Smoking the $150 cigar

Columnist : Albert Paschall

by Albert Paschall,
Senior Commentator, Lincoln Institute

I wonder what it would be like to smoke a cigar that cost $150. The cigars I occasionally smoke cost about a buck apiece.  One that cost as much as I spend on gas for my car for a month should probably smoke itself.  But if somebody else were paying for it, especially a Pennsylvania government agency, I’d give it a try.  I’d probably really like that expensive smoke after a day of golf and a relaxing Golfer’s Glow treatment.  At the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, Golfer’s Glow it’s an exfoliating salt scrub to relax worn muscles after 18 holes.

If you end that same day with a gourmet dinner and drinks running up a tab of about $200 a person what do you get?  Happy board members of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA).

PHEAA manages over $84 billion in assets to make state grants, financial aid and loans available to college students.  Since 2000 the agency has spent over $860,000 entertaining its Board of Directors at posh resorts all over the country.  From Nemacolin Golf Resort near Erie to California’s sunny San Fernando Valley the trips included limousine rides, facials, pedicures, $150 cigars and of course a Golfer’s Glow Treatment for a PHEAA Board Member.

All tolled the cost of PHEAA Board retreats could have paid for about 500 hundred students to attend a Pennsylvania Community College for a semester.  Instead of fishing trips, facials and pedicures the junkets could have funded something to the tune of 2,800 refurbished computers or purchased about 30,000 used textbooks for our kids.

That’s all over now.  Last week after a statewide furor ignited by newspaper reports the Board of PHEAA enacted some of the most stringent travel restrictions of any state agency.

In addition to reform of PHEAA’s extravagance there’s a lot of good coming out of this fiasco.  For a decade media and public policy advocates have called for a better open records law in this state.  This is the case and this is the time to push the General Assembly to finally open up all the state’s books.

A lot of people are busy kicking newspapers around these days. The Internet is supposedly replacing them. But bloggers, ipods and websites can’t persist the way that Jan Murphy, Capitol Bureau Chief of the Harrisburg Patriot News did. First uncovering the bloated largesse of PHEAA executive compensation in 2002 she maintained a steady determination to smoke out the truth about the agency’s spending. Even after being personally named in a lawsuit filed by PHEAA executives she didn’t bend.  Backed by her newspaper, the Associated Press and WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh she blew the lid off the biggest story to hit Harrisburg since the middle of the night pay raise.

In 2003, W. Dean Singleton, vice chairman of Media News Group, one of the nation’s largest media companies said: “nobody is in a better position to win on the Internet than newspapers are.” He’s right. While analysts ruminate that the Internet will somehow replace newspapers, they ignore media history. A generation ago FM radio began to dominate the airwaves, as an extension of AM broadcasts. At the same time the idea of cabling up a TV and paying for it grew from absurd to market domination.

The Internet is an amazing extension of newspaper readership not a threat to them. People all over the world can find the stories that the Patriot News ran about this scandal online just like I did.

Reporters like Jan Murphy and her editors give those of us who love newspapers hope for the industry’s future. Students and parents who are paying off PHEAA loans owe her and her colleagues a debt of gratitude as do the staff of PHEAA. Someday when this all the agency’s reforms are in place they could start a new grant: The Jan Murphy – Harrisburg Patriot News Scholarship for the study of effective journalism.

Albert Paschall
Senior Fellow
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.