Editor's note: Originally published in the 7/3/18 edition of The Caucus.
In an unusual public hearing in the Capitol last summer, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe fumed over the grocery bills at the lieutenant governor’s mansion. Was it necessary, he wondered, for an official earning more than $160,000 a year to make taxpayers pick up the tab for New York strip steaks, mahi mahi and swordfish?
The events appeared to be mostly personal, and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack maybe should’ve been using his campaign funds rather than the cash-strapped state budget, Metcalfe said.
“At a time when the state budget remains a major concern … we all should be doing everything we can to reduce costs and especially not be spending extravagantly,” Metcalfe said at the hearing, which was prompted by The Caucus’ reporting on Stack’s expenses.
But the embattled lieutenant governor wasn’t the only one handing in his food receipts.
Metcalfe and his fellow lawmakers spend tens of thousands of dollars every year on food-related expenses as they host guests and hold meetings in Harrisburg and within their districts, according to a Caucus review of public records.
Food is easy to come by in the Capitol, whether it’s served to guests, constituents or even to legislators — especially during busy session days. Fundraising breakfasts, committee lunches, lobbyistfunded dinners and evening cocktail receptions are seemingly scattered around every corner of the Capitol.
It would be entirely possible for a legislator to graze his or her way through an entire day without spending a dime on nourishment.
Lawmakers from both chambers spent at least $75,000 on the Capitol’s cafeteria-based caterer, C& J Catering, from January 2017 through January 2018, receipts obtained through the Right-to-Know Law show.
They also spent thousands more on outside caterers in the Harrisburg area or in their home districts, bringing the likely total on food-related expenses well into six-figures for the year. (Senate catering expenses from restaurants outside of the Capitol were still pending under a Right-to-Know Law request by The Caucus.) While some receipts detail the names and identities of guests — such as sports teams or jazz bands visiting the Capitol — the purpose of other meals is unclear; there was no stated reason or number of people fed.
Lawmakers say that occasionally buying pizzas or sandwiches for legislative business meetings, celebrating local sports champions or district-based constituent events is acceptable.
Still, little transparency exists for their food purchases — even among lawmakers who voluntarily publish their office expenses online. The quantity of meals and amounts spent raise legitimate questions the public should consider, legislative observers say.
“Obviously there’s some fuzzy, some gray area,” said Nathan Benefield, vice president and chief operating officer of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank. “But is that a good use of taxpayer money? Is that necessary for them to be able to do their job as a legislator or is it just kind of the pomp and circumstance of the office?”
Slicing up the Pie
State legislators and their guests ate thousands of slices of pizza in one year, ordering from a C& J Catering as well as other Harrisburg-area pizza shops.
Legislators also consumed more than 20 pounds of pork, brisket and turkey, along with more upscale menu items such as chicken with asiago, prosciutto and sage.
The Old Town Deli, on Third Street at the foot of the Capitol, routinely billed legislators for meal packages of several hundred dollars a pop. Jimmy John’s on North Second Street got a piece of the action, too, with Democratic Whip Michael Hanna Sr. placing multiple orders for party platters, including “Turkey Tom” and “Totally Tuna.”
Mary-Jo Mullen, the comptroller for the House of Representatives, said money for representatives’ meals can come from several accounts.
All representatives receive an annual amount of $20,000 in an “accountable account” and $4,000 for postage. The accountable account could be used for office furniture, signs, events and food, she said. Legislators can choose to use their accountable account to host events at the Capitol or pay for meals in their district office.
Each senator receives at least $40,000 — $20,000 from the Legislative Accountable Expense Account and $20,000 from the Postage & Communications Expense Account.
Senate Chief Clerk Donetta M. D’Innocenzo said no food is reimbursed from the “Postage and Communications” account.
Mullen, who oversees five full-time staffers who work on member expenses, said that in addition to the accountable accounts, committee chairs also are given a separate amount of money to use for food, advertising or other purposes deemed important by the chairperson.
Legislative leaders also have separate funding streams available, but the details about the committee and leadership accounts aren’t immediately transparent. Regardless of the title of the account, the legislators’ expenses are funded by taxpayers.
Metcalfe, who is finishing his eighth year as majority chair of the House State Government Committee, held a lunch meeting on the same day that Dr. John Lott, a crime economist and author of “More Guns, Less Crime” testified before the committee on the topic of gun-free zones.
