In late January of last year, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in force, the head of the Pennsylvania state Senate, Jake Corman, took a trip to the Bahamas, where he attended a conference at an oceanside luxury hotel. The trip was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Bar Association for its mid-year meeting, and it wasn’t disclosed until this past May, when Corman, a Republican, reported the trip’s value at $3,828, part of the over $8,500 he received last year in gifted travel.
Pennsylvania is one of eight states that allow lawmakers to accept unlimited gifts of any value, including from lobbyists and others seeking to influence government. According to a summary of state statute from the National Conference on State Legislatures, the sole prohibition in the commonwealth is an explicit quid pro quo—say, an official promising a vote in exchange for a gift. Otherwise, elected officials are only required to disclose gifts worth $250 and up, or transportation and hospitality worth $650 and up, in broad terms, in annual statements of financial interest to the State Ethics Commission.
For decades, advocates for good government in Pennsylvania have pressed to pass a law establishing a gift ban in the state, to curb lobbyist influence and defuse the appearance of impropriety. Gifts of tickets to sports events and concerts are common, as are corporate donations to community events sponsored by politicians. In 2016, state Rep. Eli Evankovich reported a nearly $6,000 trip to New Zealand paid for by the country’s Parliament, while state Rep. Angel Cruz jetted to a December event in Hawaii.
Recent reports from the legislature indicate that only a small fraction of the gifts lawmakers receive from lobbyists are being disclosed. In October 2019, a House Government Oversight Committee report found that in 2018, lobbyists disclosed spending nearly $1.5 million on gifts, but only $39,262 was identified in reports from lawmakers—less than 3% of the total. In 2017, the discrepancy was even more glaring: over $1.65 million worth of gifts given and only $32,318 reported. The committee was then chaired by Republican Rep. Seth Grove.
This summer, activist group MarchOnHarrisburg continued its campaign for the legislature to pass a bill that would strengthen restrictions on gift-giving to increase trust in government. Group leaders tell Sludge that passing gift ban legislation is supported by Republican leaders in the state House and some in the state Senate, where it has floundered in the past.
However, this week, the chair of the House State Government Committee—Rep. Grove, whose previous committee issued the analysis of gift giving—did not put the bill on the agenda for the September 14 public hearing on lobbying reform and disclosure, indicating it still faces an uphill climb to a full vote in the chamber. Witnesses at the hearing discussed a package of bills put forward by House Speaker Bryan Cutler, a Republican, which included items such as prohibiting campaign consultants from concurrently being registered lobbyists. But legislators on the committee did not address the gift ban, and MarchOnHarrisburg members said that Grove would not commit to placing the bill they support on a future agenda.
Rabbi Michael Pollack, executive director of MarchOnHarrisburg, told Sludge that if the group is stymied in key committees, they will continue with protests like the ones over the past few years that have kept up pressure for a gift ban. “We’re disappointed—what the committee proposed is incredibly weak, less than the bare minimum. Anything that doesn’t include a gift ban isn’t real ethics reform,” Pollack said. “Chairman Grove has told us half a dozen times that he’s for the gift ban, but the lobbying reforms they’re pitching are making it easier for lobbyists to do business.”
MarchOnHarrisburg was founded in 2016 as part of a nonpartisan movement to counter money in politics by holding marches for democracy reforms, convening local meetings, and staging direct actions for anti-corruption legislation. On June 9, MarchOnHarrisburg held a demonstration at the Capitol, where after unfurling a banner on the steps and speeches by group members about the anti-corruption measure, activists delivered copies of 33 previously introduced gift ban bills—all of which died—to Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman’s office. When the activists were denied a meeting, four MarchOnHarrisburg members were arrested for peacefully protesting.
In October 2019, the House State Government Committee advanced a gift ban for the first time in recent sessions, passing it unanimously, though the bill did not receive a full vote in the chamber. That step came after MarchOnHarrisburg activists showered the state House floor with hundreds of $1 bills, labeled “bribe,” in a protest earlier that year. Executive branch officials have been subject to a gift ban from lobbyists since 2015, when Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat now in his second term, signed an order and called on the legislature to follow suit.
