Let's set aside the fact that Senator Jane Orie and her family are wack-a-doodles who do things like trying to gaslight their employees (Post Gazette 1/6/10) and make threatening phone calls to their political opponents in the middle of the night. (WTAE TV 4/7/10)
Let's set aside the fact that Representative Bill DeWeese is one of the most flawed and warped human beings to have ever served in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. (Tribune Review 12/22/09)
Love'em or hate'em, their lawyer makes a very compelling case as to why Pennsylvania's conflict of interest statutes, which have led to multiple indictments and prosecutions of state legislators and their staffs, are overly vague and open to abuse by politically motivated prosecutors like gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett:
"Unless the courts intervene and strike down the current version of the conflict-of-interest statute as unconstitutional, we will continue to see individual prosecutors pursuing their own agendas and creating de facto ethics codes and policy rules for elected public officials through the criminal justice system -- just as they are in the instant cases." (Post Gazette 4/20/10)Corbett's taxpayer funded campaign mouthpiece Kevin Harley retorts that all this gnashing of teeth over the vagueness of the statute in question "has already been tested by the state's Supreme Court and found constitutional." (Post Gazette 4/20/10)
Wrong! The Supreme Court hasn't even heard an argument, let alone "test" the statute. Corbett's own lawyers said on the same day Harley shot his mouth off that the Supreme Court refused to take the Habay appeal. (Tribune Review 4/20/10)
[How much longer are Corbett's political operatives going to be allowed to make blatantly erroneous statements that further Corbett's political ambitions? How much longer are the professional legal "dogs" in the OAG like Fina going to put up with being wagged by the political "tail" of Corbett's taxpayer-funded campaign operatives Brian Nutt and Harley? But, we digress.]
When the Superior Court (not the Supreme Court, Kevin) ruled against Habay, they left in place a very vague and very confusing landscape for prosecutors to navigate. It was confusing to begin with and the reason why the Habay defense appealed on this issue. There is no better example of this than a comparison of how the Ethics Commission concurrently dealt with the Habay case and an ethics complaint against former Representative Jim Lynch.
Habay was found to have violated the law when he "utilized Commonwealth facilities, equipment, materials and employees during normal office hours" for his political campaigns. As a result, the Ethics Commission referred the matter "to the appropriate law enforcement authority for review as to the institution of a criminal prosecution." (Order #1313, 3/11/04)
Three months later, the Ethics Commission found Lynch to have "utilized his legislative district employees in the district office to perform political/campaign related work during normal state office hours." Yet, while the findings against Lynch were identical to those against Habay, the commission let Lynch off with a $5,381.23 fine and no referral to law enforcement. (Order #1334, 6/8/04)
Why the difference? Both findings regarded felonious amounts of resources being diverted for political campaigns. The Ethics Commission was the exact same group of commissioners.
The Habay/Lynch situation isn't an anomaly. The discrepancies in how law enforcement and the Ethics Commission proceed with cases against public officials and employees has persisted since the initial decision by the Ethics Commission in 2004.
In 2006, Corbett investigated York County DA Stan Rebert based on extensively documented campaign activity and sworn depositions. Corbett ignored the violations entirely. (York Dispatch 1/27/06)
Again in 2006, Venango County Sherriff Gene Price was found by the Ethics Commission to have "utilized county employees, office equipment and supplies during regular working hours for election campaigns." Again, no referral to law enforcement, just a $3,000 fine. (Order #1409, 10/4/2006)
Perhaps the most egregious discrepancy is the post-Bonusgate Ethics Commission decision that found former Representative Matt Wright "used staff, office space, equipment and materials of his legislative District Office and his Capitol Office to further his re-election campaigns." There was no referral to law enforcement (just a $10,000 fine) and no indictments from Corbett even though Corbett crowed repeatedly about having an active grand jury investigating the House Republican Caucus at that time. (Order #1541, 12/15/09)
And, what about the staff? Corbett decided to indict numerous staff persons while letting dozens of elected members of the General Assembly off the hook for rampant violations of using state employees and resources for campaign purposes (as the Veon trial showed.) Nearly all of them were found to have violated the conflict of interest laws.
Again, the Ethics Commission has been arbitrary in how it treats public employees who violate the law. While Corbett has indicted legislative employees with multiple felonies based on the Habay decision, the Ethics Commission has handled multiple others with kid gloves while at the same time using their Habay ruling in the rationale for their decisions.
Terry Bryant "utilized Commonwealth facilities, equipment, personnel, and supplies in support of his outside employment with real estate companies" and was fined $2,000 with no referral to law enforcement. (Order #1367, 6/6/05)
Jem Pagan "utilized computer hardware and software, which was the property of the commonwealth, for his personal use" and was fined $5,921.39 with no referral to law enforcement. (Order #1466, 4/28/08)
Replace "outside employment with real estate companies" or "his personal use" with "campaign" or "political" and there are no difference between Bryant or Pagan and any of the bonusgate staff defendants.
Even though we find DeWeese and Orie repugnant -- for either their politics or how they treated their staff or both -- we agree wholeheartedly with their lawyer when he writes:
"What in fact has happened in [Orie's] case and others, is that precisely because of the facial vagueness of the conflict-of-interest statute ... implied authorization and encouragement has been given to prosecutors to enforce such conduct arbitrarily and in a discriminatory way against a number of politicians." (Associated Press, 4/19/2010)Pennsylvanians have to look no further than gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett for the best and most blatant example.