This article is shared with LebTown by content partner Spotlight PA.
By Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — Democrat Josh Shapiro accepted $1,650 worth of “event tickets and catering” from a powerful Harrisburg lobbyist last year, a perk his campaign insists was a political contribution.
In his official capacity as Pennsylvania’s governor, Shapiro has banned all executive branch employees from receiving similar gifts from people who are trying to influence state government decisions.
The tickets were paid for by Michael Brunelle, a top staffer to former Gov. Tom Wolf who is now a lobbyist with clients including health care giants and energy and utility companies.
Brunelle also represents a manufacturer of skill games, unregulated slot-like machines whose legal status has been a point of contention for the casino industry. Shapiro called for skill games to be legalized and taxed during his recent budget address.
Under a policy Shapiro instituted in January 2023, the governor and other executive branch employees are not allowed to accept tickets to recreational events from people or entities that have “financial relations” with or are “seeking to obtain business or an outcome” from the commonwealth.
At the time, Shapiro said the ban represented a “complete and total zero-tolerance policy towards lobbyists,” which an FAQ for executive branch employees emphasizes.
“No one will be able to buy improper influence with any member of my administration,” Shapiro added.
The governor’s office did not disclose the tickets as a gift. Rather, it was Shapiro’s campaign committee that reported the tickets as a contribution — an unusual arrangement that the Democrat has nonetheless employed in the past.
According to a campaign finance filing, Brunelle gave Shapiro’s campaign $1,650 in “Event Tickets and Catering” on Oct. 22, 2023. The report does not provide additional information, and Brunelle did not respond to a request for comment.
Manuel Bonder, spokesperson for Shapiro’s campaign, said the governor “was invited to speak at a fundraiser for the Democratic Governors Association and disclosed this in-kind contribution, in accordance with Pennsylvania law.”
The DGA is a national group that helps elect Democratic state chief executives. An invitation viewed by Spotlight PA asks people to join Shapiro at a Philadelphia Eagles home game on Oct. 22, 2023, for a DGA fundraiser. Tickets cost $15,000 each.
Billionaire Michael Rubin, CEO of sports apparel manufacturer Fanatics and a Shapiro campaign donor, posted a picture on Instagram of himself with Shapiro and the governor’s family at the game.
Bonder did not answer questions about what exactly the $1,650 paid for, why a lobbyist paid for it, or how the governor decides what constitutes an official appearance versus a political one.
Shapiro’s campaign categorized the tickets as an in-kind contribution, which is a donation of goods or services rather than money. Office supplies, advertisements, and food for a fundraiser are typical forms of in-kind contributions.
People who run for state office in Pennsylvania must disclose the value of in-kind contributions they accept on campaign finance reports and provide descriptions, though the disclosures usually lack specifics.
Public officials typically disclose free tickets to sports games, galas, and other events on their annual statements of financial interest. Shapiro and other public officials’ 2023 ethics filings are due in May.
Annual statements of financial interest require a public official to report gifts of over $250 in value, and disclose details about who gave it and how much it was worth.
“The Governor operates under two highly transparent policies — the ethics policy, which governs his official activity, and state campaign finance laws, which govern all political activity in our Commonwealth,” Bonder said in a statement.
State law and other regulations do not offer detailed distinctions between a gift to an officeholder and a political contribution to a campaign.
Shapiro’s executive order defines a gift as “any gratuity, entertainment, loans, or any other thing of monetary value … offered to an employee during the course of their employment.” That’s a stricter and more specific definition than that in state law.
A contribution is defined in state law as “any valuable thing” given “to a candidate or political committee” to influence an election, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, and can include tickets to “dinners, luncheons, rallies, and all other fundraising events.”
Clint Cullison is a lobbyist with Greenlee Partners, which has made in-kind contributions to lawmakers. He said the firm reports an expense that way if it is hosting an event to raise money for a lawmaker’s PAC.
Other expenses, like those incurred to entertain a lawmaker while lobbying on behalf of a client, would be reported under the state Lobbying Disclosure Act, not as a political contribution.
Different agencies oversee Pennsylvania’s campaign finance system and ethics rules.
The Pennsylvania Department of State examines campaign finance violations, though it uses a “complaint-driven policy” and doesn’t proactively look at in-kind donations.
The State Ethics Commission oversees the reporting of gifts and regulates other ethics rules for Pennsylvania officials. The Shapiro administration’s gift ban is self-enforced.
