The power of the state attorney general to tackle public corruption would be greatly expanded under a legislative proposal stemming from a state investigation into the large public debt racked up through financing deals at Harrisburg’s trash incinerator.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers plan to introduce a bill giving the attorney general authority to investigate and prosecute county, city, and municipal officials and employees for public corruption. Under current law, the attorney general can only prosecute public corruption cases of state officials and employees under certain circumstances. This occurs when county district attorneys refer a case because they have a conflict of interest or lack adequate resources to pursue it.
A state grand jury issued a report last month wrapping up a state investigation of incinerator deals that led up to $300 million in debt during the tenure of former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed. The investigation was launched followed a referral from Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico.
The grand jury recommended no criminal charges in the incinerator case citing a statute of limitations that expired in 2015. However, the grand jury made recommendations to change state laws to help protect municipal taxpayers from excessive debt in the future. These include expanding the attorney general’s prosecuting power to include local officials and extending the statute of limitations to cover wrongdoing discovered after an official leaves office.
The referral system often causes “undesirable delay” in pursuing criminal charges, the grand jury said.
The grand jury report gave momentum to senators who have pushed to enact stronger municipal debt laws since 2013 in response to the incinerator controversy. They have now gained allies in the House who plan to introduce companion bills.
Under the powers bill, the attorney general could prosecute local officials when state laws are violated, said Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna, the sponsor. Federal prosecutors have jurisdiction to prosecute local officials for violations of federal laws in such areas as mail fraud and bribery and extortion.
The legislation to expand the attorney general’s power comes after the elective office weathered a series of controversies leading to the conviction of former Attorney General Kathleen Kane for leaking grand jury information to a reporter and lying about it to another grand jury and her resignation from office last summer.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro said this week he strongly supports having the additional prosecuting authority. He also noted he’s seeking a $500,000 increase to strengthen the office’s Public Corruption Unit in the fiscal 2017-18 state budget.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, said he would take a close look at what he described as giving the attorney general “super power” to investigate local officials.
The attorney general’s office would need a larger budget if that power was granted, said Harrisburg attorney Water Cohen, a one-time acting attorney general.
“The question here is whether the General Assembly, if it expands the jurisdiction of the OAG, will give the office the necessary resources to actually conduct such additional investigations and prosecutions, which can be very complicated and time-consuming,” wrote Cohen.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association will probably take a position on the legislation.