IN RECENT SCANDALS involving Pennsylvania lawmakers, it's bad enough that public officials illegally squandered state funds to pay for expenses in their election campaigns. But there has been a hefty, additional price tag: multimillion-dollar legal bills for the private lawyers paid with taxpayer money in response to mounting investigations.
Even after guilty verdicts in more than two-dozen cases known collectively as Bonusgate and Computergate, the state has been left holding an estimated $15 million tab for legal advice that – at least in the spirit of a 1996 anticorruption law – should have been repaid by the pols being packed off to jail.
As a recent Inquirer investigation revealed, though, the state Attorney General's Office – under Linda Kelly and Gov. Tom Corbett before her – for years has taken a narrow view of the state's reach under the law mandating reimbursement for legal fees.
The stance, for the most part, has been that much of the outside lawyering was devoted to defending the state Legislature's institutional interests, rather than to shield officials later found to be corrupt. As such, the officials contend the fees are not recoverable.
That view is disputed by some legislative insiders, and by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who called the institutional theory "nonsense" in the recent corruption conviction of Republican former state Sen. Jane C. Orie, who was ordered to repay the state.
What appears to be a gaping loophole in the 1996 law has left the state with legal bills stemming from federal corruption cases as well, including that of jailed former state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and disgraced former Philadelphia City Councilman Rick Mariano. In the Fumo case, the Senate's tab was $1.2 million. For Mariano, city taxpayers were stuck with $82,000 paid toward his extortion defense.
Of course, were it not for the corrupt acts that trigger such investigations, there would be no legal expenses – and that argues for lawmakers to close the loophole.
Even after guilty verdicts in more than two-dozen cases known
collectively as Bonusgate and Computergate, the state has been left holding an
estimated $15 million tab for legal advice …
The Philadelphia Inquirer