Brian O’Neill: State official’s purge ends a lesson to kids

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I’m a bit sorry the governor’s special adviser on higher education wasn’t able to hang on a little longer, as Ron Tomalis and his allies were fast becoming an inspiration to students across the commonwealth.

I’m not speaking only of Mr. Tomalis’ making big money for not doing very much. That’s been done many times before Gov. Tom Corbett gave Mr. T a special adviser’s gig that paid $139,542.

I’m speaking mainly of the string of ever flimsier excuses that had been keeping him afloat for weeks. Our students desperately need something fresher than “the dog ate my homework,’’ and Mr. Tomalis’ colleagues had been nothing if not imaginative in coming up with new alibis for why this man seemed to do less than even the Maytag repairman.

First, for anyone who needs the background: When Mr. Tomalis stopped being state education secretary about 15 months ago, Mr. Corbett gave him the job of “overseeing, implementing and reviewing’’ the recommendations of a governor’s advisory group on post-secondary education. It doesn’t sound like a real job, much less a full-time one, but Mr. T was allowed to keep his Cabinet-level salary anyway.

When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette made requests through the Right-to-Know Law seeking to find out just what Mr. Tomalis was doing for all those big paychecks, his work calendar showed weeks with little or no activity. His phone logs averaged barely a call a day and he wrote only five emails across 12 months, with the first one sent nine months after he landed his alleged job. There were no reimbursement records to show any travel at all.

Spokespersons for the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State couldn’t come up with a single instance of contact with Mr. Tomalis either.

It looked bad. Even a janitor would leave more of a paper trail. But that’s when state Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq began throwing out various excuses for Mr. Tomalis, hoping one would stick.

First, Ms. Dumaresq said that Mr. Tomalis preferred face-to-face meetings to email, and that she saw him in his office “pretty much every time’’ she was in hers just down the hall.

Once she had some time to think about it, though, she tried a different tack. A couple of days after the first PG story ran on the scant record of Mr. Tomalis’ work, Ms. Dumaresq ordered a nameplate for his headquarters office. She pointed that out to a Harrisburg TV reporter the day after it was installed, and also said that the reason there weren’t more emails by Mr. Tomalis was that it was standard practice to “delete and cleanse’’ email each evening.

Good one! Or it would have been if such cleansing didn’t violate the education department’s policy, and state law, on record retention.


All this had me flashing back a half-century to my elementary school. Most of us have heard the dog-ate-my-homework excuse, but I know a kid who actually used that one on TV.

Back in the mid-1960s, “Candid Camera’’ came to Cherry Lane School on Long Island and began filming in Mr. Voisich the principal’s office. My little brother, The Incredible Dullboy, had a good friend, Steve McPartland, caught on camera explaining to Mr. Voisich how he’d done his homework, yes sir, sure did, but then his ”dog got ahold of it’’ and it was ruined.

Steve said this with such sincerity one could almost see the mutt tearing the paper to shreds. Living rooms across America may have filled with laughter at his bald-faced lie, but Steve grew up to make a good living in sales, so he had the last laugh.

It’s been said by many that the most important thing in politics is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made. The same holds true for excuses in the low echelons of academia. From Scranton to Beaver Falls, those few students who still keep abreast of current events were hoping the education secretary’s purged-email excuse would work.

The mind reels at the potential variations. “My dad purges the computer every night and he didn’t realize my term paper hadn’t been printed out yet.” Or, better and simpler, “My dog purged my homework.”

Sadly, however, Mr. Tomalis was able to hold out only a couple of weeks after the first story before bailing. In his resignation letter Tuesday, he said “it is in the best interest of the administration’’ that he bolt to seek “new opportunities.’’ Ms. Dumaresq, loyal to the end, called Mr. Tomalis “an asset to me and the department.’’

No word yet, kids, on who gets to keep his hardly used nameplate.

Brian O’Neill: or 412-263-1947. Twitter: @brotheroneill

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