Gov. Tom Corbett is standing behind Ron Tomalis, his special adviser on higher education, maintaining that he is not “a ghost employee” and that he is working to the satisfaction of acting state Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq.
“He’s not a ghost employee,” Mr. Corbett told reporters Friday when taking questions during a mid-day event in York. “He works for the secretary of education. He reports to her. She — you’ve seen the quotes, that she sees him right down the hall. He’s been doing the work. She’s satisfied with it. I’m satisfied with it.”
Mr. Tomalis has been the governor’s special adviser on higher education since June 2013 after leaving the position of state secretary of education. He kept his Cabinet-level salary of $139,542 when he took the new position but questions have arisen in the past week about how much time he was required by the governor’s office to put into his adviser’s job.
His duties in the advisory role were to carry out the recommendations of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education, which included broadening access for non-traditional students and holding down costs and creating a pot of money to reward schools for their performances.
Questions about Mr. Tomalis’ work effort in the past year arose this week following the publication of a story in Sunday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which found, through documents obtained under the state Right-To-Know Law, Mr. Tomalis had a nearly empty schedule, barely averaged over a phone call per day in the 12-month period and wrote just five emails.
In addition, key players in higher education across the state told the Post-Gazette they had little or no interaction with Mr. Tomalis since he became special adviser on higher education.
Ms. Dumaresq has also supported Mr. Tomalis, explaining to the media that she started assigning him projects in the K-12 area last fall when it became apparent that money for performance funding for postsecondary schools would not be available in the state budget. She said that although Mr. Tomalis was initially permitted to work from home in his adviser role, she required him to come to work at the department headquarters after she become acting secretary Aug. 25.
However, she didn’t order a nameplate for his headquarters office until Tuesday, two days after the Post-Gazette story ran. It was installed Wednesday and she pointed it out to a television reporter from ABC affiliate WHTM in Harrisburg during a Thursday interview.
Troy Thompson, a state Department of General Services spokesman, said the nameplate was ordered Tuesday and delivered Wednesday. He said the department had previously made a nameplate for Mr. Tomalis portrait as secretary, but did not have a previous request for a nameplate for his door.
Tim Eller, spokesman for the Department of Education, said the nameplate was ordered at Ms. Dumaresq’s request when she “became aware of the nameplate not being in place.”
In defending Mr. Tomalis, Ms. Dumaresq said he is responsible for, among other things, the revival of the Governor’s Schools, for helping to create the Ready to Succeed scholarships included in the state budget, and a statewide STEM competition.
In a July 24 interview with the Post-Gazette, Ms. Dumaresq said the reason there were only five emails authored by Mr. Tomalis provided in response to the newspaper’s Right-To-Know request is because Mr. Tomalis preferred “face-to-face” interaction rather than emails.
She told WHTM in an interview broadcast Thursday, however, the reason there were only five emails is because department employees delete their emails every night.
“There’s no email trail for a lot of folks. I couldn’t possibly store all of my email, we delete and cleanse each evening, so that’s why there’s no emails,” Ms. Dumaresq told WHTM.
A request for the Department of Education’s policy on email deletion did not get a response. Nor did a request for an explanation of why Ms. Dumaresq changed he explanation on why Mr. Tomalis had authored just five emails — emails with dates from February, May and June.
Mr. Tomalis has not been available for comment. Mr. Eller said he is on vacation this week.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said the practice of deleting all emails daily “raises significant issues” because some emails, depending upon their content, are considered public records.
“That’s an extraordinary problem and one that has the potential to significantly affect public access and the ability to hold public officials in that department accountable,” Ms. Melewsky said.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1590. Karen Langley: email@example.com, 717-787-2141.