Back in the 1970s, a young and elegant state senator from Scranton aligned himself with the rowdy Sen. Henry "Buddy" Cianfrani and other politicians representing the state Capitol's caucus of crooks.
In those days, when I worked in Harrisburg, we all expected Cianfrani to wind up in prison, and he did, along with a long list of powerful legislators and bureaucrats with names like Fineman, Benedict, Mazzei, Hilton and Cerilli. They all seemed recklessly and unabashedly corrupt.
The dapper Sen. Robert Mellow was too clever and careful for that. He was as smooth as silk.
Mellow was often controversial, however. He was one of the top lawmakers who engineered the gambling casino legislation of 2004 and the legislative and court pay hikes of 2005, both measures glaringly unconstitutional. (The legislative raises were soon repealed but members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court insisted on keeping their illegal loot.)
Mellow also had a key role in an outrageous ploy to keep a judicial nominee from his seat in Northampton County.
Emil Giordano's Senate confirmation was scuttled by Mellow at the behest, news stories said, of District Attorney John Morganelli. Mellow accused Giordano of being in favor of child molesters, based on a case in which Giordano, as a public defender, was required to represent a convicted molester for violating probation.
That probation, by the way, had been approved by — you guessed it — Morganelli. (Giordano, widely regarded as a man of integrity, eventually did get a robe and remains on the bench today.)
That sort of sleaze did not keep Mellow from being held in high esteem by fellow politicians, and he spent two decades as the Legislature's Senate Democratic leader.
Anyway, we were wrong in our optimism about Mellow. In May, he copped a plea to federal charges involving his election campaigns. (Almost all such corruption cases involving people in Pennsylvania's power structure are in federal court; the state system generally refuses to touch them, as we saw in the Luzerne County "kids for cash" scandal. Getting a state corruption conviction here is reminiscent of what it was like in Mississippi a few decades ago when Kluxers harmed or killed blacks.)
When Mellow was convicted in May, I was surprised but I did not get excited. Ho hum, another bum bites the dust.
On Wednesday, however, I was fascinated by a press release from Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, an organization headed by Tim Potts, a Harrisburg insider I got to know and respect back in the 1970s.
The DRP release noted "the complete lack of limits on campaign contributions and ineffective enforcement of campaign finance laws," which let politicians use campaign contribution money "for just about any purpose under the sun."
To wit: Mellow, on the way to his guilty plea, spent $740,000 on lawyers, all from campaign contributions that, under the law, can be used only for election purposes. That's not why he was prosecuted; the federal charges that brought his guilty plea had to do with other crimes, such as forcing taxpayers to pay for staff members to work on his re-election campaign.
As for spending $740,000 on lawyers to fight those charges, the state's Campaign Finance Reporting Law, the DRP observed, stipulates such money is "for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election."
Mellow's expenditures, as reported by the Scranton Times-Tribune in February, were well after he was out of office. (With the feds on his heels, Mellow announced in 2010 that he would not seek re-election.)
"Exactly $700,000," the Times-Tribune reported, "was paid April 28 to Scranton attorney Sal Cognetti Jr."
The discussion of Mellow's crimes was secondary to the DRP's main point:
According to the national State Integrity Investigation project, Pennsylvania ranks 47th among the 50 states when it comes to the integrity of election campaigns. (The SII is connected to the Center for Public Integrity, one of the nation's oldest and largest nonpartisan and nonprofit organizations working for the public interest.)
Such a dismal performance, said an SII statement, "should have a chilling effect on voters who want an honest process behind campaign funding in their state."
I asked SII managing editor John Dunbar about the poor showing by Pennsylvania and a few other states (Alabama, Utah and Wyoming). "Unfortunately, ethics laws are notoriously toothless," he said.
At DRP, Potts said Mellow is far from being alone when it comes to collecting campaign contribution money after leaving elective office. He noted that former Gov. Ed Rendell does the same thing.
"It [the problem of campaign contribution money being used for things other than campaigns] is really easy to fix, but nobody [in Harrisburg] wants to fix it," Potts said.
The problem of elections depending on huge campaign contributions from special interests is bad enough. That, by itself, can put politicians in their pockets.
When you consider that enormous amounts of money are given to candidates, who then can use it for personal purposes, you can see where that is likely to lead.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.