The Lead

Turzai lends support to gift ban after activists shower lawmakers with dollar bills, get arrested

By: - May 6, 2019 6:07 pm

Speaker of the House Mike Turzai meets with March on Harrisburg demonstrators Monday, May 6, 2019. (Courtesy of March on Harrisburg)

Twenty activists were arrested at the Capitol on Monday, after dropping dollars labeled “bribe” and blocking a building entrance in an attempt to pressure the state House to pass what they say is a long overdue gift ban.

The activists came from March On Harrisburg, a grassroots anti-corruption organization, at the conclusion of a nine-day march from Philadelphia to Harrisburg.

“It is absurd that bribery is legal in Pennsylvania,” Emmie DiCicco, a spokesperson for March on Harrisburg, said.

The group is calling for the passage of legislation sponsored by Rep. Tina Davis, D-Bucks, which would bar lawmakers from taking “any transportation, lodging, hospitality, cash, gift or anything of economic value” from lobbyists or other groups with business before the General Assembly.

The bill makes exception for light refreshments, commemorative gifts, informational materials, and “items of nominal economic value such as greeting cards, pens, caps or shirts.”

Eight activists disrupted the opening of Monday’s House session by showering the chamber in “bribe” money and releasing a banner that read “Some are guilty, all are responsible” from the chamber gallery.

Another 12 people with money taped over their mouths sat down outside the Capitol’s back entrance and unfurled a banner that said “$$ silences us.”

March on Harrisburg has pushed for the gift ban for years with non-violent demonstrations. The group sees it as way to take some power away from state lobbyists and monied interests. But the bill hasn’t received any traction.

Gov. Tom Wolf instituted a similar ban for the state’s executive branch personnel via executive order.

How far this incident will get the group wasn’t immediately clear. Caught after a Monday committee meeting, House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said he planned to have a hearing on the bill soon — as well as on redistricting and other electoral reform — but didn’t have a date yet.

“Disrupting session is probably not a great idea to endear yourself to leadership,” Everett said. “But they have a right to be here. They have a right to make their voices known.”

“He’s posing himself as the anti-Metcalfe,” DiCicco said of Everett, referring to the lawmaker’s reform-averse predecessor, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler. But she added that activists won’t be satisfied until they have a date and time for the gift ban vote.

The demonstration did get House Speaker Mike Turzai’s attention, however, as he approached the demonstrators behind the Capitol and gave them his support, according to DiCicco. Police arrested six members of the group in 2016 for protesting outside the Republican’s home to demand redistricting action.

The protest three years ago didn’t lead to any action. But Turzai did put his name on the gift ban bill following Monday’s impromptu meeting.

The headline and story were edited to correct an editing error.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.