Harrisburg, Pa., May 7, 2019 / 09:15 am (CNA).- The lawmaker who confronted a woman praying outside Planned Parenthood May 2 was the subject of an investigation by Pennsylvania’s State Ethics Commission, after questions were raised in 2017 regarding speaking fees he received while in office.
The state’s ethics commission opened an investigation into state Rep. Brian Sims following a 2017 complaint that he had violated Pennsylvania’s Ethics Act. Sims is accused of accepting honoraria, including fees and free travel and accommodation, in violation of policies governing state legislators.
Sims has confirmed that he is under investigation, but says the complaint is a political “hit” and the “cost of politics in a city like Philadelphia.”
The lawmaker, who has filmed himself offering money to social media users to identify and “dox” women and teenagers, said in June 2017 that: “This was done to hit me where I’m strongest – and I think I’m strongest in my ethics.”
Media outlets in Pennsylvania first reported the investigation May 2017, following the leak of a letter from the ethics commission, in which executive director Robert Caruso said that a “full investigation” had been launched following a complaint against Sims.
The ethics commission has not reported whether the investigation has concluded.
Sims allegedly failed to report thousands of dollars worth of travel expenses, which he later reimbursed out of his official campaign funds, following a series of high-profile speaking engagements and trips overseas, made in connection with charitable fundraising.
A 2016 investigation by City&State Pennsylvania found that despite a rule prohibiting legislators from accepting honoraria, including speaking fees, Sims earned more than $40,000 from such activity following his election in 2012.
Sims has repeatedly insisted that the events were given in connection with his national role as an LGBT activist, and were not connected to his legislative work.
According to the City&State report, Sims was billed as a state representative in advance of a 2015 engagement to speak about LGBT issues to employees at Microsoft corporate headquarters in Seattle, suggesting a conflict with Pennsylvania ethics law.
Sims also failed to declare travel and accommodation he received from Microsoft in connection with the event. Though he initially suggested that the event had been arranged spontaneously while he was on a trip to California visiting friends, Sims made the trip in the company of a professional political consultant retained by Sims in 2013. City&State also found the event had been promoted by Sims months before it took place.
According to media reports, the ethics investigation into Sims’ conduct includes a 2015 engagement at Penn State University at which he was again billed as “Rep. Brian Sims” and promoted as speaking “about his career as a legislator and on current legislation before the House.”
The state representative has also come under scrutiny for an apparent pattern of behavior concerning the reimbursement of travel expenses using campaign funds.
In 2015, Sims joined six other Pennsylvania lawmakers on a trip to Israel organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition. While all six of the other legislators declared $2,500 in reimbursements for travel and expenses from the JFGP to the state ethics board. Sims did not record any amount, and later saying that he “did not realize that Federation had subsidized my travel to the extent that they had” and had reimbursed the cost using campaign funds eight months later.
The City&State report identified several other instances where Sims appeared to fail to declare receipt of free travel, only to reimburse the expenses from campaign funds months later.
Speaking to City&State, Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said of Sims’ behavior “there’s a pattern here that raises questions,” and that “the questions merit an investigation by the ethics committee.”
“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.”
Sims has defended his record as a “committed progressive” and said that his commitment to transparency is demonstrated by his record as “an avid social media user.”
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