Pa. Leaders Stand by High-Rent Hobnobbing
Brad Bumsted; Salena Zito, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
HARRISBURG -- The annual gathering of Pennsylvania's premier power elite begins Thursday in Manhattan, as critics question whether lobbying firms and businesses gain favoritism by hosting events for elected officials.
The days leading up to Saturday's Pennsylvania Society dinner at the Waldorf Astoria are packed with posh receptions hosted by politicians, law firms, lobbyists, unions and businesses. About 1,500 people are expected to attend the dinner.
"The money flows and the deals are made," said Gene Stilp, an activist and longtime critic of the event. He contends the New York gala "underlines that lobbyists run the show."
Stilp, who co-hosts an annual "people's society" potluck dinner at the Capitol, said in New York, "Politicians are on the auction block."
Not true, said David Girard-diCarlo, partner in a Philadelphia law firm and society president.
"People with honor and integrity have honor and integrity, no matter where they are," he said.
Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia public relations consultant who hosts an event, said he typically talks about sports more than business in New York.
Yet, those who attend say it's all about networking.
Questions sometimes arise over who pays for elected officials to attend. The Saul Ewing law firm paid the $1,900 for last year's trip by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and his wife, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Lawyers with the firm argued cases before the court.
Though Castille told the Legal Intelligencer he followed all rules, the gifts reported on his financial disclosure statement earned him a New York Times editorial with the headline "Untenable Judicial Ethics." The court is reviewing its ethics policy, court spokesman James Koval said.
"People must believe they get a fair shake when they stand before a judge," said Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonprofit group advocating judicial reform. Nothing should be permitted that undermines that belief.
"Allowing judges to accept gifts creates the appearance that a judge may be biased in favor of the gift-giver," Marks said. "Whether or not such bias exists, the public's perception that a judge has been improperly influenced is damaging not only to that judge but to the entire court system."
The Tribune-Review reported last month that Justice Max Baer charged taxpayers $832 for his hotel room at the society event last year. Baer said he is inclined to do the same this weekend.
"I don't accept gifts," Baer said. "Therefore, I use my expense account." He generally charges the state half and pays half himself. He did not charge meals or transportation for last year's trip.
"The reason to attend is not to show deference to people. It's to see everyone and maintain some contact," said Baer of Mt. Lebanon, who said he otherwise leads a "pretty cloistered life" on the court.
"There is no favoritism on the court," he said.
Still, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania: "The public needs to be concerned and cautious about whether their public officials should be engaged with well-heeled advocates seeking favors. …