2009-05-07 / Features

Rendell, Lawmakers Disclose Free Travel, Gifts

By Mark Scolforo ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania lawmakers accepted more than $60,000 in travel, meals and other freebies last year, according to mandatory statements of financial interest newly filed with the State Ethics Commission.

About three dozen of the 253 state representatives and senators disclosed gifts or free "transportation, lodging, hospitality'' in the reports that were due in Harrisburg on Friday.

They let others pay for their football and baseball tickets; golf fees; travel to Japan, Australia, Turkey and Switzerland; and legislative or political conferences at various locations within the United States.

They also accepted donations for senior expos and similar events worth an additional $15,000.

Rep. John Hornaman collected a membership in the Erie Yacht club worth more than $700. He has attended tourism and fishing events at the club, and had dinner with his wife at its restaurant.

"When they offered it to me, quite frankly, the cost factor didn't enter into my mind,'' said Hornaman, D-Erie. "It didn't even come to me - I thought it was a nice gesture.''

Gov. Ed Rendell disclosed 14 plane trips that were paid for by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg or the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He said the value of those trips was "unknown and unavailable.''

The report of Attorney General Tom Corbett was not immediately available.

Lawmakers accepted ski passes, Penn State and Pitt football tickets and admission to swank concerts in Philadelphia.

Rep. Dennis O'Brien took his 7-year-old son to a World Series game in Philadelphia, and O'Brien accompanied a group of disabled children to tour Universal Studios in Florida.

An American Water spokesman said it also distributed free World Series tickets to three other state lawmakers.

Rep. Rick Taylor said spending more than a week in Turkey, thanks to a $4,100 trip from the American Council of Young Political leaders, helped him think more broadly and exposed him to new ideas. Taylor is drafting a gift ban bill.

"You want to make sure that your legislators are working in an open and transparent way, you want to make sure that their motives are pure,'' said Taylor, D-Montgomery. "And I want to say, by far and away, the motives of people are pure.''

Rep. John Bear, R-Lancaster, reported a $6,500 trip to Switzerland from the American Swiss Foundation.

Bear said his district was largely settled by Swiss immigrants and there are substantial business interests that link the two countries. He noted the trip did not conflict with legislative sessions.

"There were no taxpayer dollars involved,'' he said. "I didn't see the harm in it.''

Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, was provided tickets for concerts last summer by the Creative Coalition and Rock the Vote during the Democratic National Convention. He and his wife and daughter - who blogged about it - watched N.E.R.D., Nick Cannon, Fallout Boy and Jakob Dylan.

Sen. Richard Kasunic, DSomerset, reported $1,700 worth of golf balls.

Neither Cohen nor Kasunic returned phone messages seeking comment.

Reform advocate Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA, believes there should be a blanket ban on gifts to Pennsylvania public officials.

"The people who give these things expect something in return,'' Potts said. "Everybody knows it, and they wouldn't give it if they didn't get something in return. The only people who are kept in the dark are the citizens.''

A comprehensive total of the freebies Pennsylvania public officials collected last year is not available, because the law does not require reporting of gifts worth less than $250 less or transportation, hospitality and lodging worth less than $650 for the year.

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