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Sponsored by state Rep. Anonymous, R-Murkysville

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Further evidence of Pennsylvania's government-by-graffiti has arrived in the body of Senate Bill 696 -- a document intended to repeal a constitutionally suspect law that prohibited police officers from engaging in politics.

The repeal was supported by both the Fraternal Order of Police and the American Civil Liberties Union. The planets and stars are unlikely to align in this fashion again in our lifetimes.

After passing in the state Senate Law and Justice Committee, the bill journeyed through the House Committee on Local Government, where someone doodled on it. Consequently, just below the line repealing the prohibition against politics by police officers, someone added a paragraph forbidding political activity by "a deputy sheriff in a county of the second class." There is one county of the second class in Pennsylvania and, if you reside in Allegheny, you live in it.

This strange law, intended to liberate an entire class and which instead singles out one group in one county, now sits on the floor of the state House, where it could be passed at any moment with all the forethought of a practical joke.

It appears to originate in a smoldering feud between Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio and Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey. DeFazio infuriated Roddey when his deputies began making the rounds with a petition to force a vote on giving the sheriff control of the county police -- currently part of Roddey's domain.

It also mirrors language put into a bill several years ago by then-state Rep. David Mayernik, D-Ross. Mayernik yesterday assured me he hasn't raised the issue with anyone since leaving the House last year.

"It could be somebody that thought it was a good idea and liked the idea," Mayernik said. "I have not discussed any issues with any legislators on any legislation."

Similarly, Rob Vescio, legislative assistant to Roddey, denied any role, although he admitted that the county's lobbyist phoned him a few weeks ago to inform him that the curiously helpful new language had cropped up.

"They said 'What do you think of this,' and we said, 'Yeah, we thought it was a good idea,'" Vescio said.

Many a Harrisburg watcher has awakened to find such crop circles on the Capitol lawn. In 1991, for instance, the Legislature extruded a budget that, on close inspection -- something these bills generally get after they have passed -- contained tax breaks for an array of buddies of the Philadelphia delegation. A few years ago, departing [for prison] state Rep. Frank Gigliotti inserted language into a bill to eradicate funding for Pittsburgh City Court.

"This happens all the time -- special legislation," growled state Rep. Tom Stevenson, R-Mt. Lebanon. "You should have seen this place this past week." Stevenson sits on the Local Government Committee and said its chairman, Lynn Herman, a Centre County Republican, informed him of the mystery language in SB 696.

"Herman told me that leadership asked him to put this language in," Stevenson said.

"Leadership" is, of course, an excellent code word by which a trail disappears into the underbrush of politics. It becomes untraceable, especially if someone like Herman doesn't call back to explain. Which he didn't.

So there we have it. Nobody knows where this law came from. It just showed up like some cave etching and, unless someone on the floor of the House points out the implausibility of prohibiting one group of law officers in one county from doing what they have just freed others to do elsewhere, the state will again pass legislation after the fashion of a prank.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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