Pennsylvania Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow, D-22nd, of Lackawanna County, due to his 38 years in the chamber, has become one of the most powerful politicians in Harrisburg.
Of his numerous committee assignments, perhaps none has generated as much controversy as his membership on the Banking and Insurance Committee. Mr. Mellow came under fire recently after it was announced that he had accepted a paid position on the board of directors of Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania. As a not-for-profit health insurance organization, Blue Cross is regulated in numerous ways by the General Assembly.
With a bitterly fought battle being waged regarding the merger of two other Blue Cross entities, Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia and Highmark in Pittsburgh, many questions have been raised concerning Mr. Mellow’s voting on matters affecting health insurers. The Banking and Insurance Committee reviewed the merger, and, in a non-binding action, recommended that Insurance Commissioner Joel Ario reject the proposed merger. Mr. Mellow favors the merger.
Mr. Ario will make the final decision as early as next month.
When asked about the conflict, and whether he would recuse himself from voting on issues involving Blue Cross, Mr. Mellow was quoted by a northeastern Pennsylvania news publication as saying, "I didn’t get elected to office to abstain from votes.I represent constituencies first. Anyone could abstain and take the easy way out."
The senator did not consult the State Ethics Commission before deciding to accept the Blue Cross Board offer.
In addition to his Board seat with Blue Cross, Mr. Mellow also sits on the Board of Old Forge Bank, for which he is paid $22,000 per year. Since he has held that bank position for three decades, he sees no conflict with that arrangement..
Mr. Mellow’s position with Blue Cross has been criticized by a number of individuals and grassroots organizations. A post from a political Web site asked, "How on earth can we expect Sen. Mellow to take the legislation that is before him seriously, like Senate Bill 300 (single payer health-care in Pennsylvania) when he receives money from Blue Cross?"
Eric Epstein, coordinator of RockTheCapital.org, has formally requested that the Senate Ethics Committee convene a meeting to investigate Mr. Mellow’s behavior and corporate ties.
According to Mr. Epstein, Mellow has refused to voluntarily submit to an Ethics Commission investigation relating to his appointment to the Blue Cross Board, and its for-profit subsidiary, the AllOne Health Group.
RockTheCapital is a political grassroots organization formed to combat "possibly illegal, self-serving, and arrogant actions of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," according to its mission statement.
"No member of the General Assembly is above the law, below the radar, or is in a position to self administer an ethics examination," Mr. Epstein said. "Given Mr. Mellow’s position in leadership and clear-cut conflict of interest relating to his influence and vote on the pending Highmark and Blue Cross merger, we suggest that the Committee sponsor a Senate resolution admonishing Mr. Mellow, modeled on Senate resolution No. 165, Session of 1994, where Mr. Mellow was ‘admonished’ for an ‘ethics matter’ relating to the misappropriation of $417,692 in Democratic Caucus Funds."
The group also called on the committee to reform the process for nominating individuals to various state boards and commissions.
Mr. Epstein added, "Sen. Mellow should not be allowed to act as prosecutor, judge and profiteer during the investigation and vote on the proposed merger between Blue Cross of Northeastern PA and Highmark."
Matt Brouillette, President of the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, stated to The Bulletin: "Given the interdependency of the Blues and state government, Sen. Mellow’s board position is clearly a conflict of interest. It’s like putting the fox in charge of guarding the hen house."
Numerous calls to the senator’s office were not returned.
Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]