State Rep. Summer Lee has barely begun her first term representing the 34th state House district. But she’s already made a notable statement: She’s hired Twanda Carlisle, the former Pittsburgh city councilor who left office in 2007 and pleaded no-contest to charges involving the misuse of some $43,000 of taxpayer money.
Carlisle has been working in Lee’s district office in Braddock, providing constituent service, for the past two weeks.
Reached by WESA Wednesday evening, Lee said that she and Carlisle “knew [the hiring] might be a controversy, and it probably will be. I talked to some people who were like, ‘Don’t do it, it’s such a risk!’”
But while Carlisle “made a mistake,” Lee said, Carlisle also served her sentence, and “it’s part of my values to consider a person holistically, and to understand that a person is more than their past.”
Carlisle, Lee said, “has been elected, and worked in offices before that. She has a wealth of experience. … I had an opportunity to [hire] somebody who has worked in the community, and amassed years of experience and a network.”
Lee, who has been sharply critical of the criminal justice system, added that reform efforts “should be more than rhetoric. … Our society wants us to believe that people who have served time are damaged beyond repair. And it’s just not true. We have to examine as a society, how punitive is society going to be.”
On Wednesday night, Carlisle herself said that when Lee first approached her about a job, she was unsure. “I said, ‘I don’t want to hurt her.’ I just didn’t want to relive my yesterday.” But she said she ultimately decided to take the job because she loved public service, and “one of her initiatives is reforming the criminal justice system, and one reason she looked at hiring me is that I’ve been through the system, and everybody deserves a second chance.”
Carlisle represented District 9, which mostly comprises African-American communities in the eastern part of Pittsburgh, for half a decade. She’d previously worked as an aide to the prior councilwoman, Valerie McDonald Roberts. In late 2007, she plead no contest to 17 felony and misdemeanor charges related to more than $43,000 of taxpayer money -- money she was accused of shunting to friends and spent on personal items, including a fur coat.
Under Pennsylvania's constitution, "no person ... convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime, shall be eligible to the General Assembly, or capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth." But there appears to be no bar on a legislative staffer holding a position despite a prior record.
Clancy Myers, the House parliamentarian, said he couldn’t remember a staffer being hired with a similar record. “I’m stumbling because it’s an unusual question,” he said.
Still, he said, while “there’d certainly be a bar to someone like that holding an elected office, as far as a staff person is concerned, there would be no prohibition on it. Members are pretty much left to their own discretion about who they hire.”
Carlisle isn't the only public official to find such a second chance in the world of state government.
Perhaps most notably, Mike Veon and Bill DeWeese, two former western Pennsylvania representatives who held top leadership positions in the Democratic caucus, both spent time in prison as a result of the decade-old “Bonusgate” scandal. Both went on to work as registered lobbyists in Harrisburg: Veon, in particular, is a frequent presence at Pittsburgh-area political events.
“People are always going to look at Twanda side-eye,” said Lee. “They don’t look at Mike Veon that way.”
But Lee says that the state Constitution should be changed to allow people to hold elected office too, regardless of records.
“It’s not even about Ms. Carlisle,” she said. “I know other people who are community servants who carry their communities on their shoulders. They are bridge-builders, but when they say ‘let me take that next step,’ they can’t because of something they might have done when they were 18.”
She amplified the point in a series of Wednesday-evening tweets after talking to WESA.
“When black and brown communities disproportionately come in contact w/the criminal justice system, when we know we’re over policed, more harshly sentenced, and frequently wrongfully convicted,” she wrote, “prohibitions on voting and serving sure look like intentional efforts to disempower us.”
For her part, Carlisle says “I take full responsibility for what I did. But I didn’t invent the wheel. I just did what I thought everyone else had done, and for some reason, things changed when I did it.”
Carlisle said she has “tried to blank out” her time in the state prison system. She served less than a year of a one-to-two-year sentence in a women’s facility. After her release, she worked as an office manager for the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP. Her mother, the late Constance Parker, served as the chapter’s president.
Carlisle also said that when she applied for jobs elsewhere, “I wouldn’t hear back, or I’d get the ‘thank you but no thank you.’ They would never say it was the record, but it was the record. After a while, you get numb. I feel for the people out here” trying to make a life post-conviction, she said.
Carlisle said she’s spoken with state Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel “a number of times” about reforms, including streamlining the state’s pardon process. She agrees that people with criminal records should not be permanently barred from running for office.
“I’m going out to pasture soon, but there are younger people out here who have made a mistake,” she said. “Do they have to pay for the rest of their lives for their mistake? What about the person who has the community at heart, and the people want that person? They paid the cost of being incarcerated, because that is no picnic, believe me.”
Carlisle herself ran for her old city council seat in 2015. None of her Democratic rivals challenged her eligibility to appear on the ballot, despite concerns that she would be ineligible to hold the office if she won. She finished last in the Democratic primary that year, getting just under 10 percent of the vote in a four-candidate race won by incumbent Ricky Burgess.
She said Wednesday night that she has no plans to run again. But, she said, “I will never say never.”