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June 15, 2014

Capital of sleaze: Harrisburg gains rep for corruption

HARRISBURG — This capital is more corrupt than most, researchers seem to agree, though the reason is a matter of dispute.

Pennsylvania’s capital earns a reputation, having hatched more than its share of “gates.”

In 2011, key Republicans were charged with steering state money for technology into election accounts. That was “Computergate.”

Four years earlier, lawmakers were accused of paying staffers to work on campaigns. That was “Bonusgate.”

A couple of factors could cause, or at least encourage, such shenanigans.

One theory explored in a Harvard University study in 2013: State capitals located in rural areas become festering holes of corruption. Governments in Harrisburg, Albany, New York, or Annapolis, Maryland, according to that theory, are more prone to breed corruption.

A recent study  poses a different idea: A culture of spending on things like road-building and construction allows lawmakers to line their pockets with donations or bribes while selling the public on the notion the government is actually doing something.

Researchers at Indiana University and the University of Hong Kong studied federal convictions for public corruption from 1976 to 2008 to identify the 10 most corrupt states. Those were Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Alaska, South Dakota, Kentucky and Florida.

In their study, published in the May/June issue of “Public Administration Review,” researchers found those states tend to devote more money to activities where corruption is more readily cloaked – transportation, construction and corrections – and less on things like health care and education.

John Mikesell, a professor of public and environmental affairs, said the research considered convictions of officials at all levels of government. He conducted the study with Cheol Liu, a former grad student at Indiana University who is now a professor in Hong Kong.

For Pennsylvania, that included the 1987 conviction of state Treasurer Budd Dwyer, who committed suicide during a press conference the day before he was due to be sentenced for rigging bids for an accounting contract.

But the study, which only covered the period through 2008, missed a few more recent cases.

Those include the scandal that sent two Luzerne County judges to prison for taking bribes to sentence juveniles to privately run prisons. Also missing was the 2010 indictment of state Sen. Raphael Musto, who was accused of using his office to advocate for construction in his district, then accepting payments from those behind the work.

Musto died before his case went to trial.

The Indiana University study focused only on cases brought in federal court, to ease comparisons among states. That means many of Harrisburg’s most recent probes – Computergate, Bonusgate and a 2013 pay-to-play scandal at the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which were all prosecuted in state court – were excluded.

Those cases don’t just give the state a badge of dishonor. Corruption costs money, according to researchers. Mikesell said more corrupt states spent an extra $1,308 per capita each year.

Researchers said they can’t determine which comes first – the chicken of big government or the egg of corruption.

But the head of the small government activist group Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania has no problem sorting it out.

Big government breeds corruption because it attract leaders who are enthralled by power, said Leo Knepper, the group’s executive director.

“The kind of people who want that authority will abuse it,” he  said.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the government reform group Common Cause, said that theory doesn’t wash.

Rather, he said, a link could be made to the fact that Pennsylvania is one of just 13 states with no limits on gifts to public officials.

In Pennsylvania, it’s illegal for a public official to accept a gift to do something on behalf of the donor. Public officials must disclose gifts over $250 and travel or hospitality worth more than $650.

But there’s no limit on the value of gifts that public officials can take.

Nine states have full or almost total gift bans. Of 10 states identified by the new study as most corrupt, only Kentucky and Tennessee have full gift bans. Kentucky adopted its gift ban earlier this year, and Tennessee rewrote its rules in 2005 after officials were ensnared by an FBI investigation, Operation Tennessee Waltz.

Kauffman said he hopes the shame of recent scandals prompts similar action in Pennsylvania.  In the latest case, several lawmakers from Philadelphia were accused of taking bribes in a sting orchestrated by prosecutors. Attorney General Kathleen Kane declined to prosecute, saying the investigation was flawed.

“There is a unique window of opportunity,” Kauffman said. “We’ve had scandal after scandal. And there is a new generation of lawmakers who have an expectation of a cleaner system.”

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