State officials short on ethics

Even if Pennsylvania isn’t waist-deep in the ethics swamp, it’s clear that the commonwealth’s “toes” have been testing the troubling waters.

State residents should be angry as well as concerned. And the lessons now being learned should spill over to state lawmakers and other top government officials – indeed, everyone purportedly working on behalf of the public’s best interests.

New reports reconfirm too much “me” infiltrating state business. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include the many gifts that are given to members of the General Assembly each year by lobbyists and other special interests seeking to create preferred relationships.

Pennsylvania should join the states that believe political gift-giving is a temptation for bad judgment and should be banned.

But it is not the state House and Senate who are at the center of the latest ethics concerns. It is the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Liquor Control Board.

On the Game Commission front, Gov. Tom Corbett’s office warned the commission recently not to promote William Capouillez, a senior official in charge of wildlife habitat management, to executive director because of what appeared to be conflicts of interest.

Capouillez allegedly negotiated oil and gas leases for private landowners during his off hours with companies he frequently engaged as a Game Commission employee.

Jarad Handelman, Corbett’s first executive deputy general counsel, in the written warning to the commission, said Capouillez’s private and public roles project “a profoundly troubling appearance of impermissible commingling of public responsibility and private pecuniary interest.”

Last Tuesday, the commission said it would heed the warning.

Meanwhile, according to an Associated Press article, three former top Liquor Control Board officials have been ordered to pay the state a total of more than $23,000 for various gifts they accepted from alcohol marketers and others.

The gifts included dinners, golf trips, event tickets, wine-tasting trips – in one instance, even a $500 iPad.

State law forbids Liquor Control Board members and staff from accepting any gifts from the industry it regulates. However, Pennsylvania isn’t like the 10 states that have full bans on gifts for politicians, which makes the gifts Keystone State legislators receive legal.

It is right to question how many of those gifts ultimately influence lawmakers’ decisions and votes.

The $43,000 in gifts lawmakers reported on their 2012 financial disclosure forms doesn’t include gifts valued at less than $250, which lawmakers aren’t required to report.

Despite no official prohibition, it is not ethically correct for lawmakers to receive gifts for doing the people’s business – work for which they are generously compensated by the taxpayers.

But don’t expect the “swamp waters” lapping against the walls of the Capitol in Harrisburg to recede anytime soon.

All in state government should abide by the don’ts that are clear from the liquor board and game agency situations. At the same time, in this, a legislative election year and going forward, it would be refreshing to hear all candidates – newcomers and incumbents alike – pledge not to accept any gifts from special interests.

Voters should demand such a pledge each time they cross paths with a candidate.

– Altoona Mirror