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State lawmaker has record of inactivity

Monday, April 14, 2003

By The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Lawmakers wondering about the last time they saw state Rep. William W. Rieger in a committee meeting, or even the last time he introduced a bill in the Legislature, may have to think back quite a ways.

Rieger, 80, a Democrat from North Philadelphia, last got a measure enacted in May 1983, when he declared May "High Blood Pressure Month" in Pennsylvania.

The last time he introduced a bill was in 1990.

Records show that in the past four years, Rieger, who has served in the House since 1967, has missed 63 of the 65 meetings of a committee that licenses everything from barbers to surgeons, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in yesterday's editions. Rieger is the committee's minority chairman.

He has said before that he missed the meetings because of conflicting committee meetings he had to attend. But recently he said that he missed them because he has been sick, The Inquirer reported.

"I think I did as good a job as anyone," Rieger, the longest-serving member of the House, told the newspaper.

But one member of the licensing committee said he hadn't even realized Rieger was its top-ranking Democrat.

"I didn't know until recently when one day he just showed up," said Rep. Craig Dally, R-Northampton, on the committee since 1996. "I was shocked."

Another former colleague also said he rarely saw Rieger.

"It was more surprising to see him there than not to see him there," said Joseph Battisto, a fellow Democrat who served in the House with Rieger from 1984 to 2000.

Rieger's health has gotten worse in the past six years -- he had to have a stent put in his heart in December, and he has prostate cancer, now in remission.

"I'm a sickly 80-year-old man," he said.

The House can penalize a member for five straight unexcused absences, but it has never done that.

During his 36-year legislative career, only two of Rieger's bills have become law, both in the 1970s. One dealt with how certain loans were calculated and the other dealt with stop signs.

Rieger said it's hard for him to sit through the meetings because he gets dizzy from taking seven prescribed medications, but after each meeting he is fully briefed by a committee staffer.

Rieger's North Philadelphia district includes parts of Oxford Circle, Olney, Hunting Park and Nicetown, and the median income there is one of the state's lowest. Leaders of the area's Latino community have often been critical of Rieger.

Roberto Santiago, executive director of El Concilio, the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations, said that in 17 years working and living in the area, he hasn't ever seen Rieger.

"He's been an absentee politician for a very long time," Santiago said.

Perhaps in more ways than one.

Although the law says legislators must live in their districts, Rieger has also faced reports that he doesn't live at his Rising Sun address. Rieger says he lives there but often stays at his son's home.

Despite questions surrounding him about his attendance and his residency, Rieger said he just enjoys helping people.

Asked why he hasn't been prime sponsor of a bill in 13 years, Rieger said sometimes he doesn't see the point.

"I could introduce 100 bills tomorrow. They wouldn't go anywhere. They would all be lies. And I don't want to lie to the people," he said.

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