Ethics

State Rep. Sims' travel, speaking fees raise questions – updated

PA Rep. Brian Sims speaking at Microsoft HQ in Seattle last year. Image from Facebook

PA Rep. Brian Sims speaking at Microsoft HQ in Seattle last year. Image from Facebook

Last year, Democratic state Rep. Brian Sims scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro for charity, trod the deserts of Israel and crisscrossed the country for fundraisers and speaking gigs, even addressing staffers on LGBT issues at Microsoft’s headquarters in Seattle. As PA’s first openly gay legislator, Sims garnered substantial media attention throughout his journeys. 

But the lawmaker’s globetrotting has been lucrative for him in other ways. 

A City&State investigation found that Sims failed to properly report thousands of dollars in travel reimbursements last year while collecting more than $42,000 in speaking fees since his election in 2012 – lawmakers are banned from collecting speaking fees or other honoraria. In some cases, Sims appears to have belatedly compensated for free trips by paying for his excursions with campaign funds well after the fact – which experts say also skirts an ethical gray area.

After a tipster notified City&State about Sims’ questionable reporting, the legislator at first was adamant that he had done everything by the book.

“As far as I know, my finance reports are spot-on,” he said, in a September phone interview conducted with his lawyer on the call. “I have a professional firm manage it all.”

But weeks later, Sims would concede that he had received, but failed to report, free airfare and hotel accommodations courtesy of Microsoft in excess of a $650 minimum state reporting requirement.

“Brian has reviewed his records and determined that Microsoft did expend over $650 for his travel for this speaking opportunity, and is amending his Statement of Financial Interests accordingly,” said Sims spokesperson Dan Siegel.

Neither Microsoft nor Sims immediately disclosed the full value of that trip. But that is just one of several eyebrow-raising instances where Sims’ reports and his own statements don’t add up – including those high-profile trips to Israel and Africa.

Siegel downplayed the significance of these trips and offered a questionable defense of his numerous paid speaking gigs while in office, asserting it does not violate the state’s honorarium ban because his “speeches do not address his legislative role.”

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog, took issue with Sims’ gifts and campaign spending.

“There’s a pattern here that raises questions,” she said. “The questions merit an investigation by the [state] ethics committee and a broader discussion about who can pay for travel, when they can pay for it and what they can pay for.”

Along with a handful of other state legislators, Sims flew to Israel in August 2015 for a trip organized by the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. 

The trip was extensively documented by outlets like the Patriot-News and the City Paper. The organizations said the legislators paid their own way – with the help of a $2,500 travel “subsidy” from the JFGP.

Accordingly, all six of the other PA legislators on the trip logged $2,500 worth of reimbursements in their statements to the state Ethics Board. Sims, meanwhile, listed nothing. 

He says that his campaign paid for the trip in April of this year, eight months after the fact.

“I knew that if I was going to attend that trip, my campaign was going to have to pay $2,500 to do so,” he said. “The campaign paid for it.”

When asked why he had been the only participant that failed to report a subsidy – had he preemptively turned it down, or paid it all back later? – Sims said he couldn’t remember.

“Part of the reason I have a professional finance firm handling my compliance and my finances is so that a guy like me isn’t guessing about stuff like that,” he explained.

Sims (center) shown here with Israel Defense Forces soldiers during his Israel trip – image from Facebook

In January 2015, Eight months before the Israel trip, Sims flew to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro as part of a benefit for the Military Assistance Project, a veterans’ charity. 

He said he raised a laudable $10,000 for the charity online (event organizers put the sum at $7,000). Sims said his campaign and the charity itself covered costs associated with that trip.

“I paid for the flight with campaign funds,” he said. “My understanding of how that trip worked is that every climber was required to raise $3,000 in order to be a member of the team. Roughly $1,000 covered the in-country costs; the rest went to the charity.”

Again, Sims’ past campaign disclosures don’t seem to support that notion. When pressed for more details, Sims’ office offered another counterintuitive explanation: Siegel said Sims had used campaign funds to reimburse former consultant Mason Lane for $2,000 worth of travel in November 2015.

That was almost one year after the trip took place. The entry in question simply reads “travel expenses.” (Update: After publication, Siegel sent City&State a corrected statement asserting that this payment occurred in November 2014.)

But MAP organizers also stated that they didn’t actually pay for any of Sims’ travel. They described the annual event much like how some New York Marathon participants will raise money for charity by garnering pledges: attendees commit to a fundraising goal, but pay for all their own expenses.

