Review: Bumsted’s “Keystone Corruption”
“It happened 100 years ago. It will happen 100 years from now.” That was the reaction of Turnpike Commissioner Egidio Cerelli to his conviction for soliciting a political contribution from PennDOT workers.
That sentiment could also very well serve as the central thesis of Brad Bumsted’s new book Keystone Corruption. Bumsted, a noted political reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, provides an overview of Harrisburg corruption for the last century with a special emphasis on the years 2005 to 2012.
Keystone Corruption is a detailed portrait of all the various scandals and their characters that have occurred in the state since the Capitol building was built in 1906.
In fact, in a humorous and enlightening account, Bumsted explains that the Capitol building itself was the ultimate product of political graft. Although construction was initially projected to cost $4 million, ultimately $13 million was spent on contractors (a difference of more than $225 million in today’s dollars). The prices for everything from paneling to sofas to umbrella tubs were vastly exaggerated.
The anecdote illuminates the key strength of Bumstead’s work; his detailed and informative accounting of corruption in the Capitol. This is especially true for the period when he first started covering Harrisburg in the 1970’s all the way to the present day. For instance, he presents the sagas of Governor Milton Shapp’s troubled administration, recounts Auditor General Al Benedict’s corruption and gives gives us a view of his brutal 1984 campaign for Attorney General against R. Budd Dwyer.
Dwyer’s shocking suicide, which occurred in front of reporters and cameras at a press conference to refute his own corruption charges, is a particularly striking canary in the coalmine.
The heart of the book, though, concerns the numerous scandals of the last few years. This period of journalistic investigation and prosecutorial scrutiny was seemingly born out of the infamous midnight pay raise that was passed by the state legislature in 2005. The bald audacity and arrogance of the move seemed to finally create in the public and the press an intense furor to take down corrupt legislators. In the years to come, the details of the Bonusgate and Computergate scandals captivated the state and Bumsted provides extraordinary accounts of these events, which not only provide a clear explanation of the complicated actions but also thoroughly informative accounts of the actual people involved.
There is, however, one major component missing from this book. Bumsted gives us so much of the what yet he neglects to dig towards the more vital question of why.
He notes that these politicians were motivated by power and the fear of losing by losing re-election. But he never really addresses the central role money plays in this dilemma. So much of the book concerns the use of money yet the reader never feels the author lament money’s power in politics. What makes this especially disappointing is that Bumsted doesn’t shy away from revealing his thoughts or opinions, in fact most of the book is written in his voice. Nonetheless the final chapter, where authors often seek to provide their own remedies, Bumsted defers to other well-known state politicos.
In that spirit, since Bumsted allowed for others to suggest their own remedies, I thought I’d give it a shot myself. Almost all of the state’s recent scandals concerned officials using public money or resources to fund their re-election efforts. Public financing of campaigns would be a perfect remedy for these issues. Likewise, reforms are needed to mitigate the influence of lobbyists in the state capital.
Finally Bumsted spends some time on the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal.
Many have questioned why AG Corbett spent so much time on Bonusgate rather than on Sandusky’s far more heinous crimes. Bumsted feels that criticism is unfair to Corbett.
After the outrageous pay raise, the legislature became such an easy target that the public demanded Corbett to keep a sharp eye on its members.
Many have and will continue to critique the Governor for this, but the real problem is we all kept our eyes off Harrisburg for too long. It wasn’t just lawmakers’ arrogance that spurred Keystone Corruption; it was also the public’s own willful ignorance.