Friday, July 11, 2014

Toohil says Israel trip educational, aboveboard

She says she mostly footed bill, no taxpayer dollars used, it will be reported to state.

April 16. 2013 3:55PM

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Yes, that’s state Reps. Tarah Toohil and Nick Miccarelli on a camel in Israel, and yes, part of the trip was funded through the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia – about $2,500, with the rest expected to come out of the lawmakers’ own pockets.
And yes, Toohil and Miccarelli must report the gift on state forms.
But Toohil, a freshman Republican from Butler Township, said the trip was done on her own time, was paid for mostly with her own money and “absolutely no taxpayer dollars,” and proved “highly educational” – including information on Israeli programs that address problems similar to those in her own legislative district.
The $2,500 gift from the federation will be reported, as required, on Toohil’s annual ethics form at the start of 2013.
The camel ride, Toohil said, was a brief roadside attraction near a gas station that several legislators took advantage of. She rode with Miccarelli, 32, but did not want to comment further, focusing instead on the value of the trip.
A photo of Toohil and Miccarelli, R-Delaware County, smiling and pressing against each other on a camel, was sent to The Times Leader along with allegations it was taken in Israel during a junket paid for by the Jewish Federation but not reported on Toohil’s financial interest statements.
Comments accompanying the photo also questioned why state legislators would need to take a trip to Israel on the Federation’s dime.
But Toohil, 33, stressed the trip, taken in January, was on her own time and mostly her own dime, and that there were several issues Israel is coping with that are similar to issues in her 116th district.
“For Hazleton in particular there are large immigration issues, and that’s one of the biggest issues in Israel,” Toohil said. “In Hazleton area, welfare and welfare fraud is a big issue, and in Israel they have programs where they do welfare-to-work, I was able to meet with a welfare-to-work team.
“Seniors are a huge part of my population, and in Israel they have a program in place to try to help seniors stay in their homes,” Toohil added.
Federation explanation
Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Director of Government Affairs Robin Schatz said the trips – generally offered annually to select lawmakers – are geared toward education on Israeli issues and innovations that have relevance to state and federal concerns.
“They are not lobbying trips; we do partially subsidize it,” Schatz said, adding that the federation’s contribution is typically less than half the total cost, and that it is reported to the state by the federation. Schatz backed up Toohil’s claim that the legislators don’t have to report the gift until January 2013.
“There is a huge educational component,” Schatz said. “This past year we focused on welfare to work and what innovative practices Israel is employing to get people off welfare and into training programs.”
The group also visited a leading company in electric car technology, met with the designer of a new high-tech security fence outside Jerusalem, and met with a member of the Knesset who discussed ways individual states can put pressure on Iran to curb development of nuclear weapons.
The trip did include some stops more tuned to tourists than education, including Masada, an ancient fortification where nearly 1,000 Jews committed suicide rather than surrender to a long siege by enemy forces, and the nearby Dead Sea.
It was during the trip back to Jerusalem after that visit – coming on the last of seven days in Israel – that the group stopped at a gas station where Bedouins had set up the opportunity to ride camels for a few minutes. Schatz said the Pennsylvania legislators – about nine total – did, including Toohil with Miccarelli.
Schatz also said the federation has never seen a legislator pay his or her share with state money – it has always been paid through a check or credit card.
The federation tries to pick legislators who “are on committees that are important to us, or who we would like to get to know better.”
She said she initially asked Patricia Vance, R-Cumberland County, but she was unable to make it. Schatz said she invited Toohil because “… I wanted to get to know her better.” Schatz also thought Toohil would be interested in the immigration and senior programs Israel had developed.
Asked if she felt anything specific she saw in Israel could be adapted to Pennsylvania and her district, Toohil mentioned several efforts to accomplish some of the same goals, including outreach to at-risk students and efforts to ease the burden of property taxes on seniors, but gave no specific Israeli program that could work here.
Asked about her ride on the camel with Miccarelli, she said “I’m not going to comment on that.”
Miccarelli did not return a call for comment Thursday.
Toohil’s opponent
Ransom Young, a Butler Township supervisor and Democrat vying for Toohil’s seat, said Thursday he did hear about a trip Toohil took to Israel but did not comment further.
Young did say that, if elected, he would be in favor of passing a bill that required legislators to report gifts of $250 or more within five days so that taxpayers and voters know of any type of trip.
Young said if the trip was paid for by lobbyists, he would also report back to taxpayers and voters about what he learned on the trip and how it can apply to their particular district.
Young has also distanced himself from a YouTube video with several photos that appear to show Toohil apparently at a party with items that could be marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
Toohil has said the pictures were taken a decade or more ago and that she is no longer the person in them. Young and other Democrats have criticized the video as below the belt and dirty politics by an anonymous source.
Luzerne County Republican Party Chairman Bill Urbanski joined that chorus Thursday, issuing the following statement:
“Representative Toohil has tirelessly served her constituents with honor and distinction. She has an exemplary record of accomplishment as a legislator and has brought a much needed, fresh and energized approach to the State House. We all should be proud of her dedicated work there.
“We join with the Luzerne County Democratic Party in condemning this belly-crawling effort to embarrass our young legislator. The Luzerne County Republican Party proudly stands behind Representative Toohil and reaffirms our support for the re-election of this distinguished public servant.”
Staff writer Sheena Delazio contributed to this story.

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