'Gifts,' graft, bribes - it's all the same
When PNC bank executives decided they wanted to go after a bigger piece of Pennsylvania Turnpike bond business, they chose a well-traveled route to reach that goal. They flattered and lavished gifts upon a powerful state politician who not only was open to the largess, but expected it - former Sen. Bob Mellow.
Mr. Mellow, the former Senate president pro tem and longtime minority leader from Lackawanna County, is serving a 16-month federal prison sentence on a corruption conviction, and faces state bribery and bid-rigging charges for allegedly steering turnpike contracts to favored vendors.
Tony Lepore, who continues to be chief of staff to the Senate Democratic Caucus, testified before a state grand jury that he had been instructed by Mr. Mellow in 2005 to secure bond work for PNC from the Turnpike Commission. Between 2005 and 2010 the bank received more than $2 million in fees for work on commission financing. Over roughly that same period, the bank hosted Mr. Mellow and some of his friends at 10 New York Yankees games. Other contributions from a bank-related political action committee and bank executives went to Mr. Mellow's campaign committee.
Unlimited campaign contributions in Pennsylvania are bad enough. Unlimited "gifts," which must be reported only if they exceed $250, are worse. There is nothing about being a state lawmaker that creates an entitlement for receiving any consideration from prospective vendors, or from special pleaders looking for favorable state law or policy. Representing the public interest actually requires the opposite, a prohibition against lawmakers receiving anything from anyone other than their salaries and benefits.
State lawmakers who maintain these open invitations to graft contend that disclosure of those "gifts" above $250 is an effective defense against corruption. Not so in Mr. Mellow's case.
The only appropriate answer to this latest betrayal of the public interest is for the Legislature to outlaw all "gifts" to lawmakers and their staffs. Perhaps that, finally, will convince them to consider only the public interest in making law and policy.