The constellation of great moments in senatorial oratory — “Liberty and union, now and forever”; “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”; “The moral test of government is how it treats … the needy” — has gained a star: “I am the f-ing senator. I do what the f- I want.”
So declared state Sen. LeAnna Washington, according to grand jury testimony, when an aide boldly advised her to heed the laws of the commonwealth.
In another unguarded moment, Washington allegedly lamented that due to an investigation by the state attorney general, she would “probably have to resign.” Now that the grand jury has provided a detailed and damning account of the Cheltenham Democrat’s alleged misuse of state resources, Washington should consider her own advice and at least abandon her re-election bid.
A two-decade veteran of the Legislature representing parts of Northwest Philadelphia and Montgomery County, Washington is contesting the charges, which her lawyer has blamed on a “disgruntled” employee. The trouble with that defense is that no fewer than seven of the senator’s employees, disgruntled or otherwise, testified to the grand jury.
The resulting tragicomic report hearteningly suggests that the parade of Pennsylvania legislators and aides convicted of similar abuses in recent years has not gone entirely unnoticed in Harrisburg. Many of Washington’s employees knew the rules, and at least one tried to ensure that they were followed. Onetime chief of staff Sean McCray, having received ethics training, allegedly confronted the senator about using state resources to raise campaign money, provoking the profane rejoinder.
Sadly, the jurors also allege that the senator herself appeared to know the law but broke it willfully. And no amount of vigorous law enforcement or rigorous staff training can stop an official bent on wrongdoing.
Washington, who has told a harrowing personal story of surviving domestic abuse, has advocated for victims of violence and taken public stands on ethics, even refusing the infamous legislative pay raise of 2005. But testimony to the grand jury depicts the senator as proud and petty in private, quick to punish employees who resisted her demands.
One of her most preoccupying requirements, the jurors allege, was that her state-paid staff — on state time, in state offices, and with state equipment — orchestrate an annual fund-raising extravaganza coinciding with the senator’s birthday. The planning stretched from February through July, occupying most of one staffer’s time and much of others’ for weeks, at an estimated cost to the state of $30,000 to $100,000 or more since 2005. The senator reportedly showed meticulous interest, down to the color of the napkins, the use of a bubble machine, and the song that would accompany her grand entrance. (May we suggest “You’re So Vain”?)
That Washington and her aides are accused of devoting so much attention to this affair — even as the senator missed nearly a third of voting days over the past two years — suggests rampant legislative bloat.
It also portends the latest indictment of Philadelphia’s Democratic machine, of which Washington is a creature. A former Parking Authority employee, she first won both her House and Senate seats in special elections, allowing Democratic ward leaders to all but grant her the office. One could say it’s no way to choose a (expletive) senator.
The Philadelphia Inquirer