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This article is shared with LebTown by content partner Spotlight PA.
By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Mike Wereschagin, Brad Bumsted, and Sam Janesch of The Caucus
HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania legislature got to work at 1 p.m. on March 18, 2019.
Three and a half hours later on that Monday afternoon, lawmakers had adjourned.
They passed eight bills, four of which eventually became law and none of which was controversial or particularly groundbreaking. One established a promotional board for distilled spirits. Two dealt with agricultural conservation easements.
Lawmakers’ short workday cost taxpayers $133,219.23 — more than twice the median household income of their constituents. That doesn’t include the day’s portion of their $90,000 salaries, or the thousands more spent to fund their health care and pension benefits. Nor does it include the compensation for the army of aides who staff the nation’s largest full-time state legislature.
The money, tucked in an array of expense accounts with little transparency, is a sliver of the $203 million total the General Assembly spent from 2017 through 2020 just to feed, house, transport, and provide rental offices and other perks for lawmakers and their staffs, according to a database of nearly 400,000 transactions created by The Caucus and Spotlight PA during a year-long investigation. That averages to more than $51 million a year.
About one in 10 of those dollars — $20 million in all over the four years — went into lawmakers’ pockets in the form of reimbursements for meals, mileage subsidies, per diems, and other expenses. That’s on top of salaries that are already among the highest of any legislature in the nation, dinners on the dime of lobbyists and industry groups, and access to campaign war chests that some have used for everything from a new pair of sneakers to a jaunt through Europe.
Records documenting that spending legally belong to the people who ultimately foot the bill: the taxpayers. But in practice, citizens who want to see what lawmakers are buying with their money face an array of barriers, delays, and even pushback from lawyers hired by the General Assembly with yet more taxpayer money, the news organizations found.
When the records finally do arrive, they’re not in easy-to-analyze formats such as spreadsheets. Rather, the legislature provides the data in PDF files that can run more than 1,000 pages, some of which aren’t text-searchable. Redactions, some of which strain credulity, are routine.
“There’s a reason they make this information hard to get,” said Tim Potts, a retired top-level House staffer and now a citizen activist. “It’s not a good reason. It’s a reason that’s self-serving rather than serving the public.”
“It’s a political motivation to protect themselves,” he said.
Unlike Congress, whose members’ expenses are routinely posted online, Pennsylvania’s legislature as a rule doesn’t require lawmakers to publish those records.
A few legislators have, over the years, chosen to post expenses on their websites — but even then, those listings rarely provide a complete accounting of how much and on what lawmakers are spending taxpayer money, The Caucus and Spotlight PA found.
Legislative leaders haven’t clamored to make it a requirement. In fact, of the four top leaders in the House and Senate, only two post a portion of their expenses on their official websites. Of the two, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman hasn’t updated his in six years.
In interviews, several leaders said they would “consider” requiring the legislature’s expenses be posted online and in a way that is easily digestible. Only one — Corman — said he will champion the change.
In an interview last month, the Centre County Republican acknowledged that obtaining detailed, usable information about the legislature’s expenses is currently “cumbersome and difficult.”
He said he is working with Senate officials to make the chamber’s expenses more readily available, including posting the records online.
“There will be some generalities to it, but still, I think it will solve a couple of things,” he said. “One, it will let the public review what we are doing. And also as a member, you are a little more careful about what expenses you are doing, which you should be.”
Corman said he has already broached the idea with members of his caucus and did not receive any “negative feedback.”
A financial ‘time warp’
Operating one of the largest-in-numbers legislatures in the country isn’t free, lawmakers and their supporters say. There are costs, sometimes significant.
Yet more than a decade ago, a grand jury investigating state lawmakers’ misuse of public money recommended the General Assembly make dramatic changes to how it conducted its business — including making changes to its spending practices.
In a highly unusual report that became public, the grand jurors called on the legislature to move to a part-time work schedule and impose term limits. The grand jurors also recommended eliminating taxpayer-funded partisan caucuses, requiring receipts for reimbursement for lodging and food, and reducing the number of district offices to one per legislator.
It also recommended that the legislature’s budget itemize spending, rather than lumping expenditures under broad categories that mean little to the general public.
“The lack of transparency regarding the General Assembly (especially regarding all expenditures of public funds) is one of the major reasons the General Assembly remains in a ‘time warp,’” the grand jurors wrote in 2010, in what came to be known as the Bonusgate political corruption scandal in the Capitol.
None of those changes was implemented.
“When I read it, I believed those were very good ideas. Wearing my practical hat, I realized the chance of that becoming a reality was unlikely,” former Gov, Tom Corbett, who as attorney general in the early 2000s oversaw the grand jury, said in a recent interview.
Indeed, the legislature’s budget documents, as well as its annual audits, only provide totals for expenses.
What the public doesn’t see, for instance: that the legislature spent $6.5 million on mileage, another $1.1 million on meals, and $4.2 million just for legislators to stay in the capital during voting sessions, according to the analysis by The Caucus and Spotlight PA.
Of the money shelled out on that one day in March 2019, more than $23,000 — or just over 17% — went straight into lawmakers’ pockets in the form of per diems, the much-maligned, lump-sum payments for coming to the state Capitol for voting sessions, hearings, meetings, and other business that Pennsylvania’s 253 legislators are allowed to claim without providing receipts.
Lawmakers attending the session that day spent another $2,700 to feed themselves and their guests, and more than $7,000 on lodging.
And it wasn’t even a particularly expensive session day.
During the four years of expenses the news organizations examined, the legislator who claimed the most in direct payments — Rep. Chris Sainato (D., Lawrence) — collected about $235,000 in per diems and reimbursement for other expenses.
