Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Full Time PA Legislators Get Conflict of Interests Income . . .



The following was reported by WTAE Channel 4 on March 25, 2009.

Pennsylvania's state Legislature continues its string of bad news that started with the midnight pay raise fiasco several years ago.

After that, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency debacle, then the indictments in Bonusgate, and last week, the conviction of Sen. Vince Fumo on corruption charges.

Now, a Team 4 (WTAE) investigation advised that many of our full-time legislators in Harrisburg get outside income from private interests -- and sometimes, those interests can conflict with the public's.

Remember, we pay our state lawmakers a minimum of almost $80,000 each to represent us full-time -- but the Team 4 (WTAE) investigation found a majority of lawmakers report income from at least one other source.

And in reading through this annual financial interest statement for each state lawmaker, we also discovered something else: More than one-third of state senators and a quarter of House members sit on legislative committees that oversee the industries from which those same lawmakers reported receiving income, owning stock or serving on a board of directors.

Critics say that's a conflict of interest. But there's no law against it.

Like many of his colleagues in Harrisburg, state Rep. Ted Harhai moonlights. He works for PFBC, which is headquartered in the same Monessen building where Harhai's district office is located.

In fact, PFBC's owner, Doug Farnham, also owns the building -- so he's not only Harhai's boss, he's also his landlord, with taxpayers picking up the rent of $19,000 a year for the district office.

In a 2007 interview with Team 4 (WTAE), Farnham praised Harhai for helping to obtain public financing to develop the building.

Parsons, from 2007: "How helpful has Ted Harhai been?"

Farnham, from 2007: "Sen. Stout, Rep. Harhai, amazing help."

And while Harhai works for a coal industry company, he also this year became chairman of the House Subcommittee on Mining.

Tim Potts, Democracy Rising PA: "Excuse me? If that isn't a conflict of interest, what is?"

But it's all legal in Pennsylvania.

Reform activist Tim Potts says Harhai may be allowed by law to serve two masters, but that doesn't make it right.

Potts: "Public officials are supposed to deal with citizens business at an arm's length. We expect that. We need that, because, otherwise, how can we trust the decisions that this man is making?"

Parsons: "Jim Parsons from Channel 4 (WTAE), let me ask you a quick question."

Harhai: "No questions."

Harhai refused to answer our questions on camera, even though we called him first to ask for an appointment.

WTAE also asked Rep. Nick Kotik for an on-camera interview about his paid position on the board of directors here at the William Penn Association. It's a fraternal organization that sells life insurance and annuities to its members, and as a member of the state House of Representatives, Kotik sits on the Insurance Committee.

When Kotik refused Team 4's (WTAE) request for an on-camera interview, They showed up at a public meeting of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, where Kotik is a board member.

Parsons (WTAE): "How can taxpayers expect you to represent their interests with the insurance industry, when the insurance industry is paying you to represent theirs?"

Kotik, D-Coraopolis: "Oh, that's not -- let's do this after. I've got to get into a meeting."

Parsons (WTAE): "Well, I've already asked you for an interview. You said no. That's why I'm here."

Kotik: "I have to go in for a meeting now."

Kotik never did answer our questions on camera.

Not every lawmaker ducked us about a potential conflict of interest. State Sen. Wayne Fontana is a licensed real estate broker and also sits on the Senate Urban and Housing Committee, which passes laws affecting the real estate industry.

Fontana, D-Brookline/Beechview: "I feel like I bring some expertise to that, when it comes to legislation and those kinds of things, and I can be an advocate for landlords or tenants or whatever the case may be because I understand."

Potts: "You can call professionals in. You can ask professionals to lend you their expertise. You don't have to have it yourself, especially when it creates that kind of opportunity for abuse."

Barry Kauffman, Common Cause: "The public has a right to -- and ought to have an interest in -- what those relationships are, and how the game is being played."

Some examples of how the game is played -- and remember, it's all perfectly legal:

Bucks County Sen. Robert Wonderling sits on the Game and Fisheries Committee and lists himself as a paid employee of a company that landed a software contract with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Uniontown Rep. Tim Mahoney opened a new district office last month in Chalk Hill, Fayette County. Rent checks are going to one of the men Mahoney lists as a business partner in his annual statement of financial interest. Mahoney tells Team 4 (WTAE) the company was recently disbanded.

For years, taxpayers have been sending rent checks for Lackawanna County Sen. Robert Mellow's district office to a company owned by his wife. But Mellow never reported that until he got a divorce and assumed 50 percent ownership in the company. He didn't have to report it under the state's ethics law.

Rep. Mark Longietti sits on the House Local Government Committee and also is solicitor for Delaware Township, Mercer County, which applied for and received a state grant last year.

Lancaster County Sen. Michael Brubaker is owner of Team AG, a company that advises agricultural firms about government regulations. Brubaker also is Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Mechanicsburg Rep. Glen Grell lists himself as an attorney of counsel with Buchanan Ingersoll Rooney, a law firm with no fewer than 35 registered lobbyists in Harrisburg. There's no law against that either, even though Rep. John Maher tried and failed last month to get it outlawed.

Rep John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair: "If I can't force the house to do the simple thing of saying that legislators should not be paid by lobbyists, how much hope is there for any further progress?"

Kauffman is hopeful. He's calling on legislative leaders in Harrisburg to schedule a special session on government integrity.

WTAE spoke by phone with Sen. Rob Wonderling. He says he didn't know his employer, Bentley Systems, landed a contract with the state.

Grell tells us he is no longer employed by Buchanan Ingersoll.

Harhai and Kotik told us by phone they don't believe they have even an appearance of a conflict of interest because of their outside income.

Fontana reported on his SFI that he owns the building in Beechview where his district office is located. Team 4 (WTAE) checked with the Senate clerk's office and learned that Fontana is not charging the state any rent for that office.