“Vote for your crooks, or vote for my crooks. It doesn’t matter because they are all crooks.”
Such cynical sentiment was in the air this past weekend as I did some political canvassing in Willow Creek, Corydon Township.
But how can I argue, particularly after picking up Thursday’s Era to discover the outrageous “campaign expenses” of some members of the state House and Senate? The best part? It’s legal in Pennsylvania.
The piece, produced by Spotlight PA and The Caucus, details not just the lavish spending by lawmakers across the state but the attempt — largely successful — to hide it from the public.
The story, after a year of investigation, details how House and Senate candidates from 2016 through 2018 spent nearly $3.5 million that cannot be fully traced based on the information they publicly disclosed, according to thousands of pages of records obtained by the news organizations. Charges included foreign trips, sports tickets, limos, lavish dinners, fine wines and liquor, country club membership and even a DNA test kit.
Mind you, the current election law requires that campaign accounts be used for “influencing the outcome of any election.” Exactly what that means, however, is obviously subject to interpretation.
The story uses our own Sen. Joe Scarnati, a Jefferson County Republican who has represented the 25th Senatorial District for years, as an example of some of the most egregious expenditures.
Scarnati, it says, dined on pumpkin dumplings with wild broccoli, venison with king oyster mushrooms and beef tartare with fig and summer truffles at a restaurant in Salzburg, Austria, reportedly the oldest restaurant in Europe. The bill was a mere $246. It was just one dinner in the summer of 2016 on the senator’s European trip that also included other dinners and lodging in Germany and Belgium.
Of course, he was not alone in these extravagances as the figures show many state politicians joined him at the feeding trough.
Scarnati, who was the top spender, also came to the top of the list for making it difficult for reporters to see even the sketchy details that were available. Journalists had to wait up to six months for some information — even the weak law requires response in 30 days — and were threatened with a $1,800 bill for an accountant’s time to assemble the records.
Bad enough? Only hours after the investigation was published lawmakers advanced a measure to make it even harder to hold themselves accountable. Harder. And, no surprise, Scarnati was the sponsor.
At least, taxpayers money wasn’t expended on these luxuries ... directly. No doubt, though, lawmakers spend a great deal of time and energy currying favor with campaign donors rather than working for the public.
That certainly would provide an explanation of why Pennsylvania lags behind so many other states in such things as creating good jobs, building decent highways, and putting us in the modern age with universal cell service and high-speed Internet.
Going forward, we may not know which crooks to vote for ... but at least we have a clue about which ones not to vote for.
If there is a silver lining in this cloud, maybe it will be an angry electorate at last willing to do some major housecleaning in Harrisburg.
(Marty Wilder, of Marshburg, is former managing editor of The Era and chair of the McKean County Democractic Party.)