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

Saturday, September 16, 2006
Posted 11:05 PM by

Most thieving Pa. lawmakers won't repay early raise

Pennsylvania state Rep. Frank Oliver says he won't return the extra money he took in unvouchered expenses last year to taxpayers even though the state Supreme Court ruled it illegal."Why should I return it? I worked for it. ... I know I deserve it. We're underpaid as it is."

That comment is not from any of the 754,000 workers in Pennsylvania earning just the minimum wage, who will finally see their hourly pay lifted to $6.15 on Jan. 1 - after 10 years at $5.15.

It's what state Rep. Frank L. Oliver, a Democrat who represents North and West Philadelphia, told the Philly Inquirer for today's edition when asked if he would repay the illegal raise he and other lawmakers took last year.

Oliver simply glossed over the fact that unlike those on minimum wage, all state lawmakers have received automatic cost of living adjustments that pushed their pay from $55,800 in 1996 to $72,182 this year.

This at a time when 90 percent of Pennsylvania workers have actually seen their wages fall, 494,000 have lost their employer-provided health insurance over the last six years, millions of private sector workers have lost guaranteed pensions (I'm one of them), and 6 percent of the state's 12.4 million residents are earning just the minimum wage. (That percentage would be even higher if I could narrow down the population figure to just those old enough for full-time employment and not disabled.)

By comparison, Pennsylvania lawmakers are completely vested in their pension program after only five years in office and are eligible to retire at age 50. They also get lifetime health insurance for their entire family after just 10 years in office, a free rental car and a per-diem to cover their travel costs and meals - all at taxpayers' expense.

Oliver's arrogance illustrates that of 30 other area legislators, all of whom said they would not repay the pay raise they took as "unvouchered expenses" last year despite a state Supreme Court finding on Thursday that the extra pay was illegal.

State Rep. Thomas C. Corrigan Sr. (D., Bucks) went so far as to hang up on a reporter when asked whether he would return the extra money he wrongly collected.

In fact, of 32 lawmakers contacted by the newspaper, only two - Sen. Michael J. Stack III (D., Phila.) and former Rep. Alan Butkovitz (D., Phila.) - said they planned to reimburse the state.

As I said yesterday, the rest of the white collar criminals should be prosecuted for theft by state Attorney General Tom Corbett even though the court said they didn't have to pay it back.

Why rule it illegal then?

I'm not the only one who feels that way, either.

"I think it really puts pressure on individuals who took the unvouchered expenses to pay it back," Chris Borick, director of Muhlenberg College's Institute of Public Opinion, told the Bucks County Courier Times.

Thirty-eight lawmakers who are up for re-election have kept the money, and another 21 retiring lawmakers either kept it or donated it to charity and will get a pension boost, that paper reported.

My favorite quote of the day came from Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, who said, "The court had an opportunity to heal a lot of public cynicism about government in Pennsylvania and instead they made it worse. Now people are saying judges are just as crooked as politicians."

The House Office of the Comptroller said it will provide an updated list Monday of who has paid the money back, the Inquirer reported. The Senate Office of the Chief Clerk did not respond to calls for a similar update.


Friday, September 15, 2006
Posted 11:11 PM by

Twisted logic, no justice in Pa. pay raise ruling

It's time for pay back. Any Pennsylvania lawmakers who fail to return their unvouchered expenses should be prosecuted for theft.

Any Pennsylvania lawmaker who refuses to return unvouchered expenses should be prosecuted for theft.Pennsylvania lawmakers illegally robbed the state treasury when they took their raises early last year in the form of "unvouchered expenses" they charged to taxpayers, the state Supreme Court ruled this week.

The justices found the state constitution bars the legislators from voting themselves a pay raise mid-term. Lawmakers are only allowed to approve a raise for the next legislative session, which means they were not entitled to it unless they win reelection.

However, the raises for lawmakers, executive branch officers and all judges in the state was repealed on Nov. 16.

Yet, the court stopped short of saying the 158 of 253 lawmakers who took unvouchered expenses had to repay the money they stole.

Some have already.

No one is really sure how many, though. It's hard enough just trying to take a peek at how much money lawmakers spend normally.

State Rep. Russell H. Fairchild told the Associated Press today he plans to honor a pledge he made to return the more than $4,000 in unvouchered expenses if they were declared unconstitutional. He already has donated that amount to charity, so the move will cost him money.

"For me, this just clears up the issue and allows me to keep my commitment to my constituents," Fairchild said.

As for the rest, Pennsylvanians deserve a full accounting.

I think it's high time state Attorney General Tom Corbett began an investigation into what is clearly white collar crime.

Pay back is a bitch. Anyone who doesn't return the funds should be prosecuted like the criminals they are, even if it means half of the state's incumbent lawmakers find themselves behind bars.

Meanwhile, the justices' own twisted logic may cost them dearly for years to come.

The high court also ruled their own raises were legal, noting legislators had no right to rescind their extra pay - even if it required their approval in the first place.

Senate GOP lawyer Stephen MacNett told the AP some senators have asked him to explore the possibility of introducing a constitutional amendment next year that would allow lawmakers to rescind future raises for judges. Such a change would ultimately require voter approval.

