More than a hundred years ago, Lincoln Steffens called Philadelphia "corrupt and contented." Its citizens, he added, were "supine," "asleep," and "complacent" for accepting such a thoroughly corrupt system. Many disgusted Pennsylvanians believe Steffens' bleak assessment can now be applied to the entire state.
Voters have numerous examples to choose from, but for us no better instance of statewide complacency exists than when the Pennsylvania Crime Commission (PCC) was defunded and its office shuttered in the aftermath of its investigation and subsequent conviction of a corrupt attorney general in 1994. Civic outrage should have been deafening, but in fact, was nonexistent thereby underscoring the adage that no good deed goes unpunished in Pennsylvania. The abolishment of the PCC took away the one agency that was primarily tasked with investigating public corruption in the commonwealth.
No surprise then that in recent years voters have witnessed three state Supreme Court justices either convicted of crimes or forced to retire; two attorneys general convicted of violating the public trust; two former state treasurers charged with crime; a congressman awaiting sentencing for corruption; several leaders of the General Assembly who have served time in prison; and the convictions of a number of other county and local officials. The list is long and now dwarfs the number of Mafiosi and other organized crime figures law enforcement has convicted and sent to prison. The upshot is a thoroughly disgusted electorate and continued erosion of public confidence in government and the democratic process.
Citizens deserve better, but the first step in acquiring elected officials we admire and respect demands an electorate that is knowledgeable, involved, and resolute in electing candidates who are trustworthy and have demonstrated the political will to carry out their campaign promises and official duties.
The current candidates for attorney general - Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican John Rafferty - are experienced legislators and seasoned politicians, but their anticorruption credentials are far from overwhelming. Equally important, what can we gather of their moral backbone and commitment to do the right thing when duty confronts forces that threaten their political self-interest?
Sadly, some of the attorneys general in recent years have been no better ethically than the miscreants and lawbreakers their offices are charged with investigating. If the top law enforcement officer in the commonwealth is corrupt or reticent to investigate a colleague of the same party or a financial contributor, who is going to protect the citizens' welfare and interests?
We suggest that one way to measure the current candidates' commitment to root out systemic corruption in the state would be their support for some type of government agency whose sole purpose would be to investigate and prosecute public corruption. Regardless of whether it is called a commission, a task force, or a strike force, the call for a politically independent mechanism staffed with experienced attorneys and investigators, and capable of establishing a sophisticated intelligence program designed to ferret out illegal shenanigans, would go a long way toward demonstrating a candidate's commitment to stamp out corruption. Such a commitment would help regain the public's trust and show one's support for the principle of government of laws and not people.
We would hope, however, that support for such an agency be more than just a glib talking point at campaign stops, but a fully embraced concept implying the necessary authority and resources to conduct real investigations. Such an agency must:
- Be politically independent and have the personnel with skill, will, and patience to undertake fair and sensitive investigations.
- Have investigative resources necessary for pursuing successful investigations such as an ability to gather emails, bank accounts, and phone records, as well as both subpoena power and the power to grant immunity from prosecution for potential witnesses.
- Be given law enforcement status to access data bases, exchange information with other agencies, conduct electronic surveillance, and bring witnesses before a grand jury.
- Not be in a position to be threatened with budget cuts, terminations, or political retribution for carrying out its official duties. Many of us are all too familiar with timid investigative bodies that go after the low hanging fruit and refrain from taking on the real political powers.
Voters unsure which of the candidates for attorney general have the political will to carry out the fight against public corruption should consider each candidate's reply to this question:
"Would you support the establishment of an independent state agency to root out public corruption in Pennsylvania?"
Thanks to Allen M. Hornblum (email@example.com), who was a commissioner, and Frederick T. Martens (PCC2215@yahoo.com), who was the executive director, of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission.