Legislative Rape: PA lawmakers' office leases get little scrutiny
When Pat Browne was elected to the state Senate in 2005, he set up an office in the heart of his district, on Hamilton Street in downtown Allentown. Since then, he's changed buildings but remained downtown, where taxpayers foot the bill for his $36,500-a-year lease.
On the other side of the Lehigh Valley, state Rep. Bob Freeman spends about a quarter of that amount on his district office in Easton.
There is little incentive for legislators to be frugal. While the House caps what members can spend on leases, it also provides a loophole. And the Senate has no cost cap.
But it's not the cap that keeps him from spending, said Freeman, whose district office lease is among the lowest in the House. It's the principle.
"I really have tried throughout my tenure in office to keep my expenses down," he said.
There's disparity in how much Pennsylvania legislators spend to lease and furnish offices. As with all real estate, the cost often is related to the location. But lawmakers are given wide latitude and little oversight in choosing district offices. Their choices cost taxpayers $6.1 million in 2013, according to a Morning Call analysis, a tab taxpayers don't pay in a majority of states, where lawmakers have no district offices.
The leasing arrangement lawmakers enjoy is but one aspect of a system in which taxpayers are particularly generous to Pennsylvania legislators, according to the newspaper's analysis of legislative spending. The only state that appears to spend more money annually on elected officials is California, which is also the only state that pays its lawmakers a bigger salary than Pennsylvania does, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
All told, Pennsylvania's 253 full-time lawmakers — who earn base salaries of $84,012 — charged taxpayers for at least 73,890 expenses worth $13.8 million in 2013, The Morning Call found. The newspaper's investigation of the 2013 expenses, the last year for which complete records are available, was conducted through right-to-know requests filed with the chief clerks' offices of the House and Senate and by culling public contracts from the Treasury Department's website. The newspaper built asearchable database of the expenses, the only source that provides the public with every expense of every Pennsylvania legislator.
That year, about $6.7 million in public money went to cover the leases and operating costs for hundreds of district offices. While costs associated with district offices are public, they are hard to track because the House and Senate have different rules for leasing and paying for district offices and their operating costs. Even the number of district offices is hard to tally because the General Assembly's website does not list every office location used by a lawmaker.
For example, Rep. John Sabatina, D-Philadelphia, had the House's highest annual rent at $32,100. Sabatina has said his rent costs went up after he was forced to open a second office following the redistricting process, which split his district in half. But the state website only lists one of Sabatina's district offices.
The Legislature further clouds the costs by removing the names of lawmakers and district office numbers from financial rent records posted on the state's PennWatch website, a platform that was set up to enable the public to track how tax money is spent. Without the names and district numbers, it's difficult to figure out or compare rent costs.
No state agency oversees the leasing process, and the state auditor general has no authority to monitor legislative spending.
The Legislature has never conducted a public audit of costs associated with district office operations, said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
"I don't begrudge people for having [bottled] water in their office or paper for photocopy machines," Madonna said. "It's where [the costs] go after that. No one checks on that; there's no inspector general I know of to see if office costs are effective. There ought to be a lot more scrutiny of office rentals."
The rules prohibit lawmakers from leasing property that they or their family members own. But there is no rule against leasing from friends or campaign donors and many lawmakers do, a Morning Call sampling of leases found.
Browne, a Republican, established his first district office at Eighth and Hamilton streets, a 2,100-square-foot space owned by a company led by his longtime friend and campaign contributor J.B. Reilly. The Senate staff negotiated a five-year lease that started at $26,340 a year.
Reilly, as president of East Penn Properties, sold the building three years later but Browne stayed for seven years. In 2011, he moved one block east to a slightly bigger office in another building owned by Reilly's company. The rent there was $34,960 but the location was better, Browne said, and had nothing to do with Reilly's contributions to his campaigns.
"A first-floor office in Center Square in the center of my district is an extremely valuable place for me to serve my constituents," he said.
In the three years since Browne moved, Reilly has pumped $40,000 into his campaign coffers, according to state campaign finance records. Browne also rents his Brodheadsville office from a campaign donor, albeit a less generous one. James Halterman donated $750 to Browne's campaign between 2005 and 2008.
Browne said campaign contributions don't factor into the decision of where to establish an office.
"It should be based on what is most suitable to provide retail government services to your constituents, plain and simple," he said.
Democratic state Sen. Lisa Boscola rented her primary Bethlehem office in 2013 from a company affiliated with one of her longtime campaign donors, developer Lou Pektor, for $3,400 a month. She moved from one Pektor property to another in 2013.
Pektor contributed $10,000 to Boscola's campaign between 2006 and 2007, and $2,500 in 2014.
That had nothing to do with either office selection, said Boscola spokesman Steve DeFrank. Boscola's first office was on the second floor. DeFrank said she moved because a first-floor office opened up.
"Our motivation this last time is really just convenience, the first floor. It's much more convenient and easier for people to get into," DeFrank said.
Neither of Boscola's two other landlords, who rent the senator smaller branch offices, are contributors, he said.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause, a good-government think tank in Harrisburg, believes campaign contributors should be precluded from getting government contracts, including leases, from officials who receive their donations. But since the Legislature has no such ban, Kauffman said it is incumbent on lawmakers to make sure they are paying fair market value and not high rents that could serve as rewards for campaign contributions.
"The bottom line is the public needs to get the biggest bang for their tax dollars," Kauffman said. "That includes hiring the best people and getting office space at the lowest price to serve the citizens of that community."
While not every senator has received contributions from his or her landlord, it is true of the senators with the state's two most expensive district offices.
