked the books and overstated financial results by at least $1 billion from 1996 through mid-2002.

Tyco is not the only company with questionable business practices.

Being a Congressman can make you rich, so long as you don't get caught.Vernon Jackson, chief executive of the Louisville, Ky.-based telecommunications firm iGate Inc., pleaded guilty Wednesday to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to a congressman in charges stemming from an investigation of Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat.

Common Cause, a good government group of which I'm a member, asked the Justice Department on Monday to investigate whether U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla., attempted to obtain a $10 million appropriation for defense contractor Mitchell Wade in return for his financial support.

Harris is a two-term House member who is running for the Senate. However, she is best known as the state official who certified President Bush's 537-vote win in Florida in the disputed 2000 presidential election. Wade, former president of MZM Inc., admitted making $32,000 in illegal contributions to Harris' 2004 campaign for the House.

In Houston, Tx., jurors at the federal fraud trial of Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay got a glimpse Tuesday at his lavish lifestyle, including homes in Aspen, a vacation on the French Riviera and $20,000 spent on antiques in Spain. (May we all get Layed, and not in the way Enron employees did.)

However, Lay testified he used about $13 million of personal assets other than Enron shares to meet bank margin calls and other financial obligations in 2001.

Lay received a barrage of written warnings from employees questioning the energy giant's accounting integrity in the fall of 2001 but said on Monday that he was too busy trying to save the company to investigate.

Today, an accounting professor testifying for the defense said Lay did not mislead investors about the company's financial health in the weeks before it plunged into bankruptcy. Yeah, right.

Put this one in the Devil-made-him-do-it department.

A federal jury found Lynchburg, Va. Mayor Carl B. Hutcherson Jr., 62, a Methodist minister, guilty Tuesday of raiding his church's charity to pay his debts - including more than $80,000 in back taxes - with money donated by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his son.

Accountant Abraham Alexander was sentenced to up to six year in the slam for embezzling $237,000 in heart disease research funds to pay for his dominatrix. Guess he might have enjoyed the handcuffs.In New York, Abraham Alexander, the former accountant of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation, was sentenced Tuesday to two to six years in prison for embezzling $237,162 in heart disease research funds that he used to pay an Ohio dominatrix known as Lady Sage.

In Tennessee, former Hamilton County Commissioner William Cotton was ordered to report to prison by June 5. He will be serving three years for being the first government official convicted in what prosecutors called the "Tennessee Waltz" undercover corruption sting.

A jury convicted Cotton in February of conspiring with a lobbyist to extort $4,750 in bribes in exchange for supporting a resolution to benefit E-Cycle Management, a fake company created by the FBI to buy and sell used computers.

Mastering the obvious, U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar said during Cotton's sentencing, "I think the word should go out to public officials that if they are corrupt, there are serious consequences. If people think our elected officials are less than honest, they lose faith in government."

That said, please note that Cotton had faced a maximum of 40 years in prison and a $500,000 fine and that he was sentenced three weeks after former Republican state Rep. Chris Newton, who pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe, began serving a one-year sentence.

Four other current or former Tennessee state legislators also have corruption trials pending.

Guess they never learned to get rid of the evidence, unike the folks in Chicago where federal prosecutors say a newly discovered witness admits that on orders from Mayor Richard M. Daley's former patronage chief, Robert Sorich, he deleted a computer index suspected of containing politically sensitive hiring records.

The witness, an unnamed city computer operator, claims that Sorich and another man joked about throwing a hard drive into Lake Michigan, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Closer to home in New Jersey, where they know how to bury evidence and bodies, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez on Tuesday asked the the Government Accountability Office for a report on the status of federal fine collections from the oil and gas industry.

Does U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez really have the right to throw stones at the federal government's inability to collect fines on oil companies when his home state, New Jersey, cut sweetheart settlement deals last year with two companies it caught gouging gas customers?"There is no shortage of information regarding fines assessed on oil and gas companies, but it is very difficult to determine how much is actually collected," Menendez wrote in his letter to David M. Walker, the GAO comptroller general. "Particularly when oil and gas companies are making record profits, and consumoers are paying record gas prices, it is important to ensure that companies that break the law are being held accountable financially."

Menendez and the rest of the U.S. Senate will soon take up a measure that sets criminal penalties and fines of up to $150 million for energy companies caught price gouging. The legislation, receiving broad bipartisan support in the House and passed 389-34 on Wednesday.