Neither Sims nor event organizers could explain this discrepancy.

However, Sims’ lawyer, Adam Bonin, said he didn’t think any money Sims allegedly received from the charity required disclosure because the money would have been sourced from numerous small, charitable donations.

“Brian raised those sums directly for that purpose,” he said. “Given that Brian raised far more for [MAP] than the value received, it was not believed to require reporting.”

That is not how state ethics law works, according to campaign finance consultants.

Sims during his Tanzania trip – image from Facebook

“State officials have to report paid-for travel or hospitality from a single source above the $650 threshold, and a trip to Kilimanjaro from a charity clearly applies,” said campaign lawyer Kevin Greenberg. “Even when...an official raises all the money and in fact raises thousands more for the charity.”

McGehee said Sims’ explanations didn’t add up.

“These delayed payments or reimbursements certainly raise questions about the origin of the money that paid for these trips in the first place,” said McGehee. “You can’t simply make things right by paying for it all with campaign funds later.” 

She questioned the assertion that using campaign funds to fly to Israel or Africa, even for charity, was acceptable at all.

“Campaign funds are not considered bribes because they’re supposed to be used for bona fide campaign purposes,” she said. “The funds are, by definition, other people’s money; otherwise, they would just be bribes. I wish someone else would underwrite my charitable activity.”

While Sims eventually acknowledged accepting free travel from Microsoft, he stated that he had never received any other comped items or reimbursements for his other trips to various fundraisers and events.

But he freely admitted to accepting more than $42,000 from universities in the form of paid speaking gigs he attended in Michigan, Virginia and elsewhere since 2012. The Daily News first reported in May that Sims had logged numerous speaking fees from half a dozen colleges.

He told reporters at the time that he had cleared his speaking engagements with the Democratic state house counsel and that all the events “related directly to his life story as an advocate and an out athlete," and not as a legislator. 

Sims first gained fame for coming out while on the Downingtown High School football team and spoke about these experiences prior to his election. Yet at many of the recent college events, as well as his Microsoft gig, he was specifically billed as “state Rep.” Brian Sims.

Siegel said the state rep had also reduced his public speaking, releasing figures showing Sims earning $70,472 from speaking work in the two years before his 2012 election, then $42,083 in the four years since. 

But McGehee nevertheless took issue with Sims’ justification of his speaking work, no matter how reduced in scope.

“It’s a system that is tilted toward people with resources,” she said. “It’s giving special access to public officials to people who can afford those payments. They become as much focused on what they have to do to get that income as their official duties.”

Today, Sims maintains he only erred in failing to report his trip to the Microsoft headquarters. But when first asked about that trip, Sims offered an unusually specific answer.

“My ticket was covered by friends in California who used SkyMiles to get me out there,” he said, adding that the purpose of that trip had been to visit friends. “[The ticket] was to get me out there and while I was there, I made arrangements to speak at Microsoft.”

State ethics laws do allow gifts from friends. But Sims had promoted his speaking events months before he flew to Seattle and appears in photos from the trip with the California-based political consultant and former lobbyist Troup B. Coronado. 

Coronado made headlines for his ejection from the GLAAD board after it was revealed he had performed work for an anti-LGBT organization and used the organization to advance his own lobbying efforts for AT&T. Sims retained Coronado’s firm for his re-election efforts in 2013.

When asked if the political operative had been one of the “friends in California” who had paid for his flight, Sims’ offered a new story – that he had taken two trips to Seattle, one of them courtesy of Microsoft. 

Sims’ representatives did respond to follow-up questions about the lawmaker’s second trip to Washington or his involvement with Coronado.

Despite their difficulty answering key questions about the lawmakers’ travel and spending throughout weeks of interviews, Sims’ staffers continually downplayed the significance of his actions, even when taken as a whole.

While Sims’ line-skirting might be par for the course for some elected officials in PA and pales in comparison to the ethical compromises of others – see also: Seth Williams – McGehee believes that is beside the point.

“The way you promote compliance is that when people do not comply, there are ramifications,” she said. “When you don’t do that, you’re promoting lowest common denominator behavior.”

 

UPDATE: Rep. Sims has issued the following response to City & State:

Ryan Briggs' article claimed to raise questions about my ethics as a state legislator, examining speaking engagements and various trips I have taken. These are important concerns, and I don't blame Ryan for looking into them. All public officials owe it to our constituents to be transparent in our dealings and committed in our actions to the public good alone. But in suggesting that I was hiding something, or had in any way compromised my ethics or the integrity of my office, the article was simply wrong.

