Philly never seems to run out of political corruption stories. But a gay state representative and rising political star recently in the news for receiving $53,000 in speaking fees since his election denies that he is one of them.
Democratic state rep. Brian Sims, elected in 2012, bristled at any implications of wrongdoing after City & State PA reported this week that he improperly reported travel reimbursements and wrongly accepted payments (in political parlance, an "honorarium") for speeches.
“No entity that has brought me in for a lecture has ever sought any vote or favor from my office,” Sims said via email. "If you actually take a minute to look at my speaking engagements over the last four years, you'll see that they have focused on institutions of higher learning both in Pennsylvania and across the country. It is nothing short of ridiculous to think that the students of these institutions are somehow 'buying access' to me or the Pennsylvania legislature.”
Sims said he delivered speeches based on his experience coming out as a gay football player at Downingtown High School and going on to be a captain of the team at Bloomsburg University, his activism for LGBT causes and experience as a civil rights lawyer.
But there are exceptions, said Pennsylvania Ethics Commission executive director Rob Caruso.
“A public official or public employee could accept an honorarium if the payment was for or the request to appear is in relation to the public official or employee's occupation or profession and not related to their elected or public office,” Caruso said.
“It’s not specifically in the law,” he added. “Most of this is on a case-by-case basis. They've issued advisory rulings and it is mentioned in some of the Commission's rulings.”
Caruso could neither confirm nor deny whether the Commission is reviewing Sims’ records as a result of City & State’s investigation.
Sims’ campaign said he double-checked with party lawyers that he was allowed to be paid for delivering talks.
“In an abundance of ethical caution, Rep Sims secured approval from the Counsel of the House Democratic Caucus before continuing his speaking engagements,” his campaign said in a statement.
As far as Sims' trips to Israel and Africa in 2015, with some campaign funds used to pay back gifts covering travel costs? His campaign asserted that “all of Rep. Sims’ activities are fully compliant with the law, whether relating to his charitable work or his advocacy work.”
Sims’ campaign did acknowledge that, as City & State revealed, he failed to report the gift of airfare and a hotel room when Microsoft invited him to address the company in Washington in 2015, but said that was a mistake they are now correcting.
“It is a shame that a clerical oversight is being spun to insinuate malicious intent where clearly none exists,” the campaign said. “This inquiry is simply another ‘click-bait’ attempt to smear a legislator who has the standing to use his experience to bring attention to national issues."
Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order banning executive branch employees from accepting gifts shortly after taking office, and has proposed a similar ban for all statewide officials. But as of yet there is no legislation in Harrisburg to make that proposal a reality.