One of the most insidious forms of public corruption is the "pay-to-play," variety, where would-be government contractors, suppliers and service providers fall all over themselves giving campaign donations and even personal gifts to elected officials in order to get a leg-up on winning lucrative business from the government.
This foul practice crosses party lines, dates back into the deep mists of history, and is common in many jurisdictions. In Pennsylvania, "pay-for-play" corruption is a fine art and Governor Corbett a true virtuoso. His record is Exhibit #1 in the case for needed public financing of election campaigns.
Tom Corbett's particular mastery of the payola game was amply documented in a recent report by Dennis Owen of WHTM-TV in Harrisburg. Says Owen: "There have been lots of high-profile issues that you've certainly heard of that have sent millions of tax dollars to law firms you probably haven't heard of."
Outside law firms have made a bundle of taxpayer money in fees for handling the Corbett administration's most ill-advised and politically motivated litigation and transactions, such as the aborted lottery privatization, the unconstitutional Voter ID law, and the cynically diversionary, failed lawsuit against the NCAA over sanctions to Penn State due to the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse case.
One firm, Blank Rome, got $200,000 on the failed lottery privatization scheme. Drinker Biddle received $942,000 for the Voter ID case, and Cozen O'Connor got $631,000 on the NCAAPenn State suit.
WHTM reporter Owen, whose information came from a Right-to-Know filing with the state Office of General Counsel, turned to John Hanger to put this issue in perspective:
"Those law firms have given a big amount of money to the governor in donations," Hanger said. "In the case of Blank Rome, they also gave gifts to him and his wife. This is an example of pay to play in Pennsylvania and its coming right out of the taxpayer's hide. Most of the time that's an excuse to write nice checks to people who have given you campaign donations."
Pay-for-play often skirts that indistinct line between what is unethical and what is outright illegal. In Harrisburg, it's deep in the political culture, and it underscores the pressing need for comprehensive campaign finance reform with public campaign financing as its centerpiece.
Yet as pervasive as this dirty practice is, it's clearer all the time that in Tom Corbett's case, the pay-for-play game is being played at new heights of cynicism and indifference to the public good -- the artist at work, indeed.