- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The “reform caucus” in the Pennsylvania Legislature said Monday it hopes to rein in gifts and other freebies in an institution that doesn’t currently limit them.

The group outlined legislation that would bar public officials and employees from accepting transportation, lodging, hospitality or anything of economic value from people trying to influence legislation, and from other specific groups.

The caucus also plans to endorse others’ legislation if two-thirds of the caucus’ active membership votes for it.

“People have lost their faith in government,” said Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny, sponsor of a pending House bill to limit gifts. “We all know this - we see it every day.”

At a Capitol news conference, members emphasized they were working on proposals that have some chance of passing and being enacted as law, despite support by some in the caucus for a full ban on gifts.

Saccone’s bill would ban gifts for people who have, or are seeking, a business or financial relationship with the official or employee’s governing body; those who are paid to influence legislation, such as lobbyists; those who are regulated by the governing body; and those who have a financial stake in the duties of the official or employee.

There are exceptions that include gifts from relatives or friends, campaign contributions, awards or prizes, educational missions and light food or refreshments in a group setting.

“If any of my relatives want to give me a Super Bowl ticket, I will take it,” said Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, a reform caucus co-chairman. He said an outright ban was not likely to get sufficient support.

“The idea is passable,” Dunbar added. “I don’t think an outright gift ban is passable.”

Ethics reports filed more than a month ago show state lawmakers and other high-ranking state officials took more than $160,000 in freebies last year. About half involved donations for constituent events.

Pennsylvania requires public officials to report gifts worth more than $250, and when meals, hospitality or travel from a single source amount to at least $650 in a year.

Two House members recently pleaded guilty to conflict of interest after taking cash from a lobbyist who secretly recorded their exchanges under supervision of state prosecutors. Charges are pending against two others. Taking money or gifts in exchange for taking official action is a crime.

Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, illustrated his reason for opposing a blanket gift ban with a story about a recent tour of a milk processing facility. At the end of the tour of a hot plant, a state Agriculture Department official had to turn down an offer of a drink because of a gift ban that Gov. Tom Wolf implemented shortly after taking office this year, Diamond said.

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the gift policy has not created problems for those under the governor’s jurisdiction.

“Any questions that have come up have been answered and clarified,” Sheridan said. “We always encourage any employees in the executive branch who may have questions to please ask those questions to their general counsel.”

Wolf is open to working with lawmakers on gift ban legislation, Sheridan said, but he can’t comment on the governor’s support for proposals that are not in final form.

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