OPED: Where is the outcry?
Pennsylvania journalists are no strangers to exposing political corruption. From the midnight pay raise to porngate, sadly our state has given members of the media ample opportunity to serve as watchdogs of the public trust—a responsibility they’ve often filled with excellence.
In 2012, for example, one major paper’s editorial board zeroed in on the “scandals” in which “public officials illegally squandered state funds to pay for expenses in their election campaigns.” The piece noted these officials had “violat[ed] the public trust” and taxpayers should not be charged with their legal fees.
More recently, across the state, another leading media outlet blasted the idea of restoring a public pension to a former lawmaker imprisoned for the “crime” of “using state employees to do political work.” The takeaway: Taxpayers should neither fund the use of public resources for political ends nor reward lawmakers who abuse public resources for their own political gain.
And in the commonwealth’s capitol, one of the state’s most widely-read editorial writers left no room for ambiguity a few years ago in expressing outrage at yet another lawmaker who used taxpayer-funded staff for political purposes. That literary scolding emphasized not once but four times the illegality of using taxpayer resources for politics. So intent was the writer on making his point that the fourth entry appeared exactly as follows: “In case you didn’t get that, I’ll do it one more time, slowly: It. Is. Illegal. For. You. To. Use. Taxpayer. Resources. For. Political. Purposes.”
In countless instances, members of the press have rightly called out corruption, refusing to tolerate breaches of the public trust, regardless of the perpetrator.
That’s why the recent lack of journalistic outrage, with a few noteworthy exceptions, over the longstanding systematic abuse of public resources for political gain is mystifying to say the least.
In Pennsylvania, taxpayer resources—not only at the state level but also at local school district levels—are regularly used to collect campaign contributions and funnel them to a select group of organizations that, not coincidentally, are among the largest bankrollers of political campaigns in the state.
And it’s no secret. The public has known it for years.
Twice the state Senate has voted to end this this ethical violation, but given the chance recently to do the same, the House—many members of which have received thousands upon thousands of dollars from these campaign bankrollers—chose instead to continue endorsing a practice that’s sent several of their colleagues to prison.
The fact that a majority of House members would choose to protect their donors or kowtow to pressure from special interests rather than protect the public trust is disturbing but not entirely puzzling given Harrisburg’s reputation for corruption and self-preservation.
What is puzzling, however, is the decision by many in the press—longtime leaders in calling out such corruption—to avoid doing so in this case.
Why the change?
Perhaps because when it comes to the use of public resources to collect political campaign contributions for one group of organizations and one group only—government unions—union leaders have successfully sidestepped scrutiny of their own guilt and instead misleadingly spun the issue to center not on their unethical use of public resources for purely political purposes but on public workers themselves.
These leaders claim that what is illegal for anyone else is a “right” for union members, providing them the convenience of engaging in political elections via their government jobs. Worse, these union leaders falsely frame an end to this abuse of taxpayer resources as an attack on the public employees who serve our communities, protect our streets, and teach our children.
Of course, ending the use of public resources for unions’ political fundraising would in no way prevent public employees from engaging in politics or limit their ability to do so. They would just have to do so like everyone else: without taxpayer participation. Yet, government union leaders have misrepresented these facts in their frantic quest to ensure they can continue using public resources for political purposes.
Pennsylvania’s journalists have long seen through attempts by public officials to mask their corruption and self-preservation. Union leaders’ longstanding use of taxpayer resources for their own political gain should merit equal detection and denunciation by the fourth estate.
In other words: It. Should. Be. Illegal. For. Anyone. To. Use. Taxpayer. Resources. For. Political. Purposes.