Pa. Republican boss Tabas sticks by defense of lawmakers’ controversial campaign spending

    Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Lawrence Tabas, of Philadelphia, speaks Monday, 10/28/19 during the Pennsylvania Press Club's monthly luncheon. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

    Pennsylvania’s Republican Party chairman on Monday stood by his defense of controversial campaign spending practices by some of the most senior GOP members of the General Assembly, saying that the standards governing such spending had been “litigated.”

    “The Pennsylvania election code is very specific on what is a lawful expenditure for a candidate committee or a party committee or any political committee,” state GOP Chairman Lawrence Tabas told reporters after a Monday speech before the Pennsylvania Press Club. “That’s the definition and that’s the standard, and it has been the standard since at least, I believe, 1980. … It’s on the books and it’s been litigated.”

    The questions to Tabas, an election attorney, came in response to reporting last week by two Harrisburg-based investigative journalism organizations, The Caucus and Spotlight PA, that found lawmakers used credit cards, gift cards, and self-reimbursements to shield almost $3.5 million in campaign spending.

    That spending included “foreign trips, country club memberships, lavish dinners, alcohol, and even a DNA test kit. They were not disclosed in public reports and were brought to light only after reporters used a little-known provision of state election law that requires campaigns to keep ‘vouchers,’ or receipts, for the past three years and make them available upon request,” the two news organizations reported.

    Speaking to the two news organizations last week on behalf of Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who obscured his campaign spending, Tabas said “all of the expenses were related to campaigning and descriptions of them on public forms were ‘adequate.’”

    Tabas told the news organizations that Scarnati’s campaign committee had “complied fully with both the spirit and the letter of the law.”

    Tabas brushed aside questions Monday on whether such spending is ethical, saying he wasn’t “even sure of what the point [is] … of raising it as an ethical question” since such spending was already a matter of settled law.

    The news organizations’ reporting prompted Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, to introduce a campaign finance reform bill that he said would would impose spending limits and require greater transparency in the way that money is spent.

    Right now, Pennsylvania does not impose limits on spending and it’s often difficult to tell how campaigns are spending their money. Costa was also among the lawmakers highlighted in the reporting.

    Tabas, who expressed general support for reform, demurred Monday when asked if he backed Costa’s plan, saying only that he supports “bipartisan efforts to reform campaign finance … and disclosure. I think every single member of the Legislature, and the public does as well.”

    Tabas’ comments about bipartisanship appeared to be a reference to remarks by Scarnati, who said last week that he “[stands] with [Costa’s goal] of strengthening the current law to improve transparency for campaign disclosure in [Pennsylvania].”

    Asked Monday whether he’d support hard limits on campaign contributions, as envisioned by Costa’s bill, Tabas said he’d leave that debate “to the legislators to review and discuss the issue, and also to look at the opinions of the United States Supreme Court, which has said that spending on political campaigns is First Amendment free speech.”

    An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.