How State Republicans Blocked an Investigation into Gov. Corbett’s Handling of Sandusky
On Monday, state House Republicans pulled a ridiculous parliamentary parlor trick in order to defeat a resolution calling for an investigation into Gov. Corbett’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky investigation while he was state attorney general. Since the resolution was blocked, House Democrats are now calling on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder directly to open an inquiry in order to confirm—or clear—allegations that Corbett slow-walked the investigation for political gain.
Some background: The resolution (HR 520) calling for an investigation was introduced by Rep. Anthony DeLuca (D-Allegheny) back in December 2011, then referred to the Rules Committee. Unsurprisingly, Republican Rep. Mike Turzai, House Majority Leader and chair of the Rules Committee, let the resolution sit and never called it to the floor. (It’s the preferred passive-aggressive method to kill legislation in Harrisburg, especially when it is feared that said legislation may pass a vote.)
However, a parliamentary maneuver, a “discharge petition,” exists to be used for just such an occasion. A discharge petition requires 25 signatures and is designed to crowbar a resolution or bill out of the committee chair and down to the floor after it has been sitting for a designated period of time. So in June, Rep. Brandon Neuman (D-Washington) filed the discharge petition to pry HR 520 out from under Turzai’s chair. There have only been a few voting session days since June, and so as the world watched Sandusky get sentenced to dying in prison, Pennsylvania legislators wondered if we’d ever know if he could have been stopped earlier.
In the wake of Sandusky’s arrest, it became more and more apparent that Penn State is a stronghold of power and money in Pennsylvania politics. It’s certainly not a community a politician would want to disenfranchise while mounting a gubernatorial campaign. And as reported by Deadspin last year, former and then-current board members of Second Mile donated $201,783.64 to Corbett’s 2010 campaign.
Back to the House: As reported by PW, Rep. Tim Briggs (D-Montgomery County), new enough to the game of politics in Pennsylvania to perhaps either not know or care about the political repercussions of his actions, called for the discharge petition while he was at the microphone on Oct. 3.
Speaker of the House Rep. Sam Smith (R-Punxsutawney) banged the gavel and declared Briggs was out of order. Then, the Republicans called for a temporary recess and turned out the lights. Though sources on the scene say the session was expected to go until 11 p.m., they never reconvened.
“The reaction was—it’s hard to explain,” explains Briggs to PW after the episode. Briggs says that after signing the discharge petition, any of the signers can call for it. “It’s not like we rope-a-doped or misled anyone.”
And so the issue remained unresolved until yesterday, the first day the House was back in session since that episode. This time, instead of turning out the lights and playing possum, House Republicans craftily manipulated a letter of the law in order to defeat the spirit of its intention. When the discharge resolution was called up, House Republicans called for House Rule 53.
See, according to House Rule 53, a discharge petition can’t happen if addressed within the last six days left in the legislative session—it has to be addressed before that. It shouldn’t have been a problem, because as of yesterday morning, there were seven days left before the current session expires.
So what happened?
Twenty minutes before the session began at 1 p.m., House Republicans issued a memo canceling sessions scheduled for Nov. 19 and Nov. 20—days that would have been the last two voting days of the year. Voila! By the time the discharge resolution was brought up yesterday afternoon, there suddenly were only five days left.
A procedural vote was held on whether or not to suspend House Rule 53. Turzai said the resolution should have been addressed earlier but, of course, he’s the one who blocked it. Then he urged everyone to vote against suspending Rule 53.
Lawmakers hoping to vote on the resolution didn’t get the two-thirds majority necessary (they needed 19 more votes) to suspend the rule, to hear the petition, to vote on the resolution–because of a technicality completed manufactured by House Republicans 20 minutes before the session.
“I suspect they would have found another reason not to, but by canceling those two days, it was a simple way for them to claim the discharge was out of order,” says House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton. “They made it clear on October 3 that they had no stomach for this and we saw that again today.”
“I was disappointed we didn’t get a vote,” says Neuman. “I think if we would have had a vote, it would have passed.”
The effort to investigate the efficiency of the Sandusky investigation hasn’t always been strictly partisan, but is appears to have devolved into a hot potato. The three Republican co-sponsors of the original resolution have all recently disavow anything to do with it. According to his office, Rep. Mario Scavello (R-Monroe) removed himself as sponsor in August. The office of Rep. Mark Keller (R-Perry) told PW his initial sponsorship was a typo—which is interesting, because that’s exactly what the office of Rep. Gary Day (R-Lehigh/Berks) told PW, too. And Keller and Day both happened to have noticed the typo about two weeks ago: Presumably right after it was brought up on Oct. 3, and everyone ran out of the room.
“The reaction of the majority party … makes me think we probably really do need it,” Briggs told PW. “It was kind of shocking to me that that was how to deal with a concern that has been raised across Pennsylvania.”
The resolution may be dead, but House Democrats intend to pursue the matter independently: They’ve already drafted a letter to send to the U.S. attorney general’s office, requesting an investigation.
House Democrats are determined to see Corbett investigated on the matter. Neuman told PW that if the letter isn’t enough to spark an investigation, they’ll re-introduce a new resolution next year. Pennsylvania House Republicans can’t keep the lights off forever.