The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra paid $30,000 to take 2 Pa. lawmakers to Europe

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HARRISBURG — In the final days of summer, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra embarked on a whirlwind nine-city European tour — its first international trip since the pandemic began.

The orchestra traveled to Germany, Slovenia and Austria, where it closed the world-famous Salzburg Festival. It was the only American orchestra to perform there that year, and tickets for the event were extremely hard to come by.

But not for a duo of Pennsylvania lawmakers.

State Senate Pro Tempore Speaker Jake Corman (R., Center) and State Representative Rob Mercuri (R., Allegheny), along with their wives, were in the audience that day in Salzburg as the The orchestra played Beethoven to thunderous applause. They also spent several days in Essen, Germany, where the orchestra performed works by Mahler, Ligeti and Beethoven.

The symphony, which has received nearly $10 million in public funding over the past five years, offered them the coveted tickets. He also covered the costs of their airfare, hotel, meals, and other incidentals.

The legislators’ European excursion, which the orchestra estimated to cost $30,000, is the kind of professional perk that a ban on gifts would make impossible for elected officials and other members of government.

But the Pennsylvania legislature recently adjourned for what will likely be the last voting day of its two-year session. He left a closely guarded no-gift bill on the cutting room floor.

“It’s the lowest fruit on the rotten tree of money and politics,” said Michael Pollack, executive director of good governance group March on Harrisburg, of the ban on gifts, which his organization has been advocating for several years.

But, he added, passing one would require setting aside self-interest: “They don’t want to change the culture of corruption in Harrisburg.”

Corman, through a spokesperson, declined to comment. Mercuri did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Pennsylvania is an exception among states when it comes to limiting gifts to elected officials and public employees.

Under current law, they are permitted to accept gifts, transportation and hospitality of any value as long as it is not in exchange for official action. They are required to report gifts on forms filed annually with the state Ethics Commission, but these forms do not become publicly available until the following calendar year. And there’s no vetting system in place to ensure lawmakers report everything they receive, which Pollack and other advocates say provides false assurances that the giveaways aren’t being used. to induce officials to a specific action.

Individual legislators have tried for more than a decade to limit or prohibit this benefit. But neither chamber of the General Assembly has shown the political will to push the measure to the finish line.

Proponents of the gift ban saw this legislative session as a game-changer. A coalition of senior Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature, including State House Speaker Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County and State Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward of Westmoreland County, for the first time publicly supported the imposition of limits on gifts. And a gift ban bill received a key vote from the state House committee, positioning it for a historic floor vote.

But that vote never happened, as the leaders of the States House chose to let it languish. Both chambers are expected to return to the Capitol after Nov. 8, but spokespersons for the leaders said it was not on their radar to consider a ban on gifts.

In the state Senate, Corman, who is retiring at the end of the year, was widely seen as the heist, as he staunchly refused to say whether he even supported the concept, let alone he would allow her to argue.

The measure will now have to be reintroduced in the new two-year session of the legislature which begins in January. At that time, it will also have to start the lengthy legislative approval process all over again.

In 2021, lobbyists reported spending more than $1.6 million on gifts, hospitality, transportation and lodging for government officials or employees and their families, according to Annual Report filed with the state. However, due to weak lobbying disclosure laws in Pennsylvania, these lobbyists do not have to disclose who they spent money on or for what purpose.

Elected officials, however, must report gifts worth $250 or more — and hospitality worth $650 or more — on ethics forms filed annually. For example, Corman said last year he received $5,411 in travel and accommodation from a national group working to elect Republicans to state office, and an additional $1,408 for attend a workshop for legislative leaders hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

He also said he received a $6,667 “gift” from a western Pennsylvania law firm that provided pro bono representation when he sued over masking requirements for the schools imposed by the Wolf administration just before the start of the 2021-22 academic year.

Mercuri, a first-term House member, did not report any gifts or hospitality on his ethics form for 2021.

The trip to Europe will not be made public until May next year, when the state ethics commission publishes annual financial disclosure statements for the previous calendar year on its website. Spotlight PA learned this from an anonymous source who shared the information after reading that several lawmakers have been offered free trips attend a major western festival in Wyoming this summer.

Even then, officials report few details: just the value of the gift or hospitality, and who paid for it.

In emails, a spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra said the organization has extended invitations to all four legislative caucuses, so that one legislator from each will join the international tour.

Spokeswoman Julie Goetz estimated that it cost about $15,000 each for Corman and Mercuri to attend the tour, and that the two lawmakers were in Europe for four days, minus travel time.

She said the symphony has hosted elected officials on international tours before, including in 2004, when several officials traveled with the orchestra to see it perform at the Vatican. The symphony could not provide details of who went on this trip or who paid for it.

The symphony, wrote Goetz, thought it was important that “a small cross-section of our chosen ones see us in this role on our tours and have the opportunity to interact with foreign dignitaries and business leaders. “.

Like other arts organizations, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra employs lobbyists and competes for state funding. Much of this money comes from grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

Goetz pointed out that state funding is limited and has not been used for touring costs.

Last year, according to the latest available data, the orchestra received just over $4.5 million from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, funds earmarked for marketing to tourists. State funding from previous years was also used for marketing purposes.

The orchestra also receives grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, although the amounts are more modest: just under $400,000 since 2017.

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