Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Russ Diamond: Who Watches The Watchers?

The case of former State Representative Mark McNaughton gives Pennsylvanians a grand opportunity to see exactly how government truly operates in the Commonwealth.

For the unaware, McNaughton decided to retire from the legislature instead of facing the voters of his district after supporting the Great Pay Raise of 2005. He was subsequently appointed to a seat on the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board by Speaker of the House John Perzel, who cited McNaughton’s steadfast opposition to gambling and a desire to make sure the slots law is meticulously followed as significant reasons for the appointment.

As a result, the former legislator is slated to get a boost in pay after all, from roughly $72,000 to a whopping $145,000 plus some lavish perks. Unfortunately for McNaughton, The Philadelphia Inquirer recently discovered that he failed to list thousands of dollars of personal gambling winnings over the past few years on his Statements of Financial Interest, which are required by the State Ethics Commission from each lawmaker every year.

Oddly, McNaughton’s failure to report gambling winnings would not have even registered on the radar had he not abused the power of his former position by attempting to quash certain information in a very messy divorce proceeding. As a result, some of his federal tax returns, on which he did report the winnings, are now part of the public record.

McNaughton claimed ignorance in regard to the omissions, although instructions on the Statement of Financial Interest clearly list "prize winnings" as one of the sources of income to be reported. But even if we were to give him the benefit of the doubt and consider the matter an oversight, is this a quality we’d want in someone charged with overseeing the activities of a multi-billion dollar industry?

While it’s all a bit ironic - on many different levels - it could become even more so.

The penalties for violating the ethics regulations are a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one-year imprisonment. Such a finding would need to be reached by the State Ethics Commission and could potentially disqualify McNaughton from serving on the seven-member Gaming Control Board or in any other official capacity in the Commonwealth.

Coincidentally, the State Ethics Commission also consists of seven members appointed to their positions in exactly the same fashion as the Gaming Control Board: one appointee each from four leaders of the legislature and three from the Governor.

An optimist might view this scattered appointment system on the ethics panel as a way to keep things balanced so no individual is singled out for political punishment. A pessimist might view it as insurance to protect everyone’s cronies - a slightly twisted version of "equal protection under the law."

While any citizen of Pennsylvania is entitled to file a formal complaint on this matter with the State Ethics Commission, Section 21.2 of the ethics regulations permits the Commission to launch its own inquiry.

The Inquirer story was subsequently picked up by the Associated Press and widely disseminated across Pennsylvania. Between seven appointed Commissioners and nineteen staffers listed on the State Ethics Commission’s website, surely one of these 26 must have caught this latest tidbit regarding McNaughton. If not, they’re not doing their jobs.

Here’s hoping that for once, a government entity in the Commonwealth will step up to the plate, do what’s best for its citizens and give them some hope that the public outcry launched after July 7, 2005 is actually being heard somewhere in Harrisburg. Even better, however, would be for Mark McNaughton to withdraw his name for consideration as a member of the Gaming Control Board.

Who watches the watchers? We’ll find out soon enough.

Russ Diamond is a Central Pennsylvania Businessman and was a 2006 Independent candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania.