At the exact time a group of Democrats was set to hold a statewide teleconference to call on Gov. Tom Corbett to fire Ron Tomalis, the governor’s special adviser on higher education, the state department of education announced Mr. Tomalis had resigned.
The announcement of the resignation did little to assuage Fresh Start PA, a Democratic political action group that has been highly critical of Mr. Tomalis’ advisory role with the Corbett administration.
Fresh Start, which supports the candidacy of Democrat Tom Wolf for governor, on Tuesday said the resignation, effective Aug. 26, was only a first step.
The Democratic group also called for the firing of acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq and an investigation into what work Mr. Tomalis actually performed for the $139,542 salary he was paid as special adviser — a cabinet-level salary he retained when he left the position of state education secretary in June 2013. Fresh Start officials also want an investigation into whether emails are being illegally deleted in the education department.
“Mr. Tomalis was announced as special adviser directly to the governor. But when questioned, the governor could not name a single thing Mr. Tomalis was working on,” said Fresh Start PA chairwoman Katie McGinty, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate. She pointed out that Mr. Tomalis’ salary is three times that of the average salary in Pennsylvania.
The resignation comes about two weeks after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that during Mr. Tomalis first year as the governor’s adviser, he sent only five emails, made little more than a phone call per day, had a largely empty calendar and incurred no expenses traveling the state to visit institutions of higher education.
In addition, key players in higher education across the state said they had seen little to nothing of Mr. Tomalis during his time as higher education adviser and the state could come up with no job description for the adviser role.
The story prompted some Democratic leaders and activists to call for his resignation or firing and at least one Republican, Mike Folmer, of Lebanon County, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, to call for an investigation into whether Mr. Tomalis was really doing his job.
Earlier this month, while the governor was in York County, he denied suggestions that Mr. Tomalis was a ghost employee and said that since Ms. Dumaresq was satisfied with his performance, the governor also was satisfied.
Fresh Start officials said the investigations into the education department should be undertaken by various agencies including the state auditor general, inspector general and possibly an independent counsel.
During the furor of the past two weeks, Mr. Tomalis did not make himself available for comment, but Ms. Dumaresq defended him, saying that he worked 40 hours a week from the time she became acting secretary in late August 2013. She also defended the scant number of emails Mr. Tomalis offered, saying at first that he preferred face-to-face interactions rather than email and then later saying that there were so few emails because department employees purge their emails at the end of each day.
Such a practice would appear to violate the department’s record retention policies, which are based on state law that requires documents considered to be public records to be retained for various amounts of time depending on their content.
Ms. Dumaresq could not be reached for comment on the call for her resignation or for investigations into the department. Tim Eller, spokesman for the education department, wrote in an email: “We are not commenting on such a ridiculous statement.”
In a news release announcing Mr. Tomalis’ resignation, Ms. Dumaresq called him “an asset to me and the department since I assumed the role of education secretary.”
When he stepped aside as education secretary in June 2013, his new title was reported as special adviser to the governor on higher education and his responsibilities were to carry out the recommendations of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education. Those recommendations included broadening access to higher education for nontraditional groups and helping colleges to contain costs.
Ms. Dumaresq said she assigned him duties relating to K-12 education and credited Mr. Tomalis with the revival of the Governor’s schools, and said he helped to create the Ready to Succeed scholarships that became a part of the state budget and the upcoming Pennsylvania STEM competition.
In his resignation letter, Mr. Tomalis said he believed “it is the best interest of the administration” that he resign. He said he has been having conversations with other organizations about “new opportunities” but did not disclose where his next job will be.
Mr. Eller said Mr. Tomalis will receive no severance payment, will not be paid for unused sick or vacation days and will receive no health insurance after his resignation.
Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said that the Tomalis issue could be troublesome for Mr. Corbett’s re-election campaign because the suggestion that Mr. Tomalis had not performed his duties comports with the popular image of public corruption.
“When they think about corruption in government, the idea of people being hired and getting paid to do no work is one that often resonates with them,” Mr. Borick said. “They see it as ’Oh, that’s how it works.’ And if there’s an example within the Corbett administration that feeds into that stereotype, it could be very damaging in a campaign.”
Mary Niederberger; firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1590. Karen Langley contributed. First Published August 12, 2014 1:37 PM