Pa. GOP lawmakers stay quiet on who paid for their trip to see Arizona audit. What’s the impact?

By: - June 7, 2021 2:20 pm

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, speaks during a Capitol news conference on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 (Capital-Star photo).

Since returning from Arizona last week, Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, has called for increased transparency for a proposed audit of Pennsylvania’s election 2020 election results — even as he’s simultaneously ignored requests for more details about that trip.

Outlining the process used by a technology company — with no experience auditing elections — Mastriano lauded the Arizona Senate GOP audit, saying in a statement: “This is transparency. This is meaningful access.”

But when it comes to who paid for the trip that Mastriano, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, and Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson took to the Grand Canyon State, they’ve only said taxpayer dollars were not used.

If an outside person or organization funded the delegation’s trip, it would most likely be reflected on annual financial disclosure forms, but those aren’t due until May 1, 2022. 

Khalif Ali, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania — which advocates for government transparency and accountability — thinks lawmakers should release the information to help restore public trust in government.

“One of the things that I try to encourage legislators in government is that we’re at a critical point, so all decisions matter,” Ali told the Capital-Star. “Everything that is legal is not always moral, and everything that is legal doesn’t always make sense for the time. He’s not doing anything illegal, but morally, we need to know that now.”

There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud or misconduct in the 2020 election, but GOP lawmakers have continued to cast doubt on the electoral process. The Arizona trip is just another example, Ali said. 

With no evidence of fraud and after a series of failed attempts to challenge the results, Ali added that it’s time for the lawmakers to move on and focus on pandemic recovery and federal infrastructure investments.

“It’s a waste of money whether it’s taxpayer dollars or not. If it’s not taxpayers’ money, then it’s a waste of our legislators’ time to be in Arizona,” he said. “Everything has been cleared up in the courts. The federal legislators have admitted that the results of the election were valid, so what are we doing with our time and with our funds?”

Though frustrating, not releasing financial reports immediately is a tactic used by politicians on both sides of the aisle, Samuel Chen, the founder and principal director of the Liddell Group, an Allentown-based strategy firm,  told the Capital-Star. In some cases, not catering to every request helps set a precedent and protects lawmakers from having to answer every question, he said.

During a Facebook live, Mastriano told viewers that the trip qualified as a “justifiable business expense,” but wanting to avoid scrutiny over taxpayer funds, he opted not to use public funding to cover travel and expenses.

“I would be of the mindset that you just have to leave that alone in the sense that he didn’t take taxpayer dollars,” Chen said. “If this was something that was paid from his campaign, it’s something his donors will take up with him if they’re unhappy about it. But that essentially is money that is at his disposal for these purposes, and I may not like what he did with it, but I don’t exactly have a say in that. Now, if it turns out to be legislative money, I think there is a much bigger argument to be made here.”

Referring to a 2015 video where Pennsylvania House Democrats used pop culture to raise awareness for education spending as an example, Chen noted limitations on how lawmakers can use state funds. 

The video, which showed lawmakers dancing to Silento’s “Watch Me” outside the Capitol, was released during a budget stalemate and received backlash from GOP lawmakers. At the time, Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, said it was paid for with campaign funds. Chen explained that if campaign funds paid for production, it shouldn’t have been promoted on official Democratic caucus channels. 

So if Mastriano, who has floated a potential run for governor, paid for the trip with campaign funds, the state cannot formally support or promote the lawmakers’ travels, Chen said.

“That divide has to be there,” Chen said.

He added: “What ends up happening is these candidates shut down, which is what we’re seeing here. They don’t answer these questions. And then, they look for ways to hide that more and more. I think it’s a give-and-take — legislators and candidates need to be more transparent. After all, our republic is built on its people, and the people need to be more judicious about what they go after their candidates for.”

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