These are days of shame in Pennsylvania.
In just the past couple of weeks a sitting state Supreme Court Justice has been indicted, a state Senator has resigned in the wake of her conviction on corruption charges, a former Senate President Pro Tempore has struck a plea deal, and a former Speaker of the House has entered and been released from prison.
Penn’s Woods is in the throes of the worst outbreak of corruption since Milton Shapp occupied the Governor’s office. Former high ranking officials of both political parties, as well as sitting elected officials in both houses of the legislature and the state’s highest court have brought shame upon themselves and upon the government they were entrusted to serve.
The case of former House Speaker William DeWeese is particularly egregious. Convicted and sentenced he reported to the Dauphin County Prison outside of Harrisburg on a Monday, but was released just days later pending appeal. As DeWeese walked out of the prison gates and later feasted at one of Harrisburg’s finest restaurants, those of less lofty status were left to languish in the prison while awaiting trial. Even in disgrace rank apparently still has its privileges. Making matters worse, DeWeese – currently resigned from the House – was nominated for a new term by voters in his Greene/Fayette County district in April’s primary.
Those charged and convicted (so far only one defendant has been found not guilty) have attempted to divert attention from their misdeeds by claiming the prosecution is politically motivated. This tactic spans the partisan divide. Former Attorney General, now Governor Tom Corbett was accused throughout the Bonusgate and Capitol Corruption investigations of prosecuting for political gain. In Allegheny County, District Attorney Stephen Zappala, a Democrat, is accused by the Republican Orie sisters of similarly pursuing a political agenda. But in both cases indictments were issued by sitting grand juries, and convictions came from a jury of their peers. Neither Corbett nor Zappala controlled those bodies, and none of the multiple juries involved were of political construct.
Adding further to the cesspool of corruption that has engulfed state government is the fact those charged and convicted were not low level staffers or even back benchers in their respective chambers. They were leaders: a Supreme Court Justice, a former Senate President Pro Tempore, two former Speakers of the House, and those who held other leadership positions. This again proves the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Yet, despite the fact our prisons are filling up with former elected officials, and dozens of legislators have been tossed from office by voters, precious little reform has been enacted by those who remain. There have been a few changes; such as ending voting in the middle of the night, and not passing legislation in lame duck sessions.
But the reforms passed to date have been neither significant nor structural. The fact is the culture of corruption that pervades state government stems from the fact the General Assembly has become for all too many a career rather than public service. Once elected, all too many legislators place a higher premium on getting re-elected than in addressing the many significant needs of the commonwealth. That is why the state and school districts across Pennsylvania are standing on the beach ready to be swamped by a tsunami of pension costs, our roads and bridges are crumbling, and our public education system is in disarray.
There has been window dressing. A proposal to reduce the size of the General Assembly is nothing more than a ploy to concentrate more power in the hands of the few. Real reform, such as constitutional term limits, restricting session days to just three months per year, and limiting compensation to that proscribed by the state Constitution is nowhere on the radar screen. Even ministerial reforms, such as doing away with unvouchered per diems and requiring receipts for expense reimbursement, have not seen the light of day.
We are often told by those remaining in office that the few bad apples are not spoiling the whole barrel and that there are good and honest people serving in state government. This is certainly true. But, apparently there are not enough good and honest people – or at least not enough of them are willing to step forward – to make the changes necessary to put an end to the commonwealth’s culture of corruption.
The philosopher Edmund Burke once said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” So true, and by standing by and doing nothing the rest of the legislature adds to the shame that today shrouds Penn’s Woods like a summer fog.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)