Seriously, this is so obvious it can be frustrating when it seems necessary to point it out: If you are a politician or hold a position of public trust, you shouldn’t accept gifts or freebies — pretty much of any sort — from people with whom your job involves doing business.
Luzerne County Election Director Marisa Crispell got caught up in an ethical kerfuffle when we learned she had participated in two 2017 Election Systems & Software-funded advisory board trips to Las Vegas and Omaha, Nebraska. The company landed a $325,000 contact to provide electronic poll books for Luzerne County.
Crispell’s defense has sounded reasonable: She says her participation was cleared by county assistant solicitor Michael Butera and Administrative Services Division Head David Parsnik, and that she removed herself from the advisory position before the county sought proposals for said poll books. But sensible people and cynics alike (not that they are mutually exclusive) rightly ask why she took the freebies in the first place?
As Jennifer Learn Andes reported in Saturday’s paper, Crispell’s quandary prompted state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale to launch an investigation into election officials of all 67 Pennsylvania counties. His findings, unveiled Friday, do not hearten hope that common sense always prevails.
DePasquale said elected officials in 18 counties (including Northumberland) reported accepting gifts, meals or trips from companies competing to sell voting equipment. Those problematic perks included paid travel to destinations, tickets to a wine festival, dinners at high-end restaurants, open bar at a conference, and tickets to an amusement park, among others.
DePasquale asked rightly — and perhaps a bit sarcastically — what insight regarding voting machines could be gleaned from an amusement park ride or distillery tour. Perhaps a keen observation about how people prefer to vote when rating roller coasters or choosing chardonnay?
The auditor general was correct in calling for the state to toughen relevant laws on accepting and reporting gifts. While he found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing — indeed, he conceded odds were low anyone would agree to illegal behavior for, say, a bagel — he archly observed the real crime is that such gifts can legally be accepted in the first place.
He’s right. Barring acceptance of any gift can surely lead to its own problems of overzealous enforcement — the bagel analogy, for example. Yet a complete ban (as Gov. Tom Wolf declared for employees in his administration) is the best recourse in preventing influence peddling, including cases where the influence may be as legal as it is unrecognized.
Barring gift acceptance — and by extension influence buying — in the realm of our electoral process is even more critical. Fair and open elections are the lynch pin of our democracy. People need to trust election results for the system to work.
The state and Luzerne County need to make every effort to avoid even a hint of impropriety in vote gathering and tallying. It’s just too important.
— The Times Leader