Apr 22, 2010

Transparency vs. Corruption: An Investigation in Search of a Rat

Senator Bob Robbins, Representative Michele Brooks, Representative Mark Longietti, and Representative Dick Stevenson hide and duck from important questions

Written by Roberta Biros

In a recent radio interview it was noted that I have a “big thing” with transparency, and that was no exaggeration. Those that know me also know that I am obsessed with the issue of transparency in government and public service . . . so much so that I am now running my second campaign on that very issue [read HERE].

Yes, this post is long (I know that fellow blogger Fred Mullner groaned when he saw it), but it includes details from research that has been going on for well over a month.

Notes from the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference

Last weekend I attended the annual Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Harrisburg. The meeting brings together deep thinking conservatives to discuss topics of concern. Each year there are top issues of conversation like the budget and fiscal responsibility and there is always a great deal of conversation about politics and upcoming elections. This year there was one panel discussion that was worth the entire cost of admission . . . Beyond Corruption: Transparency, Accountability & Reform.

The panel was moderated by Chris Freind, Columnist. I scheduled my day around this particular presentation and Mr. Freind's opening comments did not disappoint. First, Mr. Freind referred to some politicians as the “business as usual crowd” and he made reference to their desire to “hide and duck” tough and probing questions. However, I was most intrigued when Mr. Freind referenced the recent BonusGate scandals involving Vion (and now Orie) [read more HERE]. Mr. Freind pointed out that some political insiders have stated that some of the investigations are “politically motivated”. Mr. Freind stated “The question is not whether it is politically driven . . . the question is ‘is it true’”. The most amazing part about Mr. Friend's comment is that I spoke the words aloud with him. These are the exact same things that I’ve been saying for quite some time and it was refreshing to hear a panel discussion begin on that note.

The presentation continued on for about an hour and included presentations by Joe Sterns (Citizens Alliance of PA), Curt Schroder (State Representative), Lyndsay O’Herrick (Citizen Activist), and Doug Reichley (State Representative). The details and discussions were too numerous to mention, but the entire conversation was invigorating. I left prepared to push harder for transparency because I knew that I was not alone in my quest.

I left with another specific quote that is worth repeating. This one was from Lyndsay O’Herrick who stated “Corruption is the conscious act of sustaining the status quo at the expense of future generations.” Gosh . . . that’s all really good stuff!

Corruption vs. Transparency in Mercer County: My Investigation

As most of you know, I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past year and a half asking questions of our legislators. Sometimes they answer, and sometimes they don’t. My recent line of questioning of our state lawmakers has left my phone and email empty, but I refuse to let this sleeping dog lie . . . it just isn’t my style. So, allow me to explain what I’ve been up to for the past several weeks as follows:

On Sunday, March 21, 2010, I sent an email message to the taxpayer funded email accounts of our four state legislators (Robbins, Brooks, Longietti, and Stevenson). The email message was titled “"harder" questions regarding the use of your staff”. The email message was a follow up to the earlier message regarding my concerns (and the concerns of others) regarding inappropriate use of legislative staff and resources for campaign activities. In the message I reiterated a number of questions that had been published in The Herald. The questions were very specific and I requested answers in writing by March 31st as a matter of transparency. ALL FOUR FAILED TO RESPOND.

On Monday, April 5, 2010, I sent a letter to the editor of The Herald regarding their lack of response. That letter was published on April 9th.

On Tuesday, April 6, 2010, I contacted all four legislators by fax. This time it was in response to the announced that State Senator Jane Orie was too be indicted on misuse of legislative staff for her sister’s campaign in 2009. As the third ranking Republican in the State Senate (just two notches above Senator Robbins), the news of her indictment hit unpleasantly close to the questions that I had asked each of the legislators. So, I asked the questions again. I stressed that the lack of transparency regarding this issue created a perception of corruption even if no actual corruption exists. I further noted that continued failure to avoid these very direct and specific questions makes many of us wonder what it is that they are trying to hide? ALL FOUR FAILED TO RESPOND.

On Tuesday, April 13, 2010, I contacted all four legislators again by fax. I repeated the same list of questions and noted the following:
“The questions that I’ve posed are not out of line. The questions raise valid concerns regarding the way that taxpayer dollars are used by you and your staff. As a taxpayer, I ask these questions as a matter of transparency, and it is your duty to answer the questions as a matter of accountability and public service. Perhaps transparency, accountability, and public service are a forgotten duty in government, but I feel it is my responsibility to encourage these characteristics from each and every one of our elected officials.”

On Friday, April 16, 2010, I began calling the offices of our legislators. First on my list was Senator Bob Robbins. I called Senator Robbin’s office and explained that I had sent numerous email messages and faxes to the Senator and had received no response. I was told that I would need to schedule an appointment with the Senator and that process could take 2 to 3 weeks. It was explained to me that Senator Robbins spends 3 days each and every week in Harrisburg and he finds it difficult to find time in his schedule to meet with constituents. I wanted to say “don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining”, but I contained myself and asked that someone call me back to schedule an appointment.