West Chester-based Andrew Dinniman, a Democrat, pays $6,865 a month — the highest district office lease payment in the state — to Zukin Real Estate, a company that donated $7,016 to his campaign in 2012.
Philadelphia Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat, got $2,000 in campaign donations from his district office landlord Rockland Capital in 2012. His $5,803-a-month lease covers his office in the Parkside Lofts adjacent to Fairmount Park.
While lawmakers can't rent from their own family members, they can rent from their colleagues' relatives. So it was within the rules when Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delaware, entered into a monthly $1,650 office lease in 2012 in a building owned by Micozzie Realtors. The firm, which still holds the lease, is owned by Kelly A. Micozzie-Aguirre, a Delaware County district judge and daughter of Rep. Nick Micozzie, R-Delaware, who retired from the Legislature last year.
If rules are broken, the state Ethics Commission can impose penalties, as it did in 2012 when it found that former state Sen. Robert J. Mellow, D-Lackawanna, failed to inform the Senate that he and his ex-wife had an interest in a property that housed his district office near Scranton. Taxpayers spent $244,000 on the office between 2001 and 2008. Mellow, who left office in 2010, settled the issue by agreeing to a $21,000 fine.
The state's 50 senators are able to pick the locations of their district office or offices, as long as they are not too big, the costs are in line with local rental rates and they leave the negotiations up to Senate staff. There's no cost cap.
For districts smaller than 1,200 square miles, up to two district offices encompassing no more than 3,000 square feet are allowed. Senators in bigger districts can have up to three local offices for a total of 4,500 square feet.
House members are kept on a slightly tighter leash, given a $2,300 monthly cap to cover office expenses. If they go over that amount, they can tap into their $20,000 "accountable expense" allowance, a sort of slush fund that can be used to pay for a list of items, including constituent communications, publications and plaques.
District offices are not the norm in the nation's 99 state government chambers. According to a 2014 survey by the National Council of State Legislatures, 24 offer legislators taxpayer-funded offices outside the state capital. Amounts allowed for district offices varied. Missouri offers lawmakers $7,200 a year for legislative expenses, including a district office, while Florida provides up to $38,928.
Ohio does not provide money for district offices, so Ohio state Rep. Nickie J. Antonio likes to meet folks at coffee shops such as Lakewood's The Root Cafe, which offers fair trade coffee and organic baked goods.
"What most of us do is we just find other places to meet," she said.
When she's not at her office in the state capital of Columbus, a two-and-a-half hour drive from her district, she works out of her home. She holds town hall meetings at the local library or community center and connects with constituents by phone, email and social media such as Facebook.
She admits she'd like to have a district office, but in Ohio that would mean dipping into campaign funds.
Unlike Ohio and Pennsylvania, many states have part-time legislatures, which may explain the large number without district offices, said Freeman, who sees his Easton office as a hub for constituents needing his service.
"We really are in a sense the sort of ombudsman for our constituents to cut through the red tape and bureaucracy," said Freeman, who has leased a small district office on Northampton Street for more than a decade. The $700-a-month rent is one of the cheapest in the House and does not go to a campaign donor.
In the 1960s, before "legislator" became a full-time profession in Pennsylvania, many lawmakers ran their offices out of their homes while they held down another job to pay the bills. But when the Legislature became a full-time occupation, lawmakers shifted to full-time staff and permanent office space.
"Ninety percent of lawmakers in 1970 did not list 'legislator' as their full-time employment," Madonna said. "Now, I bet 95 percent do and now they have full-blown constituent operations that they promote widely."
In that sense, Pennsylvania is like California and New York, the only three states that have full-time, well-paid Legislatures with large staffs, according to the Conference of State Legislatures.
In 2013, Pennsylvania taxpayers paid $3.9 million to lease district offices for the 203 House members and $2.2 million to lease district offices for the 50 senators. Those totals didn't include associated expenses such as office supplies, furniture ($36,161 for the House and $97,195 for the Senate), and bottled water ($32,578 for the House, $2,374 for the Senate). And services such as exterminating, trash collection, small renovations, security, phone and Internet, and carpet cleaning also add to the costs.
The Senate also has a catch-all spending category called "consumable supplies," which covers such things as coffee and candy, and added $20,520 to the taxpayers' bill.
In the House, whose members negotiate their own leases, some pay separately for utilities and those charges added up to $315,866 in 2013. Insurance policies related to 57 House district offices added nearly $25,000, even though the state, which is immune to most lawsuits, has a self-insurance program.
Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, paid one of the highest annual premiums, $1,199, for the extra insurance in 2013. The House legal counsel recommended the extra insurance, Heffley said.
"It's something that is protecting the state," he added.
About 85 percent of the House and the entire Senate used the state's self-insurance program only.
In the Senate, where leasing duties are left to the chief clerk's office, a standard lease covers utilities and some incidentals. Senators select the location, then turn over negotiations to staff.
House members cram a variety of expenses into their office budgets. Most of those amounts are small. Freeman, for example, pays $5 a month to a local company that cleans his windows.
Some lawmakers' personal office expenses were more significant than others'. For example, Harrisburg area Rep. Ron Marsico spent $2,760 to have a security system installed in his office in 2013, plus $396 for 12 months of panic-button monitoring.
Marsico, a Republican, said he gets some unruly characters in his first-floor office on busy Linglestown Road. After one of them made a scene and had to be removed, he had the security system and bank-style panic button installed at the recommendation of local police.
"That is for the safety of the staff and now they feel much safer," Marsico said.
He covered the bill by dipping into his expense allowance. The bill was covered with money from his accountable expense allowance.
Security measures of various types are among the pricier office expenses incurred by House members. In 2013, 24 representatives spent a total of $11,380 on security.
So far, no one has had to use the panic button, Marsico said.