Pollack said that this year’s renewed push for a gift ban started in March among the group’s partner organizations, which include Common Cause Pennsylvania and the League of Women Voters Pennsylvania. “It’s been a struggle on many fronts, we’ve been banging our heads against the brick wall of corruption,” Pollack said. “We can push an issue really far, then a lobbyist comes in through a back door and whispers into someone’s ear and the issue is dead. We’ve seen money come out of the shadows. We came together to fight for democracy and take on one of the root problems: the system is responsive to money and not people.”
Pollack said that after several hundred meetings across the state between local advocates and district offices, the gift ban had gained the support of the House speaker and majority leader, but first it needs to be included on a committee agenda by Grove, who has held office since 2009. Pollack said that once the House moved to pass it, the Senate majority leader had indicated he was supportive, but that they still had received no such indication from President Pro Tempore Corman. Neither of the offices of Rep. Grove or Sen. Corman responded to a request for comment on their positions on the gift ban bills or whether they would be considered for a full vote this session in the chambers.
Corman’s close ties to business interests have been highlighted in MarchOnHarrisburg’s campaign for the gift ban. Last year, as Corman was preparing to rise to the leadership spot in the state Senate, he brought on as his chief of staff Krystjan Callahan, a partner at lobbying firm Maverick Strategies, which has a sibling company that runs his campaigns. In March, more former Maverick employees were tapped for staff positions by the fundraising arm of Senate Republicans, solidifying close ties between lobbyists and officials in Corman’s chamber, where Republicans currently outnumber Democrats by 28 to 21, with one Independent. Corman also holds a seat on the board of directors of Old Dominion National Bank, a position that he reports as a source of income, though not the amount of compensation.
Maverick Strategies is registered to lobby the state for over 80 clients in 2021-2022, according to a review of lobbying disclosures from the Pennsylvania Department of State, including health insurance company Capital Blue Cross, healthcare provider Pinnacle Health System, the University of Pennsylvania, medical marijuana dispensary Cannabis Company of Pennsylvania, video gaming terminal company Commonwealth Gaming, Uber, Walmart, energy company Exelon, and trade association the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. Earlier this year, Corman jetted to a Republican PAC fundraiser organized by Maverick Finance at The Phoenician, a luxury resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, Spotlight PA reported.
The Senate version of the legislation supported by MarchOnHarrisburg, Senate Bill 401, would bar public officials and employees from taking gifts from lobbyists or other people who seek official action from them, limit gifts of value like travel and entertainment, and cap gifts at $50 maximum value, with no more than $250 able to be accepted during a year. Introduced in March by Republican state Sen. Lisa Baker and referred to the State Government Committee, the Senate bill currently has seven bipartisan cosponsors—though not yet Senator David Argall, chair of the committee, who has not yet moved it.
Currently, the process to review a Pennsylvania lawmaker’s gift reports for past years is to search the individual’s name and review their Statement of Financial Interest form’s entries on Line 11, for gifts from a single source that add up to $250 or more per year, and Line 12, for transportation, lodging, and hospitality from a single source that add up to $650 or more per year.
At the June protest, Jamaal Henderson, a member of ACT UP and the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, addressed those gathered, saying, “Every time you come up here, you always hear that one party is blocking the other one. There comes a time when we have to realize, this is not a partisan issue. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, nobody wants to see corruption in their government… at the end of the day, whatever you’re standing for, gifts are getting in your way.”
“When corporate bill mill ALEC sponsors legislation, it gets fast-tracked through the House and the Senate and becomes law,” MarchOnHarrisburg organizer Rachel Murphy said at the protest. “They’re being lobbied by corporations and getting gifts too… it is our right to say, ‘You have failed us for 20 years by refusing to pass this reform that we all agree on.’”
Other reform efforts have made progress in the state in recent years. As a member of coalitions including the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, MarchOnHarrisburg helped pass a law in October 2019 that created the option to vote by mail up to 50 days before an election, signed by Gov. Wolf. Just weeks ago, a state panel ended the practice of prison gerrymandering, passing a resolution to count incarcerated individuals as voters in their home districts.
In late August, MarchOnHarrisburg canvassed at the Grange Fair held in Centre County, part of Corman’s district, where they pushed for a ban on lobbyist gifts that in the past have included plums like travel to Pebble Beach golf outings, entertainment like Philadelphia Eagles football tickets, and concert tickets for Beyoncé.
Pollack said that a state house insider told him of the gift ban bill, “You all might be marching to pass it, but every single lobbyist in the city is marching against it.”