A GOP holdout says he’d support a gift ban if elected governor. Advocates ask why not now?

Under Pa.’s existing Ethics Act, state lawmakers and government employees can accept unlimited gifts — lodging, travel, entertainment, and meals — from anyone as long as they disclose those worth more than $250 on annual financial interest forms

By: - November 21, 2021 6:30 am

March on Harrisburg, a grassroots organization, hosts a rally on the Capitol steps to urge the Pennsylvania Legislature to pass the gift ban. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)

The highest-ranking Senate Republican has refused to comment on whether he supports legislation to reform Pennsylvania’s gift law, but if he’s elected governor in 2022, Jake Corman said he’d sign it into law.

Speaking as a GOP primary gubernatorial candidate, Corman, the current Senate president pro tempore, and apparent legislative holdout on a proposed gift ban, said he would support preventing lawmakers from accepting unlimited gifts from government stakeholders.

“It’s an issue that I’ve never had come up to me by my constituents as an issue,” Corman, R-Centre, told the Capital-Star during a Tuesday phone interview after announcing his campaign.

He added: “If someone receives a gift, as long as they are transparent about it and open, and the public can review it, then I don’t have a necessary concern about it. But again, if it’s something that’s a mission of the Legislature, I will certainly support it.”

Yet work to reform the state’s gift law is already underway in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. And advocates want to know why Corman, who has declined to take a public stance on reform while serving in the upper chamber, doesn’t act on it now.

Under Pennsylvania’s existing Ethics Act, state lawmakers and government employees can accept unlimited gifts — lodging, travel, entertainment, and meals — from anyone as long as they disclose those worth more than $250 on annual financial interest forms.

Critics say the loose rules leave the door open for deep-pocketed lobbyists and special interests to bribe lawmakers and sway government decisions.

March on Harrisburg, a grassroots reform organization, is one of the most vocal groups advocating for the gift ban. Organizers have interrupted swearing-in ceremonies in the upper chamber, tossed dollar bills at lawmakers from the House gallery, and faced arrest for demonstrations in the Capitol.

Corman, who has reported accepting thousands of dollars in gifts, has become the group’s No. 1 target when it comes to advocating for the gift ban.

Speaking with the Capital-Star Friday, Rabbi Michael Pollack, executive director of March on Harrisburg, and Beth Taylor, a regional organizer, said Corman is the only legislative leader who has not said he will support the gift ban.

March on Harrisburg has staged protests outside Corman’s district offices, set up a booth at the Centre County Grange Fair, which Corman attended over the summer, and talked to attendees about the proposed ban. Some constituents filled out postcards to advocate for the ban, and March on Harrisburg mailed them to Corman on their behalf.

Organizers recently disrupted an October fundraiser for Corman where a round of golf cost $500, and a sponsorship ran up to $10,000.

In a letter to the editor, published Wednesday in the Centre Daily Times, the senator’s hometown paper, a reader who, according to Taylor, is not affiliated with March on Harrisburg urged the senator to pass a gift ban.

By saying constituents have not said they want to limit what lawmakers can accept as gifts, Pollack said Corman proves their point.

“If he wasn’t spending so much time on the golf course or in the Bahamas, but actually talking with his constituents, he would know this is a concern of theirs,” Pollack said. “If he wasn’t hanging out with the gift-givers, he might understand the perspective of the people who are locked out of the room where it happens.”

When Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, took office in 2015, he immediately signed an executive order to prohibit executive branch employees from accepting gifts. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and state Liquor Control Board enacted similar policies. Wolf’s ban expires when the term-limited governor leaves office in January 2023.

Corman did not answer if he would impose an executive gift ban if elected governor.

“My question to him would be why would you not pass it now? It’s something that his constituents and the people overall in Pennsylvania want, so I don’t see what’s stopping him from doing it now,” Taylor said. “Why allow the corruption to continue when he has a chance to stop it now?”

Previous efforts to tighten Pennsylvania’s gift law have died in the General Assembly. But in recent months, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed a desire for a more comprehensive ban, including House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland.

This fall, a bill restricting gifts and what lawmakers can accept from stakeholders gained bipartisan support in the House of Representatives. The legislation, authored by Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, was voted out of the House State Government Committee in October.

The bill, which meets some requests made by gift ban advocates, would bar lawmakers and state employees from soliciting or accepting more than $250 in gifts for “non-governmental use” from lobbying firms, lobbyists, or anyone who has hired a lobbyist. The proposal also bans state officials from accepting lodging or transportation for events connected with public office.

Corman has not taken a public stance on Kaufer’s legislation or a Senate bill that proposes a gift ban, sitting in the Senate State Government Committee, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne. Ward is a co-sponsor on Baker’s proposed gift ban.

“I really believe that if it gets to the Senate, that he is going to be forced to make a decision,” Taylor said of the gift ban legislation and Corman. “He’s going to have to show which side he is really on. Is he on the side of the people, or is he sticking to the status quo?”

She added: “He really needs to think about how that’s going to reflect on his run for governor because I don’t think it looks too good for him. If he has the power to do something and he decides not to and decides to stand on the side of corruption, I wouldn’t want a governor like that.”

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.

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