HARRISBURG — Party leaders in the Pennsylvania House imposed a ban Wednesday on most types of cash gifts in response to recent allegations that some state representatives accepted cash from a confidential informant in a criminal investigation.
The House Bipartisan Management Committee adopted a new ethics rule that prohibits cash gifts, although money from specified close family members and non-lobbyist friends is allowed, and the document said members can continue to accept campaign contributions that are “otherwise authorized by law.”
The one-page “action in writing” was approved by the committee, which consists of the House speaker and the floor leaders and whips of both parties. Violations would fall under the Legislative Code of Ethics and could result in a civil action by the attorney general.
A spokesman for Republican House Speaker Sam Smith said the policy change was made in response to reports in The Philadelphia Inquirer that four House members — all Democrats from Philadelphia — accepted payments from a lobbyist wearing a wire for state prosecutors.
No charges have been filed as a result, because Attorney General Kathleen Kane has said the investigation she inherited was too badly flawed to pursue. Kane has said about eight people accepted a total of more than $20,000 from the informant.
Current law lets Pennsylvania lawmakers and the governor accept any amount of gifts, dinners, trips, event tickets and the like from anyone, although they could result in a conflict-of-interest investigation. They must report travel, lodging and hospitality costs from one source of more than $650 annually or gifts worth at least $250 per year from any source.
Taking anything of value in return for official action or judgment is illegal. Executive branch employees may not accept anything from anyone with a financial stake in government.
Pennsylvania has one of the weakest policies in the country when it comes to lawmakers accepting gifts, said Barry Kauffman with Common Cause of Pennsylvania, an organization that supports a gift ban.
“Each state’s components of their gift laws are a little different. However, everything goes in Pennsylvania,” Kauffman said. “We’re at the bottom end when it comes to protecting the public and the government from the undue influence of gift giving.”
A Senate Republican spokesman said that a proposed law and a rule banning cash gifts are expected to be introduced in the coming days, and the chamber could consider them as early as next week.
Gov. Tom Corbett, speaking at a Harrisburg hotel on Wednesday after addressing an early childhood learning conference, said he supported a cash gift ban.
“I was stunned that somebody would actually accept cash and if they just reported it would be OK,” Corbett said. “Certainly that can’t be allowed. Or gift cards.”
Kane released a statement calling it long overdue to strengthen ethics for the state’s elected officials.
“Frankly, the notion that any amount of cash could be legally given as a ‘gift’ further erodes the public’s trust in their government,” she said. “I strongly support the effort to address this issue.”
In a related issue, Kane also said she supported efforts by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, along with The Associated Press and others, to unseal criminal records in a case involving the confidential informant who worked with her office’s investigation of cash gifts to state lawmakers. The records at issue are filed in county court in Harrisburg.
“All of the facts will show the public that this investigation left over from three previous administrations was critically flawed and could not have been prosecuted,” she said.
Last week, House leaders wrote to the ranking members of the House Ethics Committee to promise the committee will have adequate resources, a sign the secretive panel has taken up the cash gift ban issue.
Smith’s spokesman, Steve Miskin, said the ban may not be the last change as a result of the scandal, but it was considered something that could be done immediately.
“Anything further should be a discussion by the entire body,” Miskin said.
The notice will be sent to all members and staff, he said.
“About every member that I spoke to was shocked that it was ever acceptable,” Miskin said.
Democratic gubernatorial primary candidate Katie McGinty, speaking in the Capitol Rotunda, said the House’s new policy does not go far enough.
“If taking an envelope full of cash is wrong, clearly taking an envelope full of tickets to Tahiti is wrong, too,” McGinty said.