The May 2017 lunch was catered from Harrisburg pizzeria Monte Carlo. The cost of the pizzas — which included meat-lovers, pepperoni and mushroom pies — was $103.
“That was pizza. Real extravagant,” Metcalfe said sarcastically when asked about the meal for this story.
“We had Dr. Lott speak at the gun rally, then had him come in and we fed him a couple slices of pizza so he’d come and talk to us in an informational meeting,” Metcalfe said.
The order of eight pizzas contained 64 slices.
“I don’t know where he would’ve gotten lunch, especially with the protesters being arrested outside my office that day,” Metcalfe added.
The Butler County Republican said he’s used the committee account “very efficiently” and has never received an increase in appropriations for that or his own House expense account.
He said he recently hosted a statewide championship sports team from his district at the Capitol for the first time in his 20 years in office.
“I think the majority of my constituents would support that kind of expenditure,” he said. “It’s not like we’re doing it every week, either.”
Taxpayer-paid or lobbyist-funded meals are abundantly available at the Capitol and around Harrisburg. Historically, powerful lawmakers have leaned on lobbyists to take groups of legislators to dinner at the city’s best restaurants and, of course, pick up the tab.
But legislators are given a nice sum to buy food and lodging. They may collect per diems to stay overnight in Harrisburg. Reimbursement for mileage and state-paid vehicle leases also are available.
The flat rate was $179 in 2017, when most of the lunches reviewed by The Caucus occurred.
No receipts are required for purchases made with per-diem allowances.
In the past, some lawmakers used the per diems to help pay off their share of a mortgage on a house they could subsequently resell. Currently, many legislators claim up to $191 in per diems, Mullen said. For example, Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny, said he receives a per diem of $183, including $69 for meals.
And what if they don’t actually spend the money on food?
Rank-and-file lawmakers may be docked for a portion of their per diem if they attend a luncheon and their name is turned in as an attendee, said Rep. Seth Grove, co-chair of the Taxpayers’ Caucus.
But there is no House rule requiring representatives to report that they have not actually expended money for food, House Clerk David Reddecliff said.
“If you don’t need it (food per diem) you shouldn’t take it,” but there is no way to police members, Reddecliff added.
Reddecliff told The Caucus that legislators essentially operate on an “honor system.”
The honor system didn’t work well for one House member — Beaver County Democratic Rep. Mike Veon, who was charged in 2008 by then-attorney General Tom Corbett with 59 counts including conflict of interest, theft and conspiracy for directing a scheme to award secret taxpayer-paid bonuses to House staffers who worked on campaigns.
Some of the criminal charges related to Veon’s $22,000 dinner tabs from 2002 through 2006, which were paid with his state leadership expenses. He spent money on meals after pick-up basketball games in Harrisburg following House sessions.
On the same days Veon purchased the food for players, including other lawmakers and staffers, he also collected per diems for food and lodging.
He charged about $10,800 in per diems for food and lodging on days of the so-called “basketball dinners,” according to a 2008 statewide grand jury presentment. Legislative staffers set up the dinners at the Capitol. One staffer told the grand jury the “sushi bills were astronomical.”
While Veon was acquitted of doubledipping for meals, he was convicted of 14 of 59 counts related to illegal bonuses and using public funds for campaigns.
With the state budget taking up most of each legislative year, and dictating the schedule along the way, lawmakers apparently work up their biggest appetites during budget discussions.
At least $26,606 can be tied to food consumption during appropriations committee meetings, hearings and budget briefings, according to the House and Senate receipts.
Rep. Stan Saylor, the House’s top Republican budget official, charged $9,576 for meals during budget hearings between the end of February to the end of June 2017, records show. He also spent on other gatherings — $312 in January 2017 for a budget briefing for freshman members, for example.
On Aug. 10, 2017, he spent $684 at Stock’s on 2nd for an off-site budget caucus. Almost all of the catered meals at the Capitol were from Grand Cru Hospitality, which is based in Steelton.
As budget talks were ongoing across the aisle, House Democrats feasted routinely with catered breakfasts and lunches from Grand Cru Hospitality.
Breakfasts for 17 people were $8 per person. And the lunches, for 25 people, were between $11 and $13 per person.
