Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ties Between Western Pennsylvania Legislators and Their Office Landlords

The following was reported by WTAE Channel 4 on November 17, 2009.

The so-called Bonusgate indictments in Harrisburg have put a spotlight on state lawmakers and their district offices.

Now, a Team 4 investigation has uncovered troubling ties between legislators and their landlords and asks the question, "With our ability now to e-mail and get things done on the Internet, why do lawmakers still have so many district offices?"

Team 4 investigator Jim Parsons found Pennsylvania's 254 legislators have more than 720 offices, an average of three offices for every lawmaker.

What follows is a transcript of Parsons' report:

Freshman state legislator Mike Reese of Westmoreland County got elected to the House last year on a platform of fiscal responsibility.

Mike Reese: "I believe that we have to reduce spending in Harrisburg. Each individual Rep has to do their part."

So, you might think Reese would close some of the district offices he inherited from predecessor Jess Stairs. Five district offices in all, tops in western Pennsylvania. Two of the offices are part-time and rent-free, but leases on the other three cost taxpayers more than $20,000 a year. In September, Reese said just 28 constituents visited this office in DryRidge. That's about one person a day. So he cut the office hours here.

Mike Reese: "So we moved it from 5 days a week down to three days a week."

Jim Parsons: "And does it even need three days a week, Mike?"

Mike Reese: "It's a great question."

Team 4 created an interactive map of 115 legislative district offices in western Pennsylvania. Take a look at the orange dots around Brownsville on the Fayette-Washington County line. Four district offices are clumped together, all within eight miles of each other. Two of them belong to Representative Peter Daley and two are offices for House Majority Whip Bill DeWeese. Both Daley and DeWeese have two other district offices apiece, besides the ones around Brownsville.

And on Brownsville Road in Pittsburgh, Representative Harry Readshaw's office is less than half a mile from Senator Jay Costa's office, where the rent is more than two dollars a square foot, the 3rd highest rent rate we found among lawmakers in our area. Costa also has other offices in West Mifflin, Homestead and Forest Hills.

Some lawmakers have four and five district offices, while others have one. And we couldn't find any who share office space with each other. So what's the policy? In the Senate, the Clerk's office allots square footage for offices based on square miles of the district. But in the House?

Jim Parsons: "Is there any formula from leadership that tells you how much office space you can have?"

Mike Reese: "Not that I know of."

Brett Marcy, Majority Leader's Spokesman: "What we found was there really wasn't a strict policy." There still isn't. First, the House Clerk told us there's no policy at all. Then, Majority Leader Todd Eachus' office claimed there's a $2,300 a month cap on leases for each lawmaker. But Representative DeWeese told Team 4 that's the first HE'S heard of such a policy.

Because legislators are allowed to make their own deals with landlords, Team 4 checked for relationships. And we found that 15 lawmakers in Western Pennsylvania have accepted campaign contributions from their district office landlords.

Barry Stout: "What a great day to be in Fayette County."

Senator Barry Stout's relationship with his district office landlord is even cozier.

It's his brother who signed the lease, as a principal of 519 Partners, owner of this building in Eighty-Four, Washington County. And when we checked to see who owns 519 Partners, we found that it's a company called TPS Partners. In his most recent annual ethics statement, Senator Stout reveals a personal financial interest in TPS, though he tells Team 4 he recently severed that financial tie.

Matt Brouillette, Commonwealth Foundation: "The fact that you have taxpayer money going to lawmakers themselves or family members, that's when you run into real problems."

State Senator Wayne Fontana handles things a bit differently. Fontana owns the building where his Beechview office is located. He charges taxpayers no rent here.

Wayne Fontana: "Yeah, they would have paid for 200 square feet. But I felt that would be a conflict if I did that so, you know, I didn't do it."

And State Representative Mark Mustio recently closed his Sewickley office, leaving only one office in Moon. Why don't more lawmakers do the same?

Mark Mustio: "We've done it a certain way for a long time. And if we change will we still be elected. Having four offices, elected official 'A' may say, 'Why do I want to mess that up?' But I think we have a responsibility to challenge ourselves."

The legislature vowed last year to post all of their contracts on the internet. The senate still hasn't put district office leases online. And the house has posted only a handful.