Maybe Menendez should look at his home state first, though.

In February, Philadelphia-based Sunoco Inc. became the second oil company to settle a price gouging lawsuit brought by New Jersey authorities, agreeing to pay $325,000 but admitting no wrongdoing. Only $50,000 went to help pay heat bills for the poor. The rest went to cover investigative costs, just like all of the $315,000 BP settled a similar charge with in January.

New Jersey is making some progress, though.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on three bills (Senate Bills 67, 153 and 825) Thursday that would impose a minimum mandatory sentence of imprisonment and require the forfeiture of pensions and other retirement benefits for any public official, public employee or elected official convicted of public corruption.

Instead of continuing the long spiral down into a cesspool of corruption, a few folks in New Jersey's General Assembly are actually trying to toughen the state's laws."I thought it was appropriate that our first committee meeting this year on legislation deal symbolically and substantively with an issue that has been deviling New Jersey and America for many, many years. And that's public corruption," said committee chairman Sen. John H. Adler, D-Camden.

The committee is also slated to hear bills (Senate Bills 1192, 1224 and 1318) that would establish the crime of corruption of public resources, increase the statute of limitations from five to seven years for certain crimes involving political corruption, and establish a "Public Corruption Profiteering Penalty Act" to increase fines by as much as three times the value of any property involved.

I guess we can simply call that one the bonus round law.

It comes too late to prosecute Tashime Mitchell, 32, of Irvington, and Renita Livingston, 32, of Hillside. Both pleaded guilty Monday to charges that they helped a former state Department of Community Affairs senior field representative Robin Wheeler-Hicks steal more than $866,000 in public funds meant to help the homeless.

Wheeler-Hicks, 46, of Elizabeth, previously pleaded guilty to second-degree bribery and theft by deception. She admitted to submitting at least 428 false applications to the state's Homelessness Prevention Program, which provides housing and rental-assistance.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Posted 10:10 PM by

The price of vice

Where will all the slot machine quarters come from to pay for $1 billion worth of property tax relief annually in Pennsylvania? And what happens when school costs exceed the state's rake?

Is a $200 average reduction in property taxes enough to let your forgive and forget Pennsylvania lawmakers gave themselves a big fat pay raise last and then had to be forced to repeal it?Everybody has a price they say.

Incumbent legislators, many of whom will face both challengers and angry voters at the polls in two weeks, are betting that an average $200 reduction in school property taxes for homeowners in 2008 - funded by the state's share of slot machine revenues - will buy them another term.

This, after the legislators voted themselves a huge pay raise last year and were forced to repeal the pay hike after statewide outrage. Many illegally took their raises early. Some never paid the money back.

I say the lawmakers are betting because the money to pay for those property tax reductions is in no way guaranteed. Nor is there any guarantee that increased school district costs won't eat up the reduction in future years.

But in kind of a bait-and-switch built into the bill state Senators approved 40-9 on Tuesday, local voters will get the chance to decide whether they want to lower their own property taxes by another 25 percent and cap their district spending at a rate close to inflation.

The downside is while property owners would pay less, working renters would pay more by way of a new income tax.

If voters in a school district approve the referendum, any future tax increases by that district would then be limited to a rise in the wages paid to taxpayers. Homeowners would still be paying property taxes, but at the reduced rate.

"I just don't see this as the answer." state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said Tuesday, adding the measure relies too heavily on unpredictable gambling revenue and disproportionately punishes the middle-class.

The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill Wednesday.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association also criticized the bill, saying it does not fix the underlying problem of schools being forced to rely too heavily on property taxes.

The pre-election tax package "is politics. It's not policy," Tim Potts, co-founder of the legislative reform group Democracy Rising PA, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.


"Voters clearly are asking for more than a mere shift in their local taxes; they want property tax relief that is meaningful," PSBA President Lou Ann Evans told lawmakers in January. "If they simply wanted to move from one tax to another at the local level, they would have pressed their school boards to opt-in to Act 72."

That act - passed on the same night the slots bill was approved in 2004 - attempted to give school directors the choice of putting a similar referendum on the ballot and offered them the slot machine revenue as a carrot.

Fearing their future taxing power would be sapped, fewer than 100 of the 501 public school systems in the state opted to take the money and put it to a vote.

Lawmakers in other states might consider that an utter failure and call it a day. Not here in Pennsylvania. After months of wrangling, legilators merely re-made the bill, added a little money to seniors as a sweetener and then made it mandatory.

