When we think of “money in politics,” we generally think of campaign contributions. Who’s giving what to which candidate, and what, if anything, does the giver expect in return?
But there’s another web of money in politics that merits attention: Lawmakers who hold outside jobs are being paid by entities that stand to benefit from their votes in Harrisburg.
Multiple state lawmakers — including the powerful Democrat Appropriations Committee Chair — are in this situation.
Several school districts in southeast Pennsylvania pay the law firm Rudolph Clarke for “legal advice and services.” Rudolph Clarke’s website explains that it represents several districts in the greater Philadelphia area, including Bucks and Montgomery counties. Among the districts Rudolph Clarke serves are Norristown Area School District (SD), Hatboro/Horsham SD, Bensalem Township SD, North Penn Area SD, Colonial SD, and Upper Perkiomen SD.
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Here’s where the situation gets sticky.
Rudolph Clarke’s website lists multiple state lawmakers as “Of Counsel,” i.e., paid by the law firm for their affiliations. Some of these lawmakers have legislative districts that encompass these school districts, and all vote on state taxpayer funding for these school districts. These lawmakers include House Democrat Appropriations Chair Matt Bradford (Montgomery County), Sen. Steve Santarsiero (Bucks County), Sen. Maria Collett (Bucks and Montgomery counties), Rep. Ben Sanchez (Montgomery County), and Rep. Mike Zabel (Delaware County) — all Democrats.
In the 2022-23 state budget alone, these lawmakers voted to increase funding for the above-named school districts by a total of $11,282,459, broken down as follows:
- Norristown Area School District: $4,821,597 (a 29.59% increase over the 2021-22 fiscal year)
- Bensalem Township School District: $2,105,053 (a 13.85% increase)
- Colonial School District: $557,612 (a 14.84% increase)
- Hatboro-Horsham School District: $772,502 (a 13.97% increase)
- Upper Perkiomen School District: $403,589 (a 4.34% increase)
- North Penn School District: $2,622,106 (a 22.20% increase)
These school districts use their taxpayer funding for many things, among which are legal services of law firms like Rudolph Clarke.
In a nutshell, the flow chart looks like this: Lawmakers vote for millions of dollars in increased funding for school districts, these school districts then pay Rudolph Clarke for legal services, and Rudolph Clarke then pays lawmakers, who vote for more funding for school districts… and the cycle continues.
State law requires that elected officials file annual Statements of Financial Interest, on which they must disclose outside sources of income. But they’re not required to disclose the amount of this income.
[L]egislators seeking to improve transparency and confidence in government should consider that apparent conflicts of interest do little to help either.
I reached out to Rudolph Clarke via email, asking how the firm would reply to concerns that there are conflicts of interest in paying lawmakers who then vote on legislation relating to education funding. I also asked how much Rudolph Clarke compensates state legislators who serve as “Of Counsel.” I received no reply.
Similarly, I reached out to both the House and Senate Democratic caucuses asking the same questions about conflicts of interest. I also asked if the caucuses believe lawmakers should be required to disclose the amounts of outside sources of income on annual statements of financial interest.
Here, too, I received no reply.
Lawmakers are not prohibited from holding outside jobs, and they’re not prohibited from voting on legislation that benefits an entity that indirectly pays them.
But permitted does not always equal prudent. And at the very least, legislators seeking to improve transparency and confidence in government should consider that apparent conflicts of interest do little to help either.
Gina Pope is the Public Affairs Director at Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, an independent, non-partisan, 501(c)(6) membership organization dedicated to improving the economic environment and educational opportunities in Pennsylvania. www.thecommonwealthpartners.com.