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I-Team: Pa. Legislators Pocketing Your Money?

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By Ben Simmoneau

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - Pennsylvania legislators pocket millions of dollars of your money in expenses above and beyond their salaries, and they don’t even need receipts. For one Philadelphia lawmaker, it was like getting a 50 percent raise. How is this possible? The I-Team went to Harrisburg to find out.

Is State Representative Mark Cohen of Philadelphia the hardest working man in Harrisburg? He’s certainly got the expense account to prove it: $39,000.
Apparently, his $79,623.23 salary wasn’t enough for Cohen so last year, he pocketed an extra $39,000 of your money, no questions asked. That’s $2,000 more than an average worker in Philadelphia makes in a year.

Records obtained by the CBS 3 I-Team show Cohen collected the money through what’s called per diem payments. They range from $157 to $185 a day and are supposed to cover a lawmaker’s cost of spending the night in Harrisburg – which is something Cohen claims he does, a lot.
Weekends. Holidays. Even July 4th.

“Mr. Cohen is a serial per diem abuser,” said Eric Epstein who says Cohen tops the list of all lawmakers when it comes to collecting per diems. Epstein’s government watchdog group, Rock the Capital, monitors these expenses.

“There are no checks and balances,” he said. “What the per diem system is about is writing a check without any balance.”

Take July 2011. The legislature did not meet once that month. Yet Cohen said he was in Harrisburg 25 days, charging taxpayers $3,955.

“Mark Cohen has abused per diems and created a tax free income stream for himself in the middle of a recession,” Epstein said. “It’s outrageous.”

Don’t think Cohen is paying for a hotel for every night he spends in Harrisburg. The I-Team found he bought a house there and is using your money to pay for it. At first, Cohen refused an interview, so the I-Team tracked him down in the hallways of the Capitol.

“I work extremely hard,” he told us. Cohen says he needs to be in Harrisburg for research and to write e-mails.

“Can’t you do that research, the e-mail correspondence in your district office in Philadelphia,” I-Team reporter Ben Simmoneau asked him.

“I do the way that is most effective for me. I try to do the most amount of work I can possibly do. There are far fewer distractions in Harrisburg than there are at my district office,” he said.

“If you already own a house in Harrisburg, where does the money go?” Simmoneau asked him.

“The money goes to keep the house maintained,” he said. “Money goes to living expenses.”

Cohen collected nearly double the per diem payments of any other representative from Philadelphia.

“You don’t think this is a lot of money?” Simmoneau asked at the end of the interview.

“I think I’ve answered your questions repeatedly,” Cohen said before walking off.

House members don’t have to take per diems to get reimbursed. With receipts, they can be reimbursed for actual expenses, but few members do it. This practice of collecting a per diem payment for a day when the House does not meet could soon be history. There’s movement to stop that next year.

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