That works out to about $59,000 a year, $5,000 more than the median annual household income in the county he represents. A previous Caucus/Spotlight PA investigation showed that Sainato was among dozens of lawmakers who also used their campaign accounts for meals, clothing, and travel expenses that were often obscured or shielded altogether. Sainato, that investigation found, even reimbursed himself for two pairs of walking shoes with donor dollars.
Sainato did not respond to calls and emails from reporters.
Sainato and fellow western Pennsylvania Rep. Mark Longietti (D., Mercer) were the only two lawmakers to take in more than $200,000 each over that four-year period. Longietti, too, did not return calls.
Tens of thousands of those dollars came in the form of mileage reimbursements, a category of spending that, on its own, cost taxpayers $6.5 million over four years. At the federal reimbursement rate of $0.56 per mile, that’s 11.6 million miles — more than the Apollo program racked up in four years of moon missions. The true mileage total is likely higher, as some reimbursement rates are below the federal level.
After pandemic lockdowns began in mid-March 2020, forcing people to dramatically scale back their travel, the General Assembly still reimbursed legislators and aides $775,000 — enough to cover about 1.4 million miles at the federal rate.
Add in gas, parking, tolls, lodging, meals on the road, taxis, trains, planes, car rentals, and other transportation costs, and taxpayers spent $17 million from 2017 through 2020 getting lawmakers and their staff from point A to point B.
That’s on top of the $1.3 million the legislature paid to lease cars for lawmakers and staff over those years, an amount that includes about $1,500 for car washes.
In Pennsylvania, legislators have at least one — and sometimes up to three — satellite offices in addition to their offices inside the state Capitol complex.
Over four years, the legislature spent more than $37 million on lawmakers’ satellite offices alone. Utility bills topped $2 million. Maintenance costs on these rental properties exceeded $2 million. And supplies such as water cooler rentals, snacks, and copier leases cost more than $6.3 million.
Only one in four states makes any allowance for district offices. In places like Minnesota, for instance, lawmakers who want to meet with constituents do so on buildings the public has already paid for, such as libraries and schools.
Receipts not required
Legislators award themselves flat-rate per diems for showing up to work, whether in Harrisburg or someplace else they travel, and the rules they wrote don’t require them to present receipts for what they spend the money on. The practice can add tens of thousands of dollars a year to their already-generous salaries.
Including money paid to staff, the General Assembly spent more than $6 million on these payments in four years. It’s far from an even distribution, though. Some members rarely if ever claimed per diems; others filed hundreds of claims. The stipends for food and lodging vary by year, but in 2020 ranged between $178 and $200.
Sainato and Longietti raked in the most by far, at $128,000 and $124,000, respectively — or more than $30,000 a year. It’s enough to buy a new Ford Mustang every year or to pay off the mortgage of a house in Harrisburg in four years. Neither of them scaled back their per diem claims significantly during the pandemic, even after the Capitol complex shut down.
An army of lawyers
All four caucuses have state-paid lawyers on staff, but that hasn’t stopped them from charging taxpayers for outside counsel as well. Both chambers pay outside lawyers to represent them on matters ranging from election-related lawsuits to school funding litigation to sexual harassment claims.
Over four years, the legislature paid about $20 million to 55 law firms.
Often, the public can’t even find out what work those firms are doing, let alone assess whether it’s money well-spent, because of the multiple redactions the chambers employ to mask legal work. A review of thousands of pages of engagement letters and legal invoices requested through the state Right-to-Know Law shows both chambers are partially or fully withholding the purpose of dozens of expensive cases — including some vague claims against specific legislators.
‘Just post it online’
In addition, redactions of the names of people lawmakers met over lunch or dinner, along with many standard redactions of account numbers and personal addresses, led to about 4,770 transactions worth $330,000 with at least some information missing.
Legislators and their lawyers initially tried to withhold much more.
The Caucus and Spotlight PA obtained the legislature’s expense records through more than two dozen requests under the Right-to-Know Law, a process that started in late 2019.
Initial responses included thousands of pages with either blacked-out or missing details as House and Senate officials attempted to keep aspects of lawmakers’ spending secret. Even though financial records are among the few categories of records the legislature is required to make public, those officials claimed a “legislative privilege” allowed them to hide, among other details, who legislators were meeting with and why while spending taxpayer money.
Both chambers ultimately provided most of those details, though the Senate has stood by its “legislative privilege” claims.
Even unredacted records don’t tell the full story, though. Lawmakers and staff sometimes use vague descriptions to explain their purchases.
For example, a House Democratic Caucus expense of $73.46 to reimburse a staffer in September 2019 had no description in the reports originally provided, and in a separate request had the memo, “To enable access to work email while away from office.”
The actual receipt of the transaction, acquired through a follow-up request, revealed a Royal Caribbean cruise receipt for a “zoom surf + stream voyage package,” otherwise known on their website as “the fastest internet at sea.”
Other expenses are shrouded by merely being described as credit card purchases, echoing the way lawmakers hide millions in campaign purchases uncovered by a previous Caucus/Spotlight PA investigation.
Facebook and Twitter, for example, don’t appear as payees anywhere in the expense reports. But receipts for some expenses paid to credit card companies revealed both House Democrats and Republicans paid for social media ads to promote legislative activity or events.
There’s an easy way to fix the byzantine process the public must go through to find this information, said Rep. Seth Grove (R., York).
“Just post it online,” Grove said. “Save everybody the hassle and be done with it. To me, it’s just an easier solution for everybody involved… With technology today you can almost automatically, at the end of the day, in real-time, do it.”
A team of Temple University students, led by Professor Aron Pilhofer, contributed to building the database for this story.
Coming Thursday: Some Pa. lawmakers tout expense transparency. Their websites tell a different story.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.