Tom Wolf’s Ethics Code Is a Good Start

More work needed if Pennsylvania is to break its culture of corruption.

Tom Wolf

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Governor-elect Tom Wolf’s transition team unveiled a “code of ethical conduct” for team members on Tuesday, and for the life of me, I couldn’t initially figure out what the big deal was. After all, the the requirements outlined in the code seemed pretty basic for anybody legitimately seeking to enter public service.

I will not use my position with the Governor-Elect’s Transition Team for personal gain or take any substantial action affecting any matter, for personal gain or that of my immediate family or organization with which I have a substantial financial interest.

We’re not getting rich off of government service? Big surprise.

I will not use any Commonwealth personnel, resources, property and/or funds, other than for purposes directly related to Transition Team activities.

You mean we can’t use state computers to email porn to our friends?

I will not solicit or accept a gift, loan of money, goods, services or other things of value for the benefit of any person or organization, other than the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which could influence the manner in which I perform my duties.

We can’t even take bribes? What’s the world coming to?

Of course there’s a perfectly good reason Tom Wolf has to make such a big deal about the ethical demands he’s making of his staff: Because everybody in the commonwealth would otherwise assume — not without reason — that his administration was bending and breaking the rules at every opportunity.

That’s how we do governance in Pennsylvania, after all.

We don’t need to recite the litany of Vince Fumos and dirty emails and abandoned stings. All we have to know is that Pennsylvania is unusually good at being bad — ranking fifth among U.S. states in one recent corruption index. No offense to the neighbors, but: That ranking was higher than New Jersey’s.


It doesn’t help that a lot of what we’d normally call “corruption” is perfectly legal in this state. Officials can accept gifts of up to $250 without disclosing them, and more if reported — there’s no real rule that suggests the obvious, which is that acceptance of such gifts can constitute a conflict of interest for just about anybody working for the state. Pennsylvania officials can even accept trips, travel and lodging that doesn’t amount to more than $650. If you’re raking in those kinds of gifts, it’s probably easy to forget that you actually work for the taxpaying citizens of this state.

On the other hand, you have to wonder if Pennsylvanians really care that much. A number of officeholders with ethical clouds hanging over their heads faced re-election last week: As far as I can tell, all of them won their races (if, indeed, they faced competition) pretty handily. Which means we voters are part of the problem.

And that, in turn, means that Wolf might actually be a better and more ethical governor than we deserve at this stage of things.

Maybe, though, this represents an opportunity. Wolf, a Democrat, is going to face an increasingly conservative Republican-held legislature. His opportunities for victories might be few and far between. Ethics reform in Harrisburg ought to be a bipartisan affair, after all — it might be one of the areas where the new governor can find common ground with his rivals.

If not, well, all is not lost. It’s sometimes said that ethics are what you do when nobody’s watching. It’s also what you do when nobody’s making you do it. By that standard, at least, Tom Wolf is off to a good start.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.