Corbett, opponents try to top one another with gift ban

The next governor of Pennsylvania might have to look the gift horse in the mouth.

After a string of apparent ethics violations across two branches of state government, Gov. Tom Corbett and the various Democratic candidates hoping to defeat him in November are speaking out in favor of a gift ban and other changes to state laws regarding ethics rules for public officials.

Pennsylvania law allows just about any kind of gift to be given to any state official, as long as presents valued at more than $250 are reported once per year. The annual gift disclosures filed by state lawmakers and members of the executive branch frequently turn up gifts ranging from jewelry to tickets to sporting events to all-expense-paid vacations, but even more blunt offerings like envelopes of cash are technically legal.

Corbett thinks that last part needs to be changed.

“Especially in light of recent allegations, a full ban on cash gifts is in order,” said Bill Pitman, a spokesman for the governor’s re-election campaign. “The governor supports full transparency and will work with the Legislature to review and update the rules on the books in order to restore the people’s trust in their government.”

It’s a good time to be talking to voters about ending cash gifts. Just three weeks ago it was revealed that four state lawmakers were caught on camera accepting cash and other gifts like jewelry from an informant for the state attorney general’s office who was posing as a lobbyist.

No charges have been brought because the attorney general dropped the case for a variety of reasons, including questions about whether the evidence would have been admissible in court.

At the same time, the state Ethics Commission finalized an investigation into former members of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, who accepted typical political gifts like free golf outings and expensive liquor from vendors doing business with the state.

Again, no charges have been filed.

But even without criminal charges, the news has caused public outrage at apparently corrupt state officials.

Corbett’s proposal of a ban on cash gifts would only close part of the state’s problem with ethically challenged officials. Other candidates are calling for different approaches.

Tom Wolf, the York County businessman who currently leads the Democratic primary field, would institute a full ban on gifts to members of his staff and wants to change the state disclosure law so all gifts of more than $25 to elected officials have to be reported.

Mark Nicastre, Wolf’s campaign spokesman, called Corbett’s cash-gift ban “a half measure.”

“Of course, public servants shouldn’t take cash, but we need a more comprehensive policy to restore the public’s trust in government,” he said. “We need to change the culture of Harrisburg and give Pennsylvania a fresh start, and we can’t do it with half-measures.”

In fact, Wolf was ahead of the curve on this one. He proposed those changes in January, before the recent run of unethical gift-giving was made public something his campaign has been more than happy to point out in the last two weeks.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-13th District, another Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, announced her own ethics reform plan, which includes a ban on gifts for executive branch employees and a new cabinet-level official known as a chief integrity officer, who would be responsible for promoting ethics and integrity in state government.

She would also work with the Legislature on crafting a ban on gifts for all state employees, including members of the state legislature.

But Schwartz has received free travel from nonprofits and trade groups on several occasions – including trips to San Diego and Rio de Janero within the past year – according to documents filed as part of the stricter congressional ethics and travel reporting requirements.

Rob McCord, the state treasurer and another Democratic hopeful, supports a gift ban for public officials and says the state should place limits on campaign contributions.

“Treasurer McCord believes that any elected official who takes cash or gifts with the intention of enriching themselves and not reporting it is engaging in an act of corruption and should be held accountable,” said Mark Nevin, a campaign spokesman. “Elected officials should be held to a higher, not a lower, standard of ethics.”