by Jeff Coleman and Eric Epstein
In one moment, corrupt and scandal-tainted political characters are cutting ribbons for highways, bridges, and community centers, named in their honor by colleagues and beneficiaries of benevolence.
The state Capitol is a mausoleum for the noble and ignoble deeds of characters who served in the light and the shadows.
On other days, a mob-like public turns on their patrons led by good government — Elliot Ness-like crusaders who are often in pursuit of their own future glory.
The promise and possession of power, like a mutating virus, has invaded the best among us. It’s the illusive glowing ring that calls respectable people to bring their ideas and best intentions.
Only then they find their hearts punctured over time by pinpricks of compromise, often leading to defiance of the laws they write.
Few men and women ever fully leave the grip of political power. The experience in Washington and Harrisburg is its own kind of celebrity.
Television interviews and consequential, minute-by-minute decisions give rise to a fattening, fast life played out on the most elaborate stages.
But for many of the most gifted pols, the privilege of service isn’t enough.
In recent years, allegations, investigations, presentments, convictions, and plea “bargains” have hit a powerful Congressman, two former Pennsylvania Supreme Justices, two former Pennsylvania treasurers, a sitting Attorney General, a former gubernatorial Chief of Staff, a potty-mouthed State Senator, a sitting State Senator accused of taking a bribe, House members caught taking cash and hiring ghost employees, and a House member who billed taxpayers for a “business trip” to a Penn State football game.
And what seems to perpetual roil to taxpayers is the fact that the above lineup remains pension-eligible, and can preserve their taxpayer-funded health care.
How’s that for a deterrent?
Year after year, Pennsylvania politicians slink to new lows, costing taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and incarceration costs. Since the Pay Raise, and despite waves of front page convictions, the lure to the less-than-legal side of government service grows stronger, and remains a playground for the rich and well-connected.
For the vast majority of those who serve, public service remains the noble, faithful chapter in a well-lived life.
For others, it’s the door to lifelong rewards made possible when their names are prefaced with “Honorable.”
The truth remains: few who go to prison come out of incarceration “rehabilitated” and ready to join the work force.
Some would argue that politicians have never worked, and that prison is appropriate comeuppance.
While the lock-’em-up mentality feels good, it produces few verifiable results and costs taxpayers more and more each year.
The current indict, shame, jail, and release approach has propelled the careers of scores of junior politicians to their own moment of fame — and ultimately temptation. In the end, have we eliminated the incentive to commit political crime? No.
Here are the big questions we think need to be raised:
How many politicians have actually paid full restitution? Why are some of the convicted selectively allowed to keep pensions and lobby, while others are stripped of any ability to return to productive, contributing lives?
Do flaws in Pennsylvania’s legal system bleed over to the prosecution and sentencing of public officials? Are judicial appointments apolitical? Are venues bias-free? Are judges who run for office capable of making decisions independent of party politics?
Does cutting a Faustian bargain with co-conspirators, colleagues, and staffers — who also broke the law but saved their own skins — really reform the political system, or even serve as a deterrent?
In many ways, the stardust of Bonusgate trials made Tom Corbett governor, but his political Wheel of Fortune turned out to be selective justice. In the end, Mr. Corbett’s strategy was costly, and had minimal impact on the way Harrisburg operates.
While no one will confuse former state House Speaker Bill DeWeese with Pope Francis, in the realm of Pennsylvania political culture, it’s hard to believe that his prosecution wasn’t a politically-motivated second strike when prosecutors failed to connect the colorful, bow-tied western Pennsylvanian to the sins of Bonusgate.
At considerable cost to taxpayers, the judge sent DeWeese to his lockup in a medium- security state prison, for what most judicial observers agree is tantamount to political jaywalking — using staff on the public dime.
While DeWeese’s trial coverage was peppered with sensational, headline-ready tales illustrating an alleged pattern of abuses, the prosecution was never quite able separate DeWeese’s offenses from the daily operational practices of the big, full-time Legislature of the last decade.
In the jungle of 1990s and 2000s Harrisburg, he was a creature of the times.
So if putting politicians in prison is not a deterrent, we need a serious conversation on alternative disciplinary mechanisms.
Is it time to consider harvesting the skill sets of this particular caste of nonviolent offenders?
Admittedly, it is hard for us to temper our instincts when it comes to finding a role in society for arrogant nonviolent offenders. Why not put the experience and life lesson of former political officials to work for the greater good?
In a democratic society we should provide an avenue for the healing, repentance, and reform of nonviolent criminals.
We’re proposing the following steps in a third way which does not necessarily exclude prison or pension forfeiture, but seeks a way to leverage existing skills sets:
- We believe the first steps to becoming a full member of society again include the acknowledgment of the crimes committed, and the public apology to those harmed. Step one is repentance.
- Our approach would then allow offending pols to teach the government version of “scared straight” to incoming freshman legislators, elected officials on every level, and authority, board, and commission appointees.
- The third way would allow verifiable volunteer time to be used as a restitution offset. We have examples at the state level (former Pennsylvania attorney general Ernie Preate) and at the national level (Nixon’s former hatchet-man Charles Colson). After serving federal prison time, both ex-cons became agents for transformational change.
- Finally, our plan would give actively repentant offenders the opportunity to testify before a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. What we don’t have, and desperately need, is a forum where those who have done wrong can offer evidence against those who paid them to play.
Rarely have the names of those on the other side of the checkbook find themselves being decertified, fined, or punished. This must end.
Our suggestions do not in any way address the real seductions that lurk at the doors of high office. The complex, deceitful temptations of power are a corruption of the soul that is far too personal to address by external reforms.
The modest framework we offer is a hope that within the conversation about criminal justice reform, there may be room to consider a path to redeem shattered careers by warning a rising generation of public servants.
The dangers good men and women face when stepping into this unusual incubator for corruption are nearly the same for every generation. Technology and monetary gains may change, but the driving factors remain the same.
While only God knows “what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” some politicians can help identify those dark, internal stirrings before it’s too late.
Jeff Coleman is a former Republican member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and principal of Churchill Strategies, a branding and communications firm in Harrisburg. Eric Epstein is a consumer advocate and good government watchdog who founded Rock the Capital after the controversial state government pay raises in July 2005.