This time, the school districts won't have a choice but to ask their taxpayers what to do.

"This is not the end of the journey, this is the beginning of the journey," Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, said during Senate debate Thursday. "But something had to start somewhere."

Let's start with the slots-funded tax break.

Where will all the quarters come from to pay for $1 billion worth of tax relief annually? And what happens when school costs exceed the state's rake?The state plans to spend about 75 percent of the estimated $1 billion it may rake in annually once all 14 proposed slot machines parlors open for business next year. The rest of the money will go to a special property tax rebate program just for seniors who make less than $35,000 a year.

This tax break solely relies on the fleecing of state residents and tourists in the slots parlors to pay for itself.

For many homeowners it could be just a one shot deal - not an annual reduction.

How long the tax reduction lasts depends on how much more each school district spends in subsequent years and whether those new costs will eat up the money the slots bring in.

Each school district will get a share of the slots largesse, but with a catch - they are required to put a referendum on the May 2007 primary ballot.


The referendum will ask local voters if they want to switch up to 25 percent of their school district's property tax revenue to either an earned income and net profits tax or a personal income tax.

That means retired homeowners would get a continuous break on their taxes largely at the expense of working renters - and in an aging state like Pennsylvania, the burden would continue to grow on the younger folks.

Is it just me, or do you get the feeling slot machines are being jammed down our throats - and they're supposed to be the sweetener before the medicine of tax relief?If the voters approve, the district would then be limited in how much it could raise the new income tax based on the increase in statewide wages as calculated by the state and federal labor departments.

By law, the new tax could only climb as fast as taxpayers might be able to pay it.

The net effect is school districts could not afford large future hikes in teachers' salaries unless taxpayers could afford to pay for the contract.

The bill doesn't say that. But it's pretty obvious that's its intent.

Up to 70 percent of any school district's expenses are personnel and teachers make the most money in total out of all school employees. They also have a politically powerful union.


All of this is ironic, considering Pennsylvania voters never got the chance to say whether they wanted slot machine gambling in the first place.

Instead, key lawmakers - perhaps working in collusion with the state Supreme Court in exchange for an increase in judges' salaries - snuck the huge slots law into a tiny unrelated bill then forced it to the floor without any public debate on the eve of the July 4 holiday weekend in 2004.

Did the state Supreme Court act in collusion with the Legislature to get the slots law passed in exchange for judicial raises?When anti-casino groups sued, the state Supreme Court upheld the slots law despite obvious Constitutional and procedural violations.

As for the current tax "relief" bill, it's a compromise reached by state Reps. Lynn Herman, David Steil, and Michael Veon, and state Senators David "Chip" Brightbill, Eric Erickson and Robert Mellow, after months of debate left the Legislature at an impasse.

The bill spells out precisely what each school district must do if voters approve the refendum, prohibits them from using school funds to campaign for or against the referendum and even sets a fine for the misuse of anyone's income tax records.

Wrongful disclosure and/or publication of such personal information would be punishable by up to a $1,000 fine, a year in jail and the offender "may be removed from office or discharged from employment."

The bill does not say what happens if voters shoot the referendum down.


Monday, May 01, 2006
Posted 10:03 PM by

Happy May Day

It's Missing Monday and May Day to boot. Accordingly, I submit that what's really missing in this country is a sense of social contract between employers and employees.

Greetings my corporate brothers,

Workers of the corporate world unite; you have nothing to lose but your vacation, health insurance, pension, child care, 401(k) match, overtime....On this, the 180th anniversary of the great Haymarket riot of 1886, I wish to report that the eight-hour workday is still very much intact - as long as you're a part-timer and don't want any benefits.

But if any of you bloody leeches on the body of our beloved corporation are full-timers parisitically wasting our company's largesse on such unnecessary things as "health insurance," please note you must deduct the time of this meeting from your blue time cards, but not your client's TPS report.

I remind you that only meetings at the executive level count as work beneficial to our company. However, all meetings are beneficial to our clients. And please remember to make up the lost time or deduct it from your vacation hours.

As noted in my e-mail last month, vacation time is now entirely at the discretion of executives and their annual bonus will be partly based on how well they do in reducing FTE cost.

Also as noted, our company no longer pays overtime.

On to new business.