First off, I don't hide anything. I can't. My life is an open book, and as an avid social media user, I am constantly telling everyone where I am and what I'm doing. In fact, it is such an open book that pictures from my Facebook page were used to research and illustrate the article. 

Secondly, I am committed to transparency in my public role, not just to the letter of the law but also to its spirit. It is fundamental to being a public official and retaining my constituents' trust. As an elected official, I am solely responsible for ensuring that my disclosures are accurate. This is both a duty I readily accept, but also a promise to my constituents. If mistakes are made, they are mine. 

So let's talk about the two areas the article addressed: my speaking engagements and my travel. 

Well before I took office, I was an advocate. Because of my background as one of the first college football players to come out of the closet, as well as my work as a civil rights attorney, I have had the honor and privilege of being invited to address students and businesses on topics like LGBTQ rights, allies and inclusion, in both student bodies and the workplace. It's a thrill to be able to share my experience with the next generation of thought and business leaders, and especially to tell students who are going through the journey I went through that they are not alone. That they are loved.

When I was elected to the General Assembly, I wanted to keep giving these talks whenever my schedule allowed it. I sought the opinion of the caucus counsel, who unquestionably confirmed my ability to continue these speaking engagements as long as they were not tied to my work as a legislator. State Ethics Commission executive director Rob Caruso confirmed to another publication this week that “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.” All you need to do is look at the titles of some of my speeches such as "LGBT Athletes, Advocacy & Activism" and "Learning how to be an Effective Ally for Equality" to see that these speeches were not based on my legislative work. It was just a continuation of my prior advocacy. 

My speaking engagements have focused on speaking to student groups both in Pennsylvania and across the country. These students aren't buying access to the Pennsylvania legislature or me. The insinuation that this was somehow a transaction of influence or power cheapens the good work that these institutions do to try and create accepting and empowering environments for their students. No entity that has brought me in for a lecture has ever sought any vote or favor from my office, and I will always meet with any constituent who ever wants to talk with me or my staff on any public issue.

As for travel, my public role has given me the opportunity to explore parts of this world that were completely foreign to me. I was fortunate to join the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia on an educational trip to Israel, an experience that I will never forget, one that has given me a perspective that I am fortunate to bring back to my work. I had the opportunity to raise funds for the Military Assistance Project, a charity dedicated to serving Philadelphia's underserved veterans, and spent Christmas of 2014 climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with them to raise money and awareness. It was one of the most demanding and inspiring weeks of my life.

That I took these trips was never a secret – I was very public about both. Ryan's question regards how they should have been reported on my annual Statement of Financial Interests, which lists all my sources of income, source of travel reimbursement and the like. Here is the amended statement we are filing. For the Israel trip, which many state legislators have taken, while I paid a majority of the costs, I did not realize that Federation had subsidized my travel to the extent that they had and have amended my Statement of Financial Interests accordingly. I appreciate Ryan's making sure that this disclosure is now complete. As to Kilimanjaro, because I had raised the money that paid for my in-country lodging (and my campaign paid for my travel to Africa, as is allowed and was reported), it didn't seem to make sense to list the Military Assistance Project as a source of travel payments since I had raised for them the money that they, in turn, spent on me. So this is a question of accounting, not a question of ethics, and I remain confident that I handled it correctly. 

Indeed, that's what troubles me so much about Ryan's article: these laws exist to ensure that the public knows whether private interests are affecting a lawmaker's public decisions. No matter how much the phrase "raises questions" was used in the article, there's no insinuation, no allegation, no evidence, nothing about my work as a committed progressive who's proud to represent Center City which can or does raise any question about that. My commitment is to my neighbors and constituents. Period. 

As we told Ryan, his exploring this story made me realize that I had conflated two trips to Seattle in my mind and that I had failed to recognize that Microsoft had paid for both my airfare and hotel when I spoke to their employees. I've fixed that. I am still confident that my lawyer and my CPA gave the best advice they could with the facts as we knew them. But as a public official, the final responsibility for any mistakes is mine alone, as it should be.

I appreciate the opportunity to respond here. If anyone has any questions about this, please reach out to me at RepSims@pahouse.net. The people of the 182nd are my bosses, and you come first.

 

 

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