I have an even better idea.

Since neither the governor, the Legislature nor the judges in Pennsylvania can be trusted, all raises at the state level should be decided by statewide referendum.

Let the voters decide who deserves a raise. Now, that's a constituional amendment I'd endorse.


Thursday, September 14, 2006
Posted 10:23 PM by

Pa. judges give themselves a blank check

Pennsylvania Supreme Court injustices voted 5-1 to restore their own pay raise, even after the Legislature repealed it. Defying common sense and logic, the judges found lawmakers had the right to give them a pay hike, but not to take it away.Today will go down as a black day in Pennsylvania history, and I'm not talking about the weather. It will be known forever as the day thieves wearing black robes robbed state taxpayers blind.

That's because the state Supreme Court finally issued a 5-1 ruling today justifying their own illegal raises - and those of 1,000 other judges and magistrates across Pennsylvania - even though the law granting those pay hikes was overwhelmingly repealed last year by the Legislature.

Justice Ron Castille, who authored the 100-page majority opinion, noted that the "pecuniary interest implicated here would ordinarily require a judge to disqualify himself or herself from the matter."

But since no other court in America - including the entire federal court system - is legally allowed to sit in judgement, he claimd the justices were left with no choice by the "rule of necessity" to hear the three cases about the pay raise before them.

Two were from judges who demanded the extra money they had been promised. The other was from taxpayer advocate Gene Stilp, who sought to have the initial raises ruled unconstitutional.

Seizing on an arcane piece of law, the injustices decided: the Legislature has no right to cut judges' pay and can only vote to raise it, the initial law granting the raises was constitutional even though legislators failed to give it the required three days of public airing, the lawmakers violated the constitution by taking the pay raise early in "unvouchered expenses" but cannot be required to pay the money back.

Too bad the only court of last resort for this injustice is at the ballot box because Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices only have to stand for retention every 10 years.

By the time that rolls around for each of them, who is going to remember that in the process of restoring their own raises today, the black robed robbers violated the state's ethics law and the separation of powers clauses of the state constitution?

In case you do, please remember Castille and justices Sandra Schultz Newman, J. Michael Eakin, Max Baer, and Cynthia A. Baldwin voted to restore the raises.

The lone dissenting opinion was written by Justice Thomas G. Saylor.

Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy, who masterminded the whole pay raise fiasco and wrote two articles about it which were cited in the majority opinion, recused himself - like the whole court should have done.


If what a lawyer for state Democrats said today in court is true, the Pennsylvania Green Party should turn its color to red - not for communism, but in embarrassment.

Nearly one third of the 94,000 signatures gathered on behalf of U.S. Senate candidate Carl Romanelli have been called into question.Attorney Clifford Levine told Commonwealth Court Judge James R. Kelley that 29,000 of the 94,000 nominating petition signatures gathered on behalf of U.S. Senate candidate Carl Romanelli are invalid because some were from fake names, others came from unregistered voters or were illegible.

If true. that would leave the Green Party candidate at least 2,900 short of the 67,070 signatures needed by a third-party candidate to get on the statewide ballot this year.

Kelley scheduled a Sept. 25 hearing to allow Romanelli's lawyer to present evidence supporting his contention that numerous signatures deemed invalid should be accepted.


State lawmakers are calling on the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to publicly release consultant PricewaterhouseCooper's report on how much money each of 14 proposed slot-machine gambling sites is expect to raise.

But chairman Tad Decker refuses to release the report before the board issues its decision on which applicants get licenses in a couple weeks, citing the state Open Records law as his reason.

I hate to say it, but Decker has a point here. Under that law, even though the report was paid for with tax money, it doesn't become a public record until the board uses it as the basis of its decision.

I've long been a proponent of rewriting that law and the state's Sunshine/Open Meetings law to make them make sense.

A secret state report now shows Pennsylvania slot machine parlors can't possibly make as much money as initially predicted.Instead, state Rep. Tom Tangretti, D-Westmoreland, said the Legislature should amend the state's slots law to force the disclosure if the gaming board does not do it voluntarily.

Pure genius.

Why should you give a damn about any of this?

A 23-page portion of the study obtained by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review projects that slot machines at The Meadows horse racing track in suburban Pittsburgh would make $118.8 million a year - less than half the $236.6 million projected by the owners of The Meadows.

That means the state stands little chance of making the $1 billion in projected revenue required to give the average Pennsylvania homeowner a $200 break in school property taxes, which was the selling point of legalizing slot machines in the first place.

How soon will it be then that those 13 slots parlors ask to become full fledged casinos?

Remember, I'm on record as predicting they start pushing for it within three years of the first license being issued.


Finally, some good news - at least for anybody who uses electricity in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Nosey New Jersey regulators nixed the proposed merger between Exelon and PSEG, which would have created the nation's largest electric company. Thanks New Jersey!Exelon and PSEG have scrapped their plans to become the nation's biggest electric company in an $18 billion merger after New Jersey regulators started asking too many damn questions about how it would eventually impact customers.

