HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania law requiring convicted public officials to reimburse the treasury for taxpayer-funded legal help has been little used, a newspaper reported.
The Philadelphia Inquirer says its review of court and legislative documents and interviews with attorneys and officials says taxpayers have not been reimbursed despite the 1996 mandate. Even if the law had been aggressively applied, loopholes mean that millions would still have been left uncovered, the paper said.
Harrisburg officials are supposed to be covered in matters involving their official jobs, a not uncommon practice by governments. They aren't covered in the case of private issues, such as a drunken-driving arrest. The Legislature covers legal bills only while officials are being investigated, and officials must pay for their own defense once criminal charges are filed.
But the paper said the heavy spending in Harrisburg is unusual, estimating that of the $15 million paid in the last five years, the state House spent more than $10 million hiring defense lawyers to address sweeping investigations begun by former attorney general Tom Corbett, now governor. The state Senate spent another $4 million to respond to federal indictments of four state senators, the paper said, adding that its figures are only estimates.
The paper said some prosecutors and critics cite flaws in the law, for example, the fact that it doesn't apply to money spent defending legislators facing state Ethics Commission investigations, even when the officials are found to have violated ethics rules.
Lawmakers have also imposed no limit on hourly rates or caps on total spending per official, leading to, for example, a $134,000 bill for defense attorneys for just one state representative, the paper said. Retrieving the money is mainly the responsibility of the state attorney general, but the paper said the payback requirement has gone unused in case after case.
Representatives for Corbett and Attorney General Linda Kelly, who has pursued cases Corbett left behind, told the paper on Friday that the statute didn't apply to their cases. Corbett's spokesman, Kevin Harley, said prosecutors had been assured by defense lawyers who had represented legislators and aides that taxpayer money had been spent only on such matters as protecting legislative privacy issues and responding to subpoenas — not in criminal defense.
Kelly's spokesman, Nils Frederiksen, echoed those arguments and said money spent on defense attorneys had not been used "improperly." He didn't rule out the office invoking the law in the future, saying officials were "monitoring" the federal corruption prosecution of former State Sen. Robert J. Mellow, the Lackawanna County Democrat awaiting sentencing. Under the law, the attorney general is to seek reimbursement of legal fees in federal cases by filing suit in state court.