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Undisclosed donors pay for House Speaker portraits in Pennsylvania Capitol

Three oil painting portraits hanging on a wall in the Pennsylvania State Capitol.
Jaxon White
LNP | LancasterOnline
Former House Speaker Mike Turzai’s portrait (left) was paid for by a nonprofit, titled Speakers Portrait Fund, which does not disclose its donors. Portraits of Samuel H. Smith (center) and Keith R. McCall (right) were paid for by taxpayers. Smith’s portrait cost was $16,022 after being adjusted for inflation. McCall’s cost $11,023.

Three-foot-tall portraits of many former speakers of the House line the first-floor walls of Pennsylvania’s Capitol building.

The oil paintings, 24 in all, hang in gold-colored frames, honoring the lawmakers’ public service as the elected presiding officer and central figure of the state House of Representatives.

Most of the portraits, some dating back to the 1990s, were paid for by taxpayers. Receipts obtained through a public records request show the tab for 13 of the portraits, adjusted for inflation, was at least $222,000. House Chief Clerk Brooke Wheeler said receipts for 11 of them do not exist in her office’s records.

But taxpayers are not on the hook to pay for the next portrait to be hung in the Capitol, that of Lancaster County Rep. Bryan Cutler, who served as speaker from 2020 to 2022.

Those costs are expected to be covered by the aptly named Speakers Portrait Fund, a nonprofit that doesn’t publicly disclose its donors, leaving taxpayers unaware of who paid for the painting and what stakes they might have in shaping state policy.

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On May 6, the group reimbursed the House for the $6,001.51 down payment on the $23,000 cost of Cutler’s portrait, according to documents provided by Wheeler.

Cutler, now the Republican leader in a House run by Democrats, did not respond to requests for comment.

Speakers Portrait Fund also paid for a portrait of former Speaker Mike Turzai of Allegheny County, whose June 2020 resignation paved the way for Cutler’s rise to the speakership.

Wheeler said the cost of the Turzai portrait was unavailable through public documents because the nonprofit paid the artist, Chas Fagan, directly. The only publicly available receipt related to the Turzai portrait was a $220 charge to rent an easel for its unveiling in November 2021.

Turzai did not respond to a request for comment.

Publicly available tax filings show that from July 2021 to June 2022 the group spent $77,110 on fees and “other payments to independent contractors” and an additional $1,700 on “printing, publications, postage and shipping.”

The fund raised $110,200 from Nov. 5, 2020, to June 30, 2022.

Its forms do not show who contributed.

Philip Hensley-Robin, executive director of good governance advocacy group Common Cause Pennsylvania, said without knowing who donates to the group, constituents can’t know if there is a “potential conflict of interest.”

“The public deserves to know if any of these donors have an interest with the House or its speaker,” Hensley-Robin said.

Craig Holman, a government ethics lobbyist with the D.C.-based Public Citizen, agreed.

He said that it’s “hard to believe” someone would pay for the portraits “out of the kindness of their hearts” and the paintings are “basically a gift” that could be used to win favor with the chamber’s leading lawmaker.

“Any donor paying for a speaker portrait probably has some business before the House,” Holman said.

A spokeswoman for current Speaker Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia declined to comment on whether she would accept a portrait paid for by Speakers Portrait Fund.

Six oil paintings depicting former Pennsylvania House Speakers hang on a wall.
Jaxon White
LNP | LancasterOnline
A total of 24 oil paintings depicting former House Speakers hang on the first floor of Pennsylvania’s Capitol building. Receipts obtained through a public records request show the total tab for 13 of the portraits was at least $222,000 after the prices of each portrait were adjusted for inflation. Receipts for 11 of them were not provided by the House Chief Clerk.

Private donors

Speakers Portrait Fund was registered with the IRS in 2021 to “assist in beautifying the Pennsylvania state capitol complex by helping to fund portraits of speakers of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

The Pennsylvania Department of State’s online charity search tool does not contain any records for the nonprofit.

Sil Lutkewitte, the nonprofit’s treasurer, said he would not share the name of his organization’s donors because he was unsure whether its status as a “private entity” impacted the legality of him doing so.

Asked about the potential conflict of interest between the nonprofit’s donors and the top legislators for whom it is purchasing portraits, Lutkewitte accused the reporter of assuming there would be an inherent conflict.

Wheeler said in an email the nonprofit was “established independent of the House, which is governed by appointees” from both parties to minimize the use of taxpayer funds, and Lutkewitte said there is no oversight from the House in the nonprofit’s fundraising.

“The idea is so that the public doesn’t pay for these portraits,” Lutkewitte said. He added that he has limited connections in the General Assembly and typically speaks only with the House clerk about completing reimbursements.

But Lutkewitte, who lives in Hershey, has held a powerful position in state government and also said he was personally asked by Turzai to join a committee of people to launch the nonprofit and head its future fundraising efforts.

Lutkewitte led the Pennsylvania Lottery Commission in 2014 after being appointed by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican. A year later, Lutkewitte was dismissed by then-Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

Lutkewitte also led the company Bay LLC, which once operated cannabis dispensaries statewide, including one in Lancaster County.

In 2020, Lutkewitte and two major GOP donors obtained a medical marijuana permit valued by industry analysts at roughly $25 million after an unnamed Republican lawmaker wrote language into a state budget bill that favored Bay LLC over its competitors for the permit.

The following year, Bay LLC’s locations were purchased for $90 million by Cresco Labs and converted into Sunnyside dispensaries.

Lutkewitte’s partner in leading the portrait nonprofit, Chief Executive Patrick O’Connor, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

O’Connor, too, would have been involved in state budget negotiations in his former decadelong stint as chairman of the board of trustees of Temple University, one of just four state-related universities in Pennsylvania that annually receive hundreds of millions of dollars in funding approved by the General Assembly.

Though he’s retired from his position with Temple, O’Connor is a West Conshohocken-based co-founder and vice chairman of Cozen O’Connor law firm, which boasts on its website that its “strength n government relations comes from our deep legal and political experience.”

A portrait of former House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis hangs on a wall.
Jaxon White
LNP | LancasterOnline
A portrait of former House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis, the first African-American man to serve as speaker, hangs on the first floor of the Capitol building. His portrait cost $10,174 after being adjusted for inflation.

'Arcane process'

In a March 11 interview about his seeking a 10th term this year, Cutler said he had recently sat with the artist Ellen Cooper so she could take photographs and complete a rough sketch of what his portrait could look like.

“It’s kind of an arcane process,” Cutler said. “I didn’t want to sit.”

But Cooper, who has done portrait painting for nearly two decades, said Cutler “did great” during the process, which included a phone interview, a scout around the Capitol for the best location for the portrait and multiple hours of posing.

Cutler’s staff recently approved Cooper’s preliminary sketch.

“I think it’s really targeting who he is as a person, in his official role,” Cooper said. “I’m trying to convey not only the visual aspect of the person but something about who they are, something that’s important to them.”

Once she finishes the portrait, expected sometime in November, Cutler’s staff will have two weeks to approve and pay Cooper for her work, according to her contract with the state.

Read more from our partners, WITF.