In accordance with our Chief Financial Officer's orders, the corporate match for your 401(k) this year will change from 3-to-1, to 6-to-1. That means for every six dollars you put in, the corporation will generously match you $1.

To qualify, all new contributions this year must be added to the program's unsecured corporate common stock option which helps us fend off any possible buyouts from our rivals.

On a related note, the CFO says he expects the company will soon no longer have any obligations under its former pension plan as the few retirees left who qualified for it have had their lifetime health benefits terminated.

He plans a small celebration at his new home in Florida for anyone at the vice presidential level or above. Rumors that he bought there, instead of near corporate headquarters, because tax laws in that state do not allow for seizures of homes, are simply not true.

Our corporate CFO wishes to thank employees for their contributions to the 401(k) program under the unsecured corporate common stock option.One final note, the Chief Technology Officer reports a sudden increase in employees abusing their Internet privileges to go to the Web site As a result, all Web access is temporarily restricted until such time as that site's Web and IP addresses can be blocked by our corporate router.

That should take about a week or so now that we've outsourced all Information Systems work to India.

Please refer to your Hindi-to-English dictionary should you have the need to call our new help desk.

Time is money, so get back to work.

LAST MONTH: Have you seen these women?

Remember, you can't spell liberalism without Ralis.


Sunday, April 30, 2006
Posted 10:30 PM by

A stickler for details

Why does Pennsylvania even bother to have a state Constitution anymore if the courts can preempt or ignore it and then not tell us why?

A federal judge ruled Friday that Allegheny County could use new voting machines in the May 16 primary, even though voters argued that the move might risk chaos. Try finding the judge's decision online, though, and you're out of luck.U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Lancaster on Friday struck down the last court case that could prevent Allegheny County from purchasing new electronic voting machines and using them on election day.

Plaintiffs, including seven Allegheny County residents and People for the American Way, a liberal group based in Washington, D.C., had claimed the switch to Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software Inc's iVotronic machines risked chaos because of the lack of time to train election officials and educate voters on the new system.

But Lancaster said voters and poll workers should have no trouble and that the county election office has "a proactive and well-organized plan" for educating voters before the May 16 election.

"Contrary to plaintiff's assertions, a demonstration in the courtroom showed voting on the iVotronic is not at all complicated," Lancaster said.

I'd love to link you to his decision, but none of Lancaster's decisions have been posted online for the public to read at the District Court Web site since 2003.

When Westmoreland County elections officials tried to buy the very same voting machines months ago, the resulting lawsuit touched off a statewide firestorm.

The case worked its way up to the Commonwealth Court, where Judge Dan Pellegrini issued a well researched 29-page opinion on Feb. 13 in support of an injunction against the purchase of the new machines even though it might cost the county federal grant money.

His reasoning was pretty simple: Both the state Constitution and state election code clearly require any change in voting machines to be approved by a majority of voters in a referendum using the old method or machines.

"Even if the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Election Code are not preempted and a vote of the Electors is required, the Board of Elections and the Secretary contend, nonetheless, that a permanent injunction should not be granted because more harm would come from granting the injunction than refusing it," Pellegrini wrote. "The harm they allege is that they have already received federal funding for the purchase of the electronic voting system and they may lose that funding if they do not purchase electronic voting machines for use in the 2006 May primary. They also argue that if they cannot change Westmoreland County's voting machines, it would be burdensome on election officials, cause added expense and cause some confusion on the part of the voters, either to have paper ballots or separate elections machines for state elections, while having to maintain the current system. While there may be some confusion among voters and additional costs certainly will be imposed, what those arguments ignore is that the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Election Code require a referendum."

Westmoreland County appealed to the state Supreme Court, which promptly reversed Pellegrini's decision on March 2 with a one-page ruling, but promised to file a full opinion later.

On Tuesday, it will be two months since the state Supreme Court let counties buy new voting machines in violation of state election code and the Constitution. The justices have yet to tell the public why they did it.Tuesday will mark two months since the date of that decision. Yet, no full opinion from the court detailing its reasons for overturning Pellegrini's injunction has yet been filed and placed online for the citizens of Pennsylvania to read.

The state's highest court does not allow its sessions to be televised, much less its deliberations.

So, the least the justices could do when reversing the state Constitution and a lower court's order of this much public import with this many millions of dollars on the line - not to mention a statewide primary election - is to give us all the reasoning behind their decision in a timely manner.


This Week's Rants | The Daily Rant Archives

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.