The next call went to the office of Representative Mark Longietti. I explained who I was and why I was calling. After a few minutes on hold I was transferred to Representative Longietti. Representative Longietti stated that he was aware of my attempted communications and that he considers me to be a “media outlet” and he chooses not to correspond with my particular “media outlet”. He stated that he did not wish to contribute to my blog. I asked if my being a taxpayer provided me the right to answers, and Representative Longietti simply repeated his earlier statements. I thanked him for his time. All I can say is “at least he took my call”.

The third call went to the office of Representative Michele Brooks. I received an answering machine and left a detailed message as instructed. I then called again about an hour and a half later. I explained who I was and why I was calling. I was put on hold for several minutes. When the phone was picked up I was told that Representative Brooks was no longer available for the day and that they would giver her my message on Monday. Hmmmm. Interesting.

I did not bother to call Representative Dick Stevenson as I could see that this exercise was becoming a waste of time.

As of today, April 22, 2010, ALL FOUR FAILED TO RESPOND.

The Probing Questions?

Based on the lack of responses, you would think that the questions that I was asking were “way outside the box”. Well, allow me to review them with you here. They came from a list that was presented in an AP article [read HERE]. The questions that I forwarded were regarding campaign policies and the tracking of work by their staff; use of their legislative staff including caucus staff, bonuses, and over-time work; taxpayer paid mailings; and per-diems (and possible double-dipping related to those per-diems).

The questions were not beyond the scope of what should be open topics of conversation . . . unless there is something to hide.

Why are you pressing this issue so hard?

It is apparent that if we leave the “hen house unguarded”, the fox and the rooster will worry about no one but themselves. That is the case with many of those in our current state legislature . . . and we have four examples of that in Mercer County. If WE the taxpayers don’t hold our elected officials accountable, they won’t do it on their own. It is our responsibility to “keep them honest” (which assumes that they were honest in the first place, but I digress).

I had a discussion with a colleague over the weekend and he pointed out how blurry the lines between legislative staff and campaign staff have become. He noted a recent experience where he was approached for campaign purposes by a member of a local legislative staff. His radar went up and he noted “how can you tell if they are on taxpayer time or free time?”. Even if it is after hours, how do our legislators track the time. When we are having a conversation with a legislative employee, how do we know if WE are paying for the conversation or not?

Allow me to explain the problem that exists with a photo. The picture is posted in a public on-line forum at the website of the Mercer County GOP. They display the photo proudly and think nothing of the problems that it might illustrate. First, here is a screen shot of the website (before the details mysteriously disappear):

Here is a close up of the photo in question along with the published caption.

While this photo may not mean much to anyone outside of Mercer County, I’d like to describe why it is so disturbing. The photo is of State Senator Bob Robbins having a conversation with Diane Helbig. It is clear that Diane Helbig is campaigning for Representative Michele Brooks (the blue and fluorescent logo is hard to miss). However, for those of you that aren’t aware of the details, Ms. Helbig is also Representative Michele Brooks “Legislative Assistant” (I hope I got the exact title right . . . it is usually displayed on an ID tag that she wears at official events).

So when you look at the picture, do you wonder . . .

“Is Ms. Helbig discussing State business or campaign business?”

“Is she campaigning or is she filling some official capacity?”

“Is she on unpaid/donated time or is she somehow being compensated by the taxpayers (either directly or through bonuses or extra compensation)?”

“Is Ms. Helbig doing this voluntarily or is she pressured to do this type of work by her employer, Representative Brooks?”

My point in all of this is, why do we even need to ask the questions? Do our legislators not have enough friends and supporters that they must use legislative staff to fill their campaign needs? Can our elected officials not find enough loyal volunteers that they need to take taxpayer-paid employees to parades and fairs? If they are so comfortable with situations like the ones pictured above, what else do they do that might cross the line?

I don’t propose that we babysit our legislators and their staff. Instead, I demand that they change the laws so that these sort of questions are unnecessary. I made a proposal in a previous post and I’d like to repeat it here . . .

The solution is simple. The staff of elected officials should NOT be involved in partisan political activity of any kind. PERIOD. The Hatch Act of 1939 prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity. This same concept should be implemented at every level of government. Legislative staff (as well as County and Local) should not be permitted to be involved in any political activity (on taxpayer time or on their own time). For more information about his concept, please read the on-line article titled “Politically Uncorrected : IF MEN WERE ANGELS" which is available for on-line review HERE.

In Closing . . .

It is obvious that our legislators don't want to have this conversation with us (the taxpayers), but is it really their choice?

As always, just my opinion.

~Mercer County Conservatives


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