BY WILL BUNCH
It was the hottest ticket in town when the Pittsburgh Penguins dropped the puck for hockey’s outdoor Winter Classic at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on New Year’s Day 2011. And Tom Corbett was among the spectators.
But the incoming governor didn’t pay a dime for his seat at the game, or for a Winter Classic brunch – together worth $472, according to state records. Instead, the tab was picked up by lobbyist Robert Kennedy, vice president for governmental affairs at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The next time Corbett found himself talking with UPMC officials was 10 months later, and he was wearing his governor’s hat, not hockey-game garb. Pennsylvania’s chief executive threw his considerable political weight into resolving a costly, high-profile dispute between Pittsburgh’s largest hospital chain and that region’s top insurer, Highmark.
The governor-elect’s casual acceptance of the coveted hockey tickets was not an isolated instance, but part of a larger pattern of Corbett’s taking gifts from lobbyists or businesses with substantial interests before the commonwealth – a pattern that some good-government groups say not only looks bad but also arguably violates the 33-year-old Code of Conduct that governs ethics in the executive branch.
A Daily News examination of state disclosure forms found that Corbett and his wife, Susan, accepted $11,343 in gifts from business executives, lobbyists or lobbying firms in 2010 – when the former attorney general mounted his successful campaign for governor – and in 2011, his first year in office.
Besides the hockey tickets, Corbett or his wife were feted by business interests with Steelers playoffs tickets, private jet travel, seats at a swank gala for the Philadelphia Orchestra, a Rhode Island summer vacation aboard a businessman’s yacht – even money to help pay for the first lady’s inauguration gown.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said the good-government group would like all gifts to public officials barred. He noted that an executive or lobbyist who sits next to the governor at a football game or on a corporate jet is getting access that the average voter can’t match. The gift-givers, he said, “understand that even if it’s a small gift, these benefits affect human nature.”
Unlike some states’ statutes, Pennsylvania law doesn’t explicitly bar elected officials from accepting gifts or free travel – although they are required to report any gifts of substance on a statement of financial interests, filed annually with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission.
But experts say Corbett’s behavior is unusual in a couple of ways.
For one thing, it appears to reverse the practices of his predecessors. For example, disclosure forms for the last two years of Ed Rendell’s time as governor show that although he accepted lodging and travel from political groups (as did Corbett), think tanks and for a cable-TV appearance, gifts from corporate interests were limited (although Rendell did accept a $1,000 2009 Super Bowl ticket from the Steelers and eight Billy Joel concert tickets from the owners of Hersheypark).
Moreover, critics argue that Corbett may have violated a 1980 Code of Conduct for the executive branch that states that no official “may solicit or accept for the personal use of himself or another, a gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, loan or other thing of monetary value” from anyone seeking business from, or regulated by, the commonwealth. The code says violators can be punished up to termination – arguably a moot point when the allegation involves the governor himself.
A Corbett spokesman insisted there is nothing improper in the governor’s acceptance of freebies from businessmen or lobbyists.
“Governor Corbett has been clear that he makes all decisions based on what is in the best interests of Pennsylvanians,” said Kelli Roberts, his deputy press secretary. “He has always fully complied with both the letter and the spirit of our state’s financial-reporting laws. His campaign-finance report and his state ethics reports are both public documents, placed on a state website for all to see. The governor’s actions have always been, and will continue to be, transparent and free of any conflict of interest.”
But Christopher Borick, a political-science professor at Muhlenberg College, said that although public disclosure of gifts to the governor may indeed meet the letter of the law, “that does not take him off the hook for public opinion – or moral obligation.” He added that Corbett’s high-profile palling around with business interests is “just unseemly.”
The records clearly show a casual, cozy relationship between the Corbetts and those seeking influence in Harrisburg.
* On Dec. 12, 2011, Frank Schoeneman, chief executive of the Pottsville-based Empire Education Group, a leading chain of beauty schools in Pennsylvania and nationally, flew Gov. Corbett on a private jet to an event in Pittsburgh – a jaunt that the governor priced at nearly $1,407, the price of a first-class plane ticket.
Ten months later, Corbett signed a bill into law aimed at aiding cosmetology students who attend schools like those operated by Schoeneman, by making it easier for those students to obtain a state license.
* On Jan. 30, 2010, when then-Attorney General Corbett was running for governor, the powerful Blank Rome law firm bought the Corbetts a pair of $2,500 tickets to attend the Philadelphia Academy of Music anniversary concert. Blank Rome also bought Corbett a $65 ticket to the Phillies’ home opener in 2010.
Blank Rome operates a lobbying shop representing a number of powerful interests in Harrisburg, and in 2010 was getting more involved in issues related to natural-gas drilling, or fracking, in Pennsylvania. Blank Rome is listed as an associate member of the pro-industry Marcellus Shale Coalition.
* In January 2011, when Corbett was becoming governor and his hometown Steelers were deep into a playoff run, his longtime friend Jack Barbour – head of the powerhouse Pittsburgh law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney – bought him tickets to two of the games, worth $325. Buchanan Ingersoll is also one of the state’s most powerful lobbying firms, representing UPMC, as well as energy companies EQT and the Williams Cos. and numerous medical and pharmaceutical outfits.
* When Corbett was sworn in that month, insurance executive Marty Lane, then-chief executivef of Aegis Security Insurance, donated $1,800 to defray the cost of Susan Corbett’s inaugural gown and coat. At the time, Aegis was regulated by the Pennsylvania Insurance Department. (Designers Richard and Theresa Andries, of Andries Couture, also donated $8,276 in inaugural clothing for Pennsylvania’s first lady, as well as a $1,500 birthday jacket.)
* As the Daily News reported in January, business executive John Moran of Moran Industries was running a fracking-well waste-recycling business in Sunbury, Pa., that was under scrutiny by the state Department of Environmental Protection at the same time he paid $1,422 for the Corbetts to fly to Rhode Island for a yachting vacation with Moran over July Fourth weekend in 2011. Moran paid an additional $902 to fly the governor to events in Williamsport and Pittsburgh on Sept. 30, 2011.
None of the gift-givers seems particularly eager to talk. The most expansive comment came from UPMC spokesman Paul Wood, who said: “The NHL Winter Classic was a major international event showcasing Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania, and UPMC was more than happy to host the governor-elect and his wife.”
Lane, the inaugural-gown giver, reached by the Daily News at his second home in Florida, said he’d have to check his records when he returned to his office near Harrisburg. “I don’t have them right now,” he said.