Shapiro’s office has been forced to answer questions about the administration’s gift policy in the past. He accepted tickets to at least three sporting events, including last year’s Super Bowl, from Team Pennsylvania, a public-private partnership that pitches Pennsylvania to business leaders and is co-chaired by the sitting governor.
Team Pennsylvania has received tens of millions of dollars in state contracts for tourism campaigns and research studies.
Good-government advocate Michael Pollack, executive director of March on Harrisburg, said classifying a lobbyist’s largesse as a campaign contribution “sounds like a clever lawyer move to tell us that the thing that we’re looking at isn’t the thing that we’re looking at.”
But regardless of what it’s called, he argued, when public officials accept favors it “destroys the trust between the people of Pennsylvania and our public officials to do what is right.”
A common situation
This is not the first time Shapiro has reported tickets to a sporting event as an in-kind donation.
The governor attended a Philadelphia 76ers game in January 2023 with Darren Check, a campaign donor, and called the meeting a political expense. Shapiro’s recent campaign finance report put the value of the “event tickets” at $3,134.
At the time, Adam Bonin, a Democratic attorney who’s worked for Shapiro’s campaign, told Spotlight PA the tickets weren’t a gift because Check does not have business before the commonwealth that the governor can influence.
Brunelle, however, is a registered lobbyist with dozens of clients with matters before the state government.
Among them are the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the commonwealth’s largest employer; Sunoco and its associated pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners; and skill games developer Pace-O-Matic.
The latter makes slot-like machines that award winners cash prizes and occupy a legal gray area. The games have flourished statewide in bars, restaurants, convenience stores, and fraternal organizations’ halls as a way to boost bottom lines.
Amid legal battles over skill games’ status, the company has spent millions of dollars to lobby elected officials and dumped hundreds of thousands more into their campaign coffers.
Last year, Pace-O-Matic spent $446,000 on campaign contributions to lawmakers in both major parties. The company also spent almost $1.8 million lobbying the legislature in 2023 — including $5,325 in reported gifts, travel, and hospitality to lawmakers — using seven different lobbying firms. Among those firms is GSL Public Strategies Group, where Brunelle works.
Shapiro’s budget pitch included a call to regulate and tax skill games. Pace-O-Matic welcomed the proposal in a statement following Shapiro’s address, saying it disagreed with parts of the plan but is “eager to help Governor Shapiro and the General Assembly add skill game regulations to the column of wins scored by this administration and General Assembly.”
Bonin, the attorney who justified Check’s donation, did not respond to a request for comment.
Shapiro isn’t the only elected official who has allowed lobbyists or lobbying firms to pick up big tabs for their campaigns.
According to campaign finance records, at least four top state lawmakers have received similar accommodations from political action committees tied to lobbying firms.
Three of the four are Republican leaders in the state Senate: President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, Majority Leader Joe Pittman, and Appropriations Committee Chair Scott Martin. Since January 2022, these three lawmakers have received almost $32,000 in in-kind contributions from lobbying firms that represent clients with business before the state legislature.
Campaign finance reports list the contributions under generic descriptions such as “event expense,” “campaign event food,” or “fundraiser expense.”
The largest was a more than $20,000 in-kind contribution for a “fundraising event” from Robert Taylor, chair of the lobbying firm the Cameron Companies, to Ward in June 2022.
The Cameron Companies spent more than $311,000 lobbying the General Assembly last year on behalf of several clients, including health care giant Independence Blue Cross, delivery app GoPuff, and state trade associations for nursing homes and conventional oil and gas drillers.
Of that total, more than $14,000 was reported as gifts or hospitality, according to Pennsylvania state department records. The firm also employs Ward’s son as a lobbyist.
Neither the firm nor Ward’s campaign responded to a request for comment.
State law does not prohibit candidates from accepting in-kind contributions from individual lobbyists or associated PACs. And while Shapiro has instituted a gift ban that applies to his actions as Pennsylvania’s chief executive, state lawmakers have not adopted such a policy for themselves.
Ward, for example, reported receiving a $645 gift from Taylor “for a fundraiser he hosted” on her 2021 financial disclosure.
She also reported experiencing apparent confusion about the difference between a gift and an in-kind contribution, writing that her campaign had also reported Taylor’s fundraiser as the latter.
“So probably didn’t need reported here but Taylor reported so I am reporting also,” Ward wrote.
Bonder, the campaign spokesperson for Shapiro, said the governor “would welcome the legislature sending a bill to his desk establishing a uniform gift policy for the Administration and the Legislature so that everyone must follow the same rules and operate under the high levels of transparency the Governor follows.”
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