An article published in the Scranton Times-Tribune details several legislators who broke promises about per diem and expense reimbursements. State Representative Marty Flynn and state Senator John Blake failed to produce receipts to justify expenses. Instead, they fell back on the old habit of accepting blanket per diem payments.
The per diem payments, often the subject of intense controversy, require no proof of how they were spent. Though these payments are intended to cover lodging and meals, without receipts, taxpayers don’t know if this is the case.
The full article follows. Interested readers can also view it on the Times-Tribune web site.
Byline: BORYS KRAWCZENIUK
Years ago, state Rep. Marty Flynn and state Sen. John Blake promised to submit receipts to justify expense reimbursements to taxpayers.
They’ve broken their promise.
Flynn and Blake accept the controversial per diem payments that require no proof of the way legislators spend the money meant for lodging and meals while in Harrisburg or elsewhere on legislative business.
In the year that ended June 30, Flynn, D-113, Scranton, took 102 per diems totaling $19,103, tops among local legislators, according to state records obtained by The Associated Press through Right-to-Know requests and provided to The Times-Tribune. Blake, D-22, Archbald, received 44 per diem payments totaling $6,049.
Three other local legislators took per diems, too:
% Rep. Michael Peifer, R-139, Greene Twp., accepted 53 per diems for $8,689. Peifer represents parts of Wayne and Pike counties.
% Rep. Karen Boback, R-117, Harveys Lake, accepted 59 per diems totaling $10,145.
% Rep. Jonathan Fritz, R-111, Honesdale, received 65 payments for $9,835.
The per diems ranged from $45 to $195 depending on the nature of the visit to Harrisburg or other locations outside legislators’ districts.
Blake, first elected to the Senate in 2010, has sponsored a bill to outlaw per diems and require receipts.
He said he did not take them his first eight years in office. He rented an apartment out of his own pocket because the Senate doesn’t reimburse for rent, only hotels, he said.
Blake said he began taking per diems in 2018 after an illness forced his wife to retire and reduced his family income by $40,000 a year, he said.
Uncomfortable in hotels and used to the apartment, he began taking per diems, but might switch to hotels now, he said.
“Maybe I will,” he said.
In 2012, Flynn criticized his election opponent, incumbent Democratic Rep. Kevin Murphy, for accepting more than $20,000 a year in per diems.
“You should turn in receipts (for expenses),” Flynn said then.
Flynn said he avoided per diems in his first term. He has taken them since out of a fear his legislative assistant would incorrectly report his receipts, prompting an IRS audit.
“I would be criminally liable if something went wrong, if she filled out something wrong so I just went with the per diem,” Flynn said.
He gives away per diem money left after actual expenses to local community groups, about $7,000 a year, and offered to provide a list of beneficiaries.
Per diems aren’t taxable, he said.
“That’s why I take them. There’s no risk in that,” he said.
Fritz called per diems “an accepted norm” for his district’s representative.
“To be honest with you, it’s most simple,” Fritz said. “I have my colleagues who hand in receipts and that takes an awful lot of manpower and a lot of hours spent in labor.”
Fritz said he and his office “operate a very lean machine” and said he’s careful with taxpayer dollars.
“To be honest with you, I would be perfectly comfortable submitting receipts if that was the requirement,” he said.
Eric Epstein, coordinator of Rock the Capital, a Harrisburg-based watchdog group, called per diems “an antique and an heirloom from the bad old days” that allow pay without taxation.
“There’s no other reason per diems exist than to inflate incomes for legislators,” he said. “In no other craft, can you submit a per diem and get reimbursed without any form of accounting.”
“Mr. Flynn should pursue a career in standup comedy,” Epstein said. “We live in crazy times.
Efforts to reach Boback and Peifer were unsuccessful. In 2010, Peifer defended per diems as justifiable reimbursement for working out of town.
Four local legislators did not accept per diems. They are Rep. Kyle Mullins, D-112, Blakely, Rep. Bridget Kosierowski, D-114, Waverly Twp., Rep. Mike Carroll, D-118, Avoca, and Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp.
They all cost taxpayers less for meals and lodging than the legislators who took per diems.
Mullins, sworn into office in January 2019, rang up only one hotel bill $154 — an aide’s overnight visit to Harrisburg — and $157 in meal expenses in six months.
Mullins said he stays for free with two long-time Northeast Pennsylvania friends who live near Harrisburg. If he stayed in a hotel, he would submit receipts and avoid per diems, he said.
“It’s just my philosophy toward expenditures at taxpayers’ expense,” Mullins said.
Kosierowski, sworn into office April 8, 2019, after winning a special election, spent $1,458 on hotel stays and $179 on meals in her three months in office during the year.
“I kind of felt like the salary, we were well compensated,” she said.
Legislators earn a base salary of $90,335 this year.
Carroll spent $2,589 on lodging while in Harrisburg and $114 on meals, according to the records.
He and eight others rent an apartment, and he charges his $270 a month in rent to the state only in months the House is in session. He does not own the apartment building.
Staying in a hotel would cost taxpayers more because the House meets multiple days each month, Carroll said.
“For me, it’s a cheap date,” Carroll said.
Baker sought reimbursement for $4,981 in lodging and $320 for meals. She usually eats in the Senate cafeteria so the fee is the same $7.44 daily.
Baker said she has never taken per diems and regularly posts her expenses online.
“Just like anybody else in the business world or in other industries, if you travel you submit your expenses and you have to justify what that expense is,” Baker said.
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