Apparent conflicts of interest ignored by state legislators | “Critics have complained that Senate Judiciary Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, held an unbalanced hearing in which four witnesses testified the proposed child sex abuse law is unconstitutional, while only one defended it. “
| 6/21/16 | Bill White | The Morning Call |
State Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, has been under steady fire since last week’s committee hearing on whether the statute of limitations reform bill for child sex abuse cases is constitutional.
Testimony focused on the part of House Bill 1947 that retroactively extends the statute for civil child sex abuse cases from 30 years old to 50. All but one of the five lawyers who testified at the hearing said that provision would be struck down by Pennsylvania courts because of the state constitution’s “remedies clause” and more than a century of court decisions and that it should be removed from the bill.
Critics have complained that Greenleaf rigged the hearing by not balancing it with more people who feel the retroactive provision is constitutional, including the Delaware state solicitor, who was on hand to testify about the way Delaware’s similar law survived a constitutional challenge.
Greenleaf pointed out that a University of Pennsylvania law professor also was prepared to testify to the bill’s constitutionality but ended up having a conflict and couldn’t attend. His written testimony was included in the record.
Greenleaf spokesman Aaron Zappia told me they only wanted testimony from people who are experts on Pennsylvania constitutional law, and that Delaware’s state solicitor, Lawrence Lewis, “just wouldn’t be a good fit for that hearing.”
Zappia said, “He certainly would be able to speak to what happened in Delaware, but Delaware’s constitution is different from Pennsylvania’s.”
Much attention in the wake of the hearing concerned allegations that Greenleaf has a conflict of interest.
A law firm representing Delaware abuse survivors argued that Greenleaf should recuse himself from any consideration of this bill because the law firm in which he is a partner, Elliott Greenleaf, represented institutions of the Catholic Church several years ago in its attempts to stop similar statute of limitations legislation in Delaware, claiming it was unconstitutional.
Thomas Neuberger of the Neuberger Firm, noting the imbalance in testimony and the fact that Greenleaf didn’t mention his law firm’s history with the subject, wrote after the hearing, “This is legislative ethics at its worst.”
Greenleaf’s answer was that the Senate parliamentarian has ruled he needn’t recuse himself. The ruling concludes that he has no conflict, since the challenge involves a past case in which he had no personal involvement and in which his law firm no longer actively represents that client. Parliamentarian Megan Martin explains that the Senate standard is: “If there is no direct benefit to the member from passage of the legislation, then there is no conflict.”
My favorite part was this passage:
“In cases concerning questions of conflict of interest, there is an abundance of Senate precedent to guide us. Although I could find no examples in our journals where the chair ruled that a member had a conflict of interest, there are numerous examples in our Senate journals of rulings by the chair that no conflict existed.”
No. Conflicts. Ever. Perfect record.
I have other examples — go back and Google Morning Call reporter Steve Esack’s stories on state Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson, R-Bucks, the driving force behind a bill that would make the funeral home he owns more lucrative, a much more egregious conflict than this one — but suffice to say that the Senate, over which the state Ethics Commission has ruled it has no jurisdiction, has not set a lofty standard.
In all kinds of areas of commerce and government in which the public trust is considered important, organizations strive to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. Our lawmakers can’t be bothered.
Unfortunately, our state courts at times have been even less a bastion of high standards, as a string of scandals and other embarrassments have shown us. We got a new reminder the other day when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that former Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille was wrong to participate in an appeal from a death-row inmate whose prosecution he oversaw nearly three decades before. Duh.
The court noted, “Both the appearance and reality of impartial justice are necessary to the public legitimacy of judicial pronouncements and thus to the rule of law.”
As that ruling reminds us, even the appearance of a conflict challenges our trust that decisions are made solely on their merits. Without that baggage, it would be easier to accept Greenleaf’s claims that he attempted to conduct a fair, balanced hearing, and that he and his committee are giving HB 1947 fair consideration. Instead, we’re left with a situation in which it’s much more difficult to take what he does or the committee decides at face value.
Considering that the Senate never has found anyone to have a conflict, its parliamentarian’s support doesn’t provide much solace.
Tim Potts, who helped create the good-government group Democracy Rising PA, used to put this question to people: “Why shouldn’t Pennsylvania have the highest standards of public integrity in the nation?”
Clearly, it should.
Clearly, it doesn’t.