Monday, July 26, 2010

Put a fork in the City's Ethics Hearing Baord

Pittsburgh has an Ethics Hearing Board. It stinks. And, it stinks as to how City Council set it up and maintains its mission and adjusts its framework. The shame is big and wide and everyone in City Hall is to blame as well as those who have been on the board there. They've done next to nothing and there is no hope in sight.

So today's news of a PIC bring a new wrinkle. Let's just get rid of the City's Ethics Hearing Board. Of course the PIC isn't for real just yet. But, we do know that the Ethics Hearing Board in Pittsburgh is really bad.

Good News: Public Integrity Commission Proposed

Rep. Curt Schroder, R-Chester, today announced that he will introduce legislation to create the PA Public Integrity Commission (PIC). The PIC, which would incorporate the existing State Ethics Commission, would have new powers to root out public corruption among PA’s local, state and federal officials in all three branches of government. Click here for today’s story in the Harrisburg Patriot.

At a news conference in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Schroder said, “Our freedoms and liberties, guaranteed and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, are under attack and the threat is from within. The corruption that has taken root in our system of government here in Pennsylvania is a direct threat to the social contract that establishes our government subject to the consent of the governed.”

Unlike the current Ethics Commission, the new Public Integrity Commission would have a cadre of trained law enforcement personnel to “look over the shoulders” of public officials, investigate allegations of corruption and refer cases to state or local prosecutors when warranted. The PIC also would have subpoena power and the power to grant immunity in order to compel reluctant witnesses to testify in corruption cases.

Schroder began asking for co-sponsors last Wednesday and as of this writing has 28. The bill is being revised and will not have a bill number until it is formally introduced. When that happens, DR News will let you know.

Another prime sponsor is Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York. At the news conference, DePasquale made a telling observation.

“When lawmakers introduce a bill, the first question is always, ‘Why do we need this?’ With this legislation, no one is asking why. We all know why,” DePasquale said.

As if to underscore the point, the news conference occurred on the same day that two former House leaders were back in court. Former Speaker Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, and former Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver, are seeking different things from the court. At a preliminary hearing, DeWeese is arguing that he should not go on trial for allegations of using tax-funded offices and personnel for partisan political campaigns. Veon, currently serving 6 to 14 years after being convicted of using millions of tax dollars for illegal campaign activity, is in court seeking a new trial on that conviction.

Click here for an early story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the DeWeese hearing.

Independents and Education

Two other elements of the proposal warrant attention. The bill requires a nominating committee to select potential members of the commission. Both the nominating committee and the commission membership must include members who are neither Republicans nor Democrats. This gives the large percentage of voters who do not belong to the two major parties a seat at the table for the first time.

Another key feature of the PIC proposal is a requirement to educate public officials about legal and illegal conduct in office. This aspect gains new importance as defendants claim they didn’t know their actions were illegal.
Attorneys for DeWeese and others who await trial – former Revenue Secretary and Rep. Steve Stetler, D-York, and former Senate Whip Jane Orie, R-Allegheny – argue that the existing law is too vague for public officials to know what they can and can’t do. They also argue that their clients should be set free because “everyone else was doing it” and that whatever illegal activity might have occurred didn’t amount to much.
Click here for an Orie story from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The PIC proposal is not perfect, and it is likely that some lawmakers will seek to strengthen it with amendments to ban gifts and gratuities for public officials (favored by 66% of PA voters), for example. All of that will take place in a public process that citizens can watch and weigh in on.

Has your Representative co-sponsored this proposal?
If not, what are his or her objections?
If so, how will your Representative work to move the proposal through the House?

Because we are a tax-exempt non-profit organization, Democracy Rising PA does not endorse specific legislation or lawmakers. However, we can acknowledge proposals and lawmakers who make extraordinary efforts to advance higher standards of public integrity.

This PIC proposal is the only comprehensive attempt in the past five years to change the culture of corruption in the capitol. For that alone, it deserves the close attention of citizens throughout the Commonwealth.
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