Some Pa. Lawmakers Tout Expense Transparency. Their Websites Tell A Different Story.
May 14, 2021
by Sam Janesch of The Caucus
Over the next year, The Caucus and Spotlight PA will examine and make public specific areas of spending by the legislature as part of their ongoing efforts to follow the money and track taxpayer dollars. Be the first to know by signing up for Spotlight PA’s free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — The message is loud and clear on Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman’s transparency webpage: “It’s Your Money.”
Before diving into his own taxpayer-paid salary and expenses, the Centre County Republican offers something of a pledge: “I believe that transparency in state spending is crucial to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent as wisely and efficiently as possible.”
“This page,” he declares, “is designed to help make basic spending information easily accessible.”
The problem: The page hasn’t been updated in over six years.
More than a decade after some members first started posting their own expenses online, just 18 lawmakers in the 203-member House and 11 in the 50-member Senate post some level of financial information today.
Almost all of them are still under-reporting their expenses, or are offering outdated or incomplete information, The Caucus and Spotlight PA found. Some are leaving out anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars attributed to them and their offices. Others are providing extremely limited information that’s outdated by as much as eight years.
The salary displayed on Corman’s site — $123,644.82 — is off by $17,374, not reflecting years of built-in cost-of-living increases and a hefty raise when his peers elevated him from majority leader to the chamber’s top elected position last December. Monthly rent for his district offices, in Bellefonte and Lewistown, have also both modestly increased since he posted them as $2,554 and $733, respectively. Other details of his spending are scarce, as he points constituents to Pennsylvania’s open records law to find out more.
Corman, in an interview, did not explain why his website had become so outdated but said he is working with Senate officials to make expenses more easily available online.
“We are trying to update that so that it’s much more readily available to be seen,” he said.
But using the Right-to-Know Law to get those details is not exactly making his expenses “easily accessible,” as he suggests online. The Caucus and Spotlight PA, in a year-long investigation into legislative spending, acquired and analyzed nearly 400,000 legislative expenses from 2017 to 2020 by filing two dozen records requests and, in some cases, while facing pushback from lawyers for the General Assembly.
The news organizations created a database of those expenses, and a close review of lawmakers’ actual spending and what they disclose on their websites shows many aren’t telling the whole story.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee and the former chair of the Government Oversight Committee, fiscal conservative Rep. Seth Grove was required to closely track state expenditures. But on his own website, the York County Republican did not disclose more than $31,300 in spending during the nearly four-year period reviewed.
Most of that, about $25,000, was in the form of bulk mail purchases, mostly for constituent newsletters, that he did not report online. He also collected $3,243 worth of mileage in the same period even though he writes online that he does not accept reimbursement for mileage. One such mileage expense: for a State Government Committee hearing in 2017 on “potentially excessive expenses” made by then-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack.
The website for Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R., Beaver) is missing nearly $38,000 in expenses that he authorized in a 36-month period between 2017 and 2020, according to the records. He under-reported the amount he took for mileage by about $14,200 and the amount he took for lodging by $5,300. The gap in lodging is, essentially, the difference between spending 104 nights in Harrisburg versus 151.
Neither legislator was able to specifically point to the reasons for the discrepancies. And if it were up to them, every expense would be automatically posted online by House staff rather than their own staff who might not catch everything, both Bernstine and Grove said.
“There’s no reason this stuff should not be out there for everybody,” Bernstine said. “Every single expense should be on there. We’re doing the best to provide that.”
In both chambers, these expenses authorized — and sometimes posted — by specific members are still only pieces of a larger puzzle.
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Catered committee or staff meetings, lunches for tour groups at the Capitol, technology, staff costs, and even legal bills are often authorized by leaders or the chief clerk — essentially invisible costs that legislators benefit from, but don’t publicly post themselves.
House Republican leadership and committee accounts, for instance, spent $127,300 on just food and drinks over four years — everything from a $338 Chick-fil-A-catered GOP Policy Committee lunch in July 2020 to a $15 coffee and donuts meeting for freshman members in July 2017. Expenditures from those accounts have never been available online.
“The idea you are seeing some transparency in this area is a positive,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “In the same light, it’s fairly modest in terms of its range.”
Transparency in state and local government spending is a bipartisan or nonpartisan principle, though one implemented “extremely unevenly” for a variety of reasons, said Alex Howard, an open government advocate and director of the Digital Democracy Project based in Washington, D.C.
“Democracies aspire to be self-governed, and self-government depends upon shared, verifiable, trustworthy facts,” Howard said. “If we can’t have those, democracy doesn’t work.”
Pennsylvania lawmakers started opening up their taxpayer-paid pocketbooks online in 2007, the same year that both Apple’s first iPhone began changing the way we interact with the internet and when faith in the Legislature’s spending habits had plummeted after a dramatic pay-raise scandal in the previous session.
Eugene DePasquale, then a freshman House Democrat from York, was the first to post an “expense report,” displayed more prominently on his site than even his committee assignments or votes on bills. The page broke down his expenses by category and month with more detail than some lawmakers do today, like noting his $442 monthly car lease was for a Ford Escape Hybrid, or a $144.75 “security” expense was for a “deadbolt replacement,” according to an archived version of the page from 2007.
Bryan Cutler, then a 31-year-old lawyer and former X-ray technologist from southern Lancaster County, had just been elected on a platform of fiscal responsibility and transparency. He began posting his expenses at the same time.
“It was born somewhat out of my own frustration that you’d have to do a Right-to-Know [request] to see how tax dollars are spent,” said Cutler, who has never had a state-paid vehicle or taken per diems.