When it comes to the Capitol’s in-house caterer, the Senate spent $32,034.89 and the House spent $43,216.30 in 2017, according to receipts reviewed by The Caucus.
The receipts covered a wide range of visitors eating on the taxpayers’ dime: constituents, award-winning youth sports teams, senior citizens and musical groups. Some receipts clearly noted the purpose of the meal while others had no identifying information, or the information was redacted.
Records show Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, the co-chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Hunger Caucus, paid more than $7,500 for “leadership lunches” from C& J Catering from February 2017 through January 2018.
Complete menus were not provided, but the invoices showed a number of entries for “Scarnati-Hot Lunch.” The quantity of people was usually 30.
“Given the demanding nature of session days, working lunches are sometimes required for leadership and senior staff, during which food is brought in for those individuals,” said Kate Eckhart Flessner, a spokesperson for Scarnati, in an emailed statement.
Paul Parsells, chief of staff for House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, in February 2017 paid $1,575 for food at Harrisburg restaurant Stock’s on 2nd.
Parsells used a credit card issued in his name. He said that he is authorized to purchase food for events such as staff orientations. The February 2017 event at Stock’s was a Democratic caucus retreat.
“It’s not something we do frequently,” he said. “We try to get people off-campus.”
The menu for the retreat included a hot breakfast buffet and three kinds of boxed lunches.
Anna McCauslin, deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity, a rightleaning group that advocates for taxpayers and limited government spending, testified at Metcalfe’s hearing last year on Stack’s spending at the lieutenant governor’s mansion.
“Lawmakers would do well to remember that taxpayers are picking up the tab for their spending appetite,” McCauslin said.
McCauslin said: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and we encourage lawmakers to spend in moderation.”
But if you are a constituent of Rep. Kate Harper, in Montgomery County’s 61st Legislative District, there is at least a free breakfast.
The two largest bills among the hundreds of receipts The Caucus reviewed were from Harper, a Republican. Both were for events within two weeks of each other in July 2017.
The legislative breakfasts at the William Penn Inn in Gwynedd are Harper’s premier annual events. Everyone in the district is invited. They can choose from among two dates.
The first breakfast cost $4,007. The second cost $4,312.
Other district-based catered events, from gatherings at senior-citizen homes to meetings with local officials, have come at far less cost.
Rep. Bryan Cutler, a southern Lancaster County Republican and House whip, spent $368 at a restaurant in his district for a meeting with municipal leaders in February 2017.
Though Cutler has posted his expenses online for years so constituents can see what he’s spending, the meal did not appear on his website. Jordan Goucker, the executive director of his whip’s office, said it was an “input error” and an “honest mistake.” He said it would be corrected.
A catered bridge-naming ceremony a couple months after that cost $1,020 and was reflected in the monthly expenses Cutler posted.
Reform: Require receipts
Benefield, of the Commonwealth Foundation, said it “seems legitimate” that when lawmakers have late-night budget sessions they can “negotiate over pizza.” But it raises questions over what is the proper use of taxpayer money, he said.
One immediate reform the Commonwealth Foundation supports is requiring lawmakers to turn in receipts if they’re getting per diems.
The committee and constituent lunch spending also could use a dose of transparency, he said.
Other government watchdogs focused on the opportunity for cozy relationships between lobbyists purchasing food for legislators.
“Our current political system is set up so that we fight for the crumbs that fall from the tables of power,” said Rabbi Michael Pollack, executive director of March On Harrisburg, a nonpartisan organization working to end corruption and restore democracy in Pennsylvania.
“What we need in Pennsylvania is for the table to be open to everyone. The focus here should be on the instances of legalized bribery — the endless wining and dining of legislators by lobbyists — that inflates the cost of access to the decision-making table,” he said.
Grove, R-York, said allowing the use of government funds to pay for lunches for school groups or those visiting the Capitol in connection with a citation — such as honoring a fallen law-enforcement officer — limits the influence of special interests.
For instance, he said, on a citation for a law-enforcement officer, he could have called the Fraternal Order of Police and asked them to sponsor the luncheon, but it would have brought in the element of funding from a special-interest group.
Even though Grove can see reasons for using the money for feeding school groups or working lunches of legislators, he said it is always important to scrutinize state spending.
“Every penny needs watched,” he said.