Hello Philly, can you hear us? Voters in state Rep. Mark Cohen's district, do you care? Your legislator is once again atop the list of lawmakers taking per diems - by a lot.
The Democratic legislator from the 202nd District claimed $39,333.75 in 2011, according to records released by the House Comptroller's office.
Per diems are supposed to cover meal and lodging expenses for lawmakers on official business. It's mostly tax-free money, paid for by taxpayers. Receipts are not required; it's a federally set number ($158/day in 2011) and legislators get it whether they actually spend that much or not.
It is a legitimate practice, but Cohen's expenses are not, according to good-government watchdogs and at least one fellow lawmaker. More from him in a moment. But let's back up. How does one guy rack up nearly $40,000 in per diems and expenses in one year?
abc27 News crunched the numbers on 20 pages of per diem and expense requests and broke out a calendar from 2011. Here's the month-by-month analysis from 2011:
- In January, there were 7 session days in the House. Cohen submitted claims for per diems or expenses for 24 days;
- In February, there were 7 session days. Cohen claimed 23 days;
- In March, there were 6 session days. Cohen claimed per diems or expenses for 25 days;
- In April, there were 8 session days. Cohen put in for 23 days;
- In May, there were 9 session days. Cohen claimed per diems or expenses for 19 days;
- In June, there were 19 session days. Cohen claimed 25 days;
- In July, there was no session. Cohen claimed 27 days;
- In August, again there were no session days. Cohen claimed 25 days;
- In September, there were 3 session days. Cohen claimed 17;
- In October, there were 10 session days. Cohen put in for 24 days;
- In November, there were 8 session days. Cohen claimed per diems and expenses on 21 days; and
- In December, there were 10 session days. Cohen put in for 22 days.
Cohen must be the hardest working man in Harrisburg, if not the entire state - and he's dedicated. He claimed per diems or expenses for nearly every Sunday, many Saturdays, Mother's Day, Fourth of July, Hanukkah and the day after Christmas.
That's how you get an extra $39,333.75 in one year.
"It's terribly wrong," said Tim Potts of Democracy Rising Pa. "It sends exactly the wrong message to people who are really suffering in this economy. Mark Cohen is making more than some households and he's doing it with a tax-free, second salary that's totally unaccountable. You can't justify that on any grounds."
There are lots of questions we'd like to ask Cohen: What exactly is he doing for the taxpayers with all that extra tax-free money? If he's spending so much time in Harrisburg, what's he doing for his constituents in Philadelphia? But Cohen steadfastly refuses to answer questions on the topic of per diems.
House State Government Committee chair Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) is commenting at Cohen's yearly per diem prowess.
"I think it's abusive," Metcalfe said. "There are some members really milking the system and ultimately trying to increase their salary, trying to show up in Harrisburg more to collect extra income."
There's another question, equally important but unanswered: Why is nobody in the Capitol telling Cohen to go home and stop excessively billing taxpayers? Where's the fiscal watchdog safeguarding your money from abuse?
Metcalfe says he is doing his part by keeping an eye on Cohen in his committee meetings.
"When I had Rep. Cohen attempt to collect a per diem through visiting my committee in the last five minutes of the hearing, I objected to it," he said. "I asked for that per diem not to be paid."
Metcalfe suspects it was paid anyway, over his objections.
Also objectionable: in April 2011, the per diem rate increased from $157 to $158. Cohen put in several back claims for the extra buck.
"You're kidding?" Potts said. "At what expense to the taxpayer to get an extra dollar to put in your pocket. Come on Mark!"
Actually, the sentiment among many in Harrisburg is more like "Move on Mark." But his constituents in Philadelphia have been sent him to the Capitol since 1974. Metcalfe acknowledges they are Cohen's only real boss.
That gets us back to the question this story started with: "Philly, can you hear us?"