An archived version of his report from March 2007 shows, among others, $51.04 for office supplies, $265.85 for constituent outreach, and $0 for a car or reimbursed mileage.
Fourteen years later, Cutler is speaker of the House but just 15 others in the 111-member House Republican caucus post at least some of their expenses. Only two of the 90 Democratic House members post expenses: Reps. Jared Solomon of Philadelphia and Patty Kim of Harrisburg.
Those who do post them have followed Cutler’s lead in formatting reports that show monthly totals for categories like “office supplies” or “staff mileage,” sometimes broken down further by location: district office back home or at the Capitol in Harrisburg.
Some House lawmakers post more details than others but none post itemized expense reports or receipts that reveal more comprehensive details like the names of vendors or payees, or descriptions about what the purchases were for specifically. Constituents who want more information would need to file a formal Right-to-Know Law request, which can take more than a month and still come back with redactions that require legal appeals.
For example, some members list a category called “fixed asset,” a term not explained online but used in internal House and Senate accounting systems, usually for office furniture. Rep. Joe Emrick, a Northampton County Republican, reported $1,254 online for “fixed asset” in January 2018. Expense reports obtained by The Caucus and Spotlight PA show the money was spent on three expenses that included at least two district office signs, a conference table with six chairs, three cabinets, and two wooden desks.
Some members have posted several years’ worth of their reports online; Cutler and Emrick have more than a decade each. Others have only a few years or a few months available, or they’re missing several months.
Rep. Keith Gillespie (R., York), for example, has almost three years’ worth of reports available that end with September 2019, but nothing since. Rep. Kate Klunk (R., York) until recently had just three months in 2020 available and still has just five recent months online.
Among those who had some or all of their last four years’ worth of expenses online, The Caucus and Spotlight PA compared the expenses they posted with those attributed to them within expense reports acquired through the open records requests for 2017 to 2020.
In the House, many lawmakers were close to reporting exactly what was attributed to them and their offices, but none of them matched up exactly. Some even appeared to spend more than they actually did because of errors in their online reports.
Rep. Keith Greiner, a Lancaster County Republican and certified public accountant, had on his website $90,013 for the four years, which was within $952 of matching his actual expenses, according to the records. His district office rent, office supplies, mail and postage, and other categories line up almost exactly. But there are discrepancies. For instance, records show he took nearly $2,900 more in mileage reimbursements than he reported online, mostly for traveling to Harrisburg for his role on the Appropriations Committee. Greiner said he viewed that mileage differently than regular district-related mileage, but he would be open to putting it on his website and specifically noting its purpose.
The website for Rep. Russ Diamond, a Lebanon County Republican, showed close to the $172,413 total that appeared in House records for him in the four years. Office rent, “fixed assets,” parking, and tolls matched up exactly. But he also self-reported less for mileage — $14,074 versus $15,385 in the records — and he collected $1,613 for per diems but did not disclose any on his website.
In the Senate, lawmakers’ transparency pages are often outdated and only include a few categories. On most pages, constituents can find the same “It’s Your Money” tagline and transparency statement, word for word, as the one that sits atop Corman’s.
Longtime Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) doesn’t have any personal office expenses on his page and it hasn’t been updated since the 2013-14 session. A few details on Beaver County Republican Sen. Elder Vogel’s were last updated in 2012.
Corman’s page, detailing just his outdated salary and district rents, also mentions that he has a state-paid vehicle and is sometimes reimbursed for mileage at 53.5 cents per mile. It does not mention that those vehicle leases have totaled $32,423 between 2017 and 2020, or that he was reimbursed for an additional $13,285 for gas, $345 for car washes, and $29,847 for per diems in that time.
Capture From Sen Corman’s website
Sen. Scott Hutchinson, a Venango County Republican, discloses his salary and district rents while generally stating that he is reimbursed for mileage and per diems. Records show he was reimbursed $64,623 for mileage and $41,943 for per diems from 2017 to 2020.
Just two lawmakers in the entire 253-member House or Senate — Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill, a Republican, and Lindsey Williams, a Democrat — post copies of internal legislative expense reports that reveal itemized up-to-date information. Both began doing so after The Caucus and Spotlight PA previously reported on legislative expenses.
Still, they were missing thousands in expenses attributed to them in official records.
“I don’t think you can talk about taxpayer accountability if you are not willing to do it yourself,” said Phillips-Hill, whose online reports were missing a $16,730 expense from early 2019 for “renovations, repairs, and painting” in what was then a new district office.
Phillips-Hill said she did not “personally expend those dollars” since they were authorized by the chief clerk, and so they were not captured in other expenses authorized by her alone.
Williams, on her website, goes even further into what transparency advocates want to see — providing a searchable Google spreadsheet instead of the non-searchable expense report PDFs.
But because of the same issue with the chief clerk, that spreadsheet was missing $99,646 in district office rent, renovations, utilities, and security costs not technically authorized by Williams, according to the records. The Caucus and Spotlight PA tallied another $16,960 attributed to her for expenses like nameplates, signs, and installing a phone system in her district office, as well as mileage, meals, and lodging costs for Senate Democratic caucus staffers traveling to her district for press conferences, events, meetings, and video shoots.
“The chief clerk should put all of this up on a website that has my personal expense, my staff expense, my office expenses,” Williams said. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be put on a website that is searchable, and so you don’t have to file an (open records request).”
Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Mike Wereschagin and Brad Bumsted of The Caucus contributed reporting for this article.
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