Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pennsylvania Lawmakers, Relative Lobbyists Conflict Of Interest?

The following was reported by WTAE Channel 4 on July 23, 2009.

Pennsylvania has no rule barring state lawmakers from having immediate family members who are lobbyists and no rules that forbid them from talking business at home, but critics maintain that’s too cozy of a relationship when decisions are being made about how to spend tax dollars.

Team 4 investigative reporter Jim Parsons raised that question to three local legislators with lobbyist relatives and found all three voted in favor of more than $300 million in appropriations for their relatives’ lobby clients.

But the lawmakers argue no conflict of interest exists because they have their own personal set of ethics rules prohibiting their relatives from lobbying them.

The following report by Parsons first aired July 23, 2009, on WTAE Channel 4 Action News at 5 p.m.

State Rep. Randy Vulakovich, of Shaler, has a son who is a registered lobbyist in Harrisburg.

When asked by Parsons if it would be a delicate balancing act, Vulakovich replied, “No, it’s not. It’s just not a problem for me.”

The wife of Indiana County state Rep. Dave Reed is a lobbying in the state capital, and until recently, so was the wife of state Sen. John Pippy, of Moon Township.

“She wouldn’t lobby me and I wouldn’t talk about health care policies with her,” said Reed.

Pippy said “There’s no preferential treatment ever.”

Parsons reported that in October 2007, Pippy gave a $500,000 ceremonial check to officials at St. Clair Memorial Hospital.

At the time, his wife Katherine was listed as a registered lobbyist for the hospital.

Also in October 2007, Pippy secured a $250,000 grant for the Pittsburgh Zoo, another client of his wife’s lobbying firm.

In 2007 and 2008, Pippy voted in favor of a capital budget bill that included more than $300 million for some of his wife’s clients, such as UPMC, Norfolk Southern Railroad, the National Aviary, Point Park University and the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

Pippy's wife quit her lobbying job recently to take on another career.

Pippy told Parsons he never discussed business with his wife.

The following is a transcript of an interview Parsons conducted with Pippy prior to his wife’s resignation.

PIPPY: You don't want to have any appearance of that at all. You just don't want to have to deal with it.

PARSONS: Well, you don't want to have an appearance, but can you understand why some people might think there's an appearance here?

PIPPY: Well that's why it's so important to say that there is no lobbying going on.

Pippy said he and his wife previously agreed that she would not lobby him or anyone else in the state senate, but other lobbyists with his wife's firm -- representing the same clients -- could.

PARSONS: Let me ask you this, have you ever been lobbied by Randy Vulakovich's son?

PIPPY: Yeah, Randy comes in.

Lobbyist Randy Vulakovich is listed as representing the same clients as Kathy Pippy, including Saint Vincent College.

Last year, the state legislature approved a capital budget bill that included $15 million for a new science pavilion at the college.

Lobbyist Vulakovich is the son of the state representative of the same name, who voted in favor the appropriations bill.

PARSONS: Saint Vincent College got $15.6 million dollars in that bill. Why did a private Catholic university get $15 million?

VULAKOVICH: Well, they lobby for that. I know that my son lobbies for them.

Vulakovich said he doesn’t allow his son to lobby him and said he wasn’t in favor of the money for Saint Vincent, but still voted for the bill because it funded dozens of projects he did support.

“That's why when you see these things, you make your decision on if there is more good than bad, and if you weed out what you thought was all bad and leave in what was all good, it's not going to be the same good/bad for somebody else, and that's part of the compromise that you make,” said Vulakovich.

Representative Reed’s wife Heather also represents Indiana Regional Medical Center.

“We have generally had the policy that we don't talk about political issues. We have had the policy from the very beginning that I would not submit any projects on behalf of Indiana Regional Medical Center because of the possible conflict of interest between my wife and myself,” said Reed.

Heather Reed's lobbyist disclosure statement lists an affiliation with a lobbying firm from Virginia. Alan Mauk Associates lobbies for the medical center in Washington, while Reed, who is an employee of the hospital, lobbies for it in Harrisburg and Washington.

Alan Mauk also lobbies for Indiana County Development Corporation, which last year got a $750,000 state grant to buy this 30-acre property along Route 119.

PARSONS: Did you have something to do with obtaining that grant?

REED: Yes.

Reed said that it is not a conflict of interest because even though his wife works with Mauk Associates on behalf of her employer, she's not paid by that firm.

“Yeah, she had no financial gain in any way from Alan Mauk and Associates,” said Reed.

University of Pittsburgh law professor Tom Ross, an expert on ethics, believes the state has a problem.

“There's a serious conflict of interest there. I know that my spouse makes her living by trying to influence legislation that benefits her private clients? And I happen to be one of those legislators?” said Ross.

But Ross doesn’t expect lawmakers to change the lobbying rules on their own.

“Until we have sort of a larger sense of outrage about this, politicians themselves don't seem very interested in taking the initiative on their own,” said Ross.

Public outrage about the legislature pay raised issue in 2005 did bring about better public record keeping by lobbyists, but the legislature stopped short of passing new rules prohibiting a family connection between lawmakers and lobbyists.

Parsons reported that all three lobbyists he spoke with said they would support such a ban.