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Dec 18, 1:26 PM EST

State lawmakers to face bill banning gift-taking



HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Pennsylvania lawmakers' willingness to stop taking gifts from lobbyists, state contractors and other people who want to influence state government is about to be tested.

Lancaster County Sen. Lloyd Smucker said Thursday that he will introduce a sweeping bill next month to ban nearly all gifts to public officials and employees in Pennsylvania, including state and local government employees.

A comprehensive ban might cause heartburn in Pennsylvania's Capitol, where lobbyists routinely provide free meals, drinks and tickets to expensive sporting events and recreational opportunities, like ski areas.

Such bills have been introduced before, and seen no action, and Smucker said he has no commitment to pass it by House or Senate leadership.

But this bill has the added weight of testimony collected by Smucker's State Government Committee, a pledge by Gov.-elect Tom Wolf to ban gifts to executive branch employees and officials and a fresh corruption scandal that produced bribery charges against two lawmakers this week.

"This is about rebuilding confidence in the institution and the public should be confident that their legislators are there to serve in the best interests of their constituents and not in their own best interest," Smucker, a Republican, said Thursday.

Smucker began working in earnest on the bill after The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in March that an undercover informant posing as a lobbyist had given cash to four House Democrats, allegedly in exchange for promises to help his clients' pet legislation or projects.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams charged Reps. Ronald Waters and Vanessa Brown with bribery and other counts. On Wednesday, another target of the sting, a former Philadelphia traffic court president judge, Thomasine Tynes, pleaded guilty to conflict of interest. Two other Philadelphia lawmakers were targets of the sting, the Inquirer has reported, and Williams said the investigation was continuing.

Pennsylvania has no limit on such gifts, while four out of five states impose some sort of limit, Smucker said.

A Smucker memo about his planned legislation to fellow lawmakers said his bill also would prohibit gifts to relatives of public officials and employees if it is given because of the official's or employee's position.

Exemptions would include gifts of nominal value, such as greeting cards, pens, baseball caps and T-shirts, and gifts given on the basis of legitimate personal friendship.

Accepting anything of value in exchange for some sort of official action or judgment is currently illegal, and executive branch employees are banned from taking anything from anyone with a financial stake in government, although exceptions exist for personal friends.

But for elected officials, including Gov. Tom Corbett and lawmakers, anything is essentially legal if no strings are attached. In some other states, there are strict limits, such as Michigan's ceiling of $25 per month, with an exception for meals.

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