I wish Pennsylvania regulators, who are supposed to be promoting electric competition instead of a monopoly, had taken the time to be as thorough. But they pretty much approved it as the companies requested.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Posted 11:17 PM by

Slots of forces at play in Pa.

The race is on between the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board handing out slots parlor licenses and state legislators who want to rewrite the law before anyone gets a license.It's hard to express any surprise that Pennsylvania gambling regulators have given a green light to a slots parlor application for Philadelphia Park's horse racing track.

Work at the track's grandstand has been underway for months to make room on the top floors for 2,100 slot machines.

It started even before the Gaming Control Board, in a hearing Tuesday on the track's casino-license application, said it found nothing objectionable in the backgrounds of the track's ownership, or its financial and operational history, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

That's despite the fact that the track and slots parlor in Bensalem will be owned by Watche "Bob" Manoukian, a Lebanese businessman considered one of the wealthiest men in the United Kingdom.

I'm uncomfortable with the idea that a foreigner will be benefiting the most from Pennsylvanians pumping their life savings into machines.

I'm even more unfortable with the fact that Pennsylvanians with felony convictions from more than 15 years ago can legally own a slots parlor too.

Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheny, wants to change that.

At a hearing on proposed changes to the slots law, Orie said it should be strengthened to prohibit slots licenses from going to applicants with "certain" felony convictions.

I disagree with that idea too. It's too vague.

Although not all felons and felonies are the same, where should the line be drawn?

The issue is only apparent because Dunmore businessman and slots hopeful Louis DeNaples, who plans to turn the former Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos into a casino, has a felony conviction dating back to 1978.

But after he gave more than $1 million between 2000 and 2005 to the state's top politicians - including Gov. Ed Rendell and Attorney General Tom Corbett - the slots law was written to grandfather him in.

While some state's ban felons from ever voting again - let alone contribute to political campaigns, Pennsylvania wipes their slate clean after just four years.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Posted 8:17 PM by

Jubelirer's got (golf) balls, if not brains

Who gave outgoing state Sen. Bob Jubelirer $500 each on Monday to play golf, why and what will Jubelirer do with the campaign money now that he's been ousted?Somebody better tell Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer he lost in the May primary because he's still raising money for his campaign war chest.

Now, I could understand this if the Friends of Bob Jubelirer, the Republican's political committee, ran up a debt while he lost to a political newcomer after apologizing to his constituents for being one of the primary pushers of last year's now-repealed legislative pay raise.

But Bob's campaign was $85,780 in the black after the primary, state records show.

So why did the once-politically astute Jubelirer hold a $500-a-head golf tournament/fundraiser at the Scotch Valley Country Club in Hollidaysburg on Monday - on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, of all days?

"I don't know that there was any particular thought given to it," Jubelirer press secretary David Atkinson told the Philadelphia Inquirer today. "It wasn't as though he was thinking there was anything disrespectful."

But Eric Epstein, coordinator of, told the paper, "A golf tournament next door to where Flight 93 crashed is untimely, misguided, and ill-advised."

I might add that the very fact that a LAME DUCK legislator is still raising funds he doesn't need is disrespectful.

What nobody has asked so far is what will Bob be doing with the money he's raising since he no longer has to seek reelection?

Will he spend it on himself and his political cronies, I'm sorry I mean legislative aides, like House Speaker John Perzel?

Will he play kingmaker with it like Former Lt. Gov. William Scranton III?

Will he take trips to exotic warm locales this winter to ponder his political future?

All are perfectly legal "campaign expenses" under Pennsylvania election law, or should I say the lack of it.

An even bigger question is what are the folks who plunked down $500 each getting for their money during Jubelirer's final months in office?



Monday, September 11, 2006
Posted 10:50 PM by

My pet scapegoat

George Bush's credibility crumbled with the towers on Sept. 11, 2001.It's hard to believe it's been five years since 9/11.

That's five years of nearly continuous lies designed to obscure federal incompetence, complacency and ignorance that let the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history occur.

Now, we're being told President George Bush was thinking only of the children when he sat in a classroom and read "The Pet Goat" for five minutes after he was told a second plane had struck the World Trade Center.

Give me a break.

He sat there like a bump on a log because he didn't know what to do. Meanwhile, poorly informed but heroic passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 above Pennsylvania acted.

Flash forward four years later.

Bush's administration is given nearly five days advance warning that Katrina, a category five hurricane, appeared headed directly into New Orleans.

Bush and Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - our country's last line of civil defense, could have ordered an emergency evacuation of the city beneath the sea.

They could have worked with the mayor and the governor to make sure everyone got out of the destructive path.

They could have had emergency supplies and shelters set up in advance.

Instead, Bush and Brown did nothing.

The levees broke.

An American city and 1,000 people drowned.

Heckuva job, guys. So much for Homeland Security.

President Bush's inaction will become legendary in 15 years when historians a generation removed from 9/11 write the first real draft of history.Now, we're told that five years after 9/11 America is "safer", but not yet safe, that the country is destined to be hit again and that we're fighting terrorists in Iraq - in a war unrelated to 9/11 - to keep them from coming here.

Somehow, I don't feel any safer.



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