Pa. lawmakers report $83K in travel on annual ethics disclosures

Pennsylvania's Capitol Building in Harrisburg (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania)

Pennsylvania state lawmakers' newly filed ethics forms show they accepted more than $83,000 in free trips last year and collected a variety of gifts, booze and free meals.

That's just the value that lawmakers reported, and they are not required to disclose everything they accept in a state that does not limit gifts to public officials.

Travel funded by third parties took legislators to Taiwan, Israel and destinations around the United States, from Seattle to Key West, Florida.

The trips were to attend meetings primarily organized by groups that push ideological agendas.

"It's more prudent for us to not waste taxpayer money when there are people within the industry who are willing to finance something like this," said Rep. Matt Dowling, R-Fayette, who detailed costs for the 2020 Vision Summit, a regional tourism event he organized.

For the event, Dowling reported that a lobbying firm provided $2,100 for dinner for 29 guests, a local tourism agency paid $900 to rent a bus and a law firm kicked in $500 for alcohol.

The February 2018 swearing-in of Rep. Austin Davis, a McKeesport Democrat who won a special election, was made a little more special with $1,000 from Pittsburgh law firm Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney, which has an extensive lobbying operation. A spokeswoman for the firm said the cost was then split among lobbying clients.

Rep. Jordan Harris of Philadelphia, the House Democratic whip, disclosed a $11,400 trip to Israel, free entry to a club in Philadelphia and concert tickets he doled out to constituents.

House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, took a separate trip to Israel through the Jewish Federation. He reported a $2,000 subsidy. An aide said he paid the rest with personal funds.

The Pennsylvania Legislature does not limit how much lawmakers and other public officials can accept from lobbyists and others. Gifts of at least $250 in the aggregate must be reported, unless the person giving it is a friend or family member. Lawmakers also must report transportation, lodging or hospitality expenses that add up to at least $650.

Most states limit the amount of gifts lawmakers can take, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a gift ban on the executive branch under his authority after taking office in 2015. 

Bills pending in the House and Senate would ban many types of gifts and travel, with exceptions. Such legislation has been introduced in prior legislative sessions -- and then ignored.

Advocates of gift ban legislation were arrested this month after they threw dollar bills printed with "bribe" from the state House gallery and chanted, "Stop taking bribes!" 

Harris defended the status quo, saying get-togethers such as lobbyist-paid meals can help fuel negotiations among lawmakers on important matters.

"There's a tension at the meeting table that doesn't happen at the dinner table," Harris said. "And it's because of that that people are actually able to get things done."

Unlike prior years, the forms covering 2018 contained almost no reporting of free tickets to professional or major college sporting events, although some may not have met the reporting threshold amount. Rep. Sue Helm, R-Dauphin, was an exception, noting she got five tickets worth $355 to watch the Penn State Nittany Lions beat the Rutgers Scarlet Nights in football last fall.

Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia, reported collecting 10 tickets to an auto show worth $300 from a car dealer. He said the tickets were used by his staff and their family members, but this week he established a new policy to refuse most gifts, including car show tickets.

Republican lawmakers from the area around Penn State, House Majority Whip Kerry Benninghoff and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, both reported awards worth several hundred dollars from the university. Benninghoff received the Friend of Penn State Legislative Award, worth $380, and Corman was given an alumni award valued at $375 and dinner for himself and family members worth nearly $1,800.

Many lawmakers reported outside sources of income, which is legal.

Rep. David Millard, R-Columbia, got lucky at two casinos and reported slot machine winnings, although he declined to say how much he won.

Some also disclosed debts, although the reports themselves do not include amounts.

Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, reported a personal loan to her from then-Sen. Scott Wagner when Bartolotta won her seat in 2014. Bartolotta said the $100,000 loan, at 5 percent interest, has mostly been repaid.

Freshman Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell said her debt to the Internal Revenue Service is now about $50,000.

Johnson-Harrell said the debt goes back more than a decade, from a business she had helping people with special needs. Johnson-Harrell, D-Philadelphia, said an accountant advised her that if she had appealed in time, she would not have owed anything.