Ethics panel rules against Rendell's appointees
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HARRISBURG -- In a political setback for Gov. Ed Rendell, the state Ethics Commission said that two of his Cabinet secretaries will have a conflict of interest if they take part in awarding future state grants to groups that have financial ties to their spouses.
The commission voted unanimously yesterday to issue advisory ethics opinions that had been sought by Mr. Rendell, opinions that could affect the future of Kathleen McGinty. Department of Environmental Protection secretary, and Michael DiBerardinis, department of Conservation and Natural Resources secretary.
In the past, these two officials have signed off on grants that their agencies made to environmental groups that employ their spouses, either full-time or as a consultant. Since 2003, about $2.6 million in DEP grants has gone to the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, where Ms. McGinty's husband, Karl Hausker, has worked as a consultant. Since 2003, $1.5 million in DCNR grants has gone for a tree-planting program run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which employs Mr. DiBerardinis' wife, Joan Reilly.
The Ethics Commission said it wasn't judging the past behavior of either secretary regarding these grants. The commission said its opinions are "prospective," meaning they cover what might happen in the future.
The commission said that if either official signs off on a future state grant for a group that employs or contracts with their spouses -- or if they participate in rejecting a grant for a competing group -- it would be a conflict of interest. The panel said the governor could avoid the problem by naming a neutral official to give the final approval on grants that go to groups that employ relatives of state department heads.
The commission said it would rule on the past grant-related behavior of the two secretaries only if it receives a formal complaint from someone, either a public official or a citizen.
Mr. Rendell was angry last week at the Senate's refusal to vote on reconfirming the two secretaries until it got an Ethics Commission opinion.
However, the ethics panel's actions yesterday "make it clear that the Senate was right to ask for such opinions," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. "The governor clearly was wrong to resist the opinions."
Linda Barrett, a member of the governor's legal staff, told the ethics panel that Ms. McGinty and Mr. DiBerardinis did make a final sign off on grants made by their departments, but they weren't involved in deciding which groups got the grants.
The sign-offs by the secretaries came at the end of the grant-awarding process, she said. Lower-ranking staff members decided whether the grants sought by various groups were in line with state environmental policies and ranked them in importance, she said.
Democrat Rendell has been battling senators, especially Republicans, for a week, trying to get the two secretaries reconfirmed for another four years. Last week, he insisted that the Senate vote to reconfirm them without waiting for an Ethics Commission opinion.
He claimed Senate Republicans were engaging in unfair "partisan politics.'' He strongly defended the two secretaries in regard to the grants that their departments had given out, saying he was sure they hadn't done anything wrong.
Then Wednesday, under pressure from both Democratic and Republican senators, the governor changed his mind. He temporarily withdrew the two nominations and asked for the ethics opinions.
He later resubmitted the nominations and asked the Senate to quickly reconfirm them, no later than May 8.
In light of the ethics panel's actions yesterday, several important questions are still unanswered:
Will Mr. Rendell appeal the ethics panel's advisory opinions to Commonwealth Court? That could slow down the confirmation process.
Will the Senate vote by May 8 on whether the two cabinet secretaries get another four years?
Will someone seek a formal Ethics Commission ruling on the past conduct of the two secretaries regarding the $4 million in grants their departments have made to the agencies with financial ties with their spouses?
John Hanger, president of Penn Future, an environmental group and an ally of the two secretaries, said the ethics opinions issued yesterday could have a "sweeping" effect -- one that could impact many state officials whose family members work with groups that do business with state agencies. Many state officials might have to dissociate themselves from having anything to do with these outside agencies, he said.
"The implications for state contracting and state government grant administration are enormous," he said.
First Published April 30, 2007 10:59 pm