AP: Drug, gun arrests in some Pa. lawmakers' pasts

Get the latest Philadelphia news and headlines from across the Delaware and Lehigh valleys every day on 6abc.com.

November 13, 2010 1:11:42 PM PST
Drug offenses, gun charges, theft and drunken driving turned up in the backgrounds of some state lawmakers when the entire Pennsylvania General Assembly was checked against public records, news accounts and other sources.

At least five lawmakers were found to have convictions of criminal offenses. Six others had convictions in cases that were later expunged or stricken or had arrests that were resolved without convictions by completing a diversion program. Another five who turned up in The Associated Press investigation with records of arrests or citations either won acquittals or their cases were dropped.

In one case, a lawmaker's 1996 arrest for disorderly conduct in North Carolina remained, unresolved, on the books until the AP began asking about it. It was dismissed late last month.

The AP's background inquiry was undertaken as three current lawmakers face felony corruption trials next year related to the Bonusgate investigation into alleged corruption in the statehouse.

No felonies were uncovered and the misdeeds - many dating back decades - are not likely to result in expulsion under the Pennsylvania Constitution's language barring anyone from serving in public office who has been convicted of an "infamous crime."

But the state Supreme Court is poised to interpret that vague phrase in a pending case regarding whether a federal felony conviction should have prevented a man from serving as mayor in Wrightsville, a Susquehanna River town between York and Lancaster counties. Previous state court cases have determined that infamous crimes include all felonies, but former Wrightsville Mayor Steve Rambler's conviction was for a federal charge the state Superior Court said would have been a misdemeanor under state law.

State lawmakers' criminal histories raise questions about what crimes should be a bar to public office, as well as how accountable political candidates and officeholders should be for offenses committed decades ago. As lawmakers, should they should be held to a higher standard, or can years of public service outweigh past mistakes?

Two lawmakers' decades-old shoplifting cases, and a third who pleaded guilty in 1987 to possessing a gun with a scratched-off identification mark, show how the constitution's "infamous crime" prohibition lacks clarity.

That's because "infamous crime" has been defined by the courts to encompass offenses that affect the administration of justice, or are "crimen falsi," a Latin legal term for offenses with an element of dishonesty that include bribery, perjury, theft and receiving stolen property.

The Pennsylvania attorney general's office declined to comment about whether those three lawmakers should be removed, and district attorneys in the lawmakers' home districts expressed reluctance to seek their ouster, in part because the offenses happened so long ago.

Under state law, the term "infamous crime" does not necessarily mean a violent, or even serious, offense. Pennsylvania courts have ruled, for example, that it did not apply to a borough councilman who pleaded guilty to various offenses after he held his girlfriend at gunpoint in a car for three hours.

Rambler, the former Wrightsville mayor, pleaded guilty in 1996 to a federal felony charge of mailing threatening communications for sending about 30 letters - threatening to make public sexually explicit photos of people he'd contacted through swinger's magazines - unless they each paid him $50. Superior Court ruled in March that he should not have been removed from office, because the same offense would be a misdemeanor under state law. The York County district attorney is pursuing an appeal.

The high court could rule narrowly on the facts surrounding the case, or provide some broader guidelines to interpret the term "infamous crimes."

The AP's background checks on the Legislature may not have caught arrests made before computer records were kept, expunged cases, out-of-state charges or federal cases. Similar arrest histories may well turn up if comprehensive checks were made of lawmakers in other state Legislatures across the country, or of public officials at other levels of Pennsylvania government.


Load Comments