Tag Archives: scandal

Don’t Let PA House’s Ghost Vote Scandal Fade with 2015


 Only Vigilance will Bring Results


A little over a week ago, as the GOP dominated Pennsylvania House was wrangling over what to do to achieve an almost six month late budget freshman Democratic Governor Tom Wolf might finally sign, a move was made to revert to a budget approved by the also GOP controlled Senate, known as the “framework”.  That general fund budget included $30.8 billion in spending, along with marginal pension and liquor reform, but not the tax increases necessary to pay for it.

Nonetheless, having given up on a move to send the Governor a stopgap emergency budget that he promised to veto, an attempt was made in the House to set the Senate bill up for a vote.  When it was approved by just one vote 100-99, someone told Rep Daryl Metcalfe that one of the yes votes was cast by Rep Peter Daley, who was not on the floor.

On a subsequent motion to reconsider, Rep Metcalfe, a Republican, observed Democratic Rep Mike Schlossberg pushing the voting button of Rep Daley.  This prompted Metcalfe to inform the Speaker, who ordered all members to be in their seats for further votes.

Very quickly the word got out, with tweets claiming “ghost voting” and suggesting that for Schlossberg it’s one man, two votes.  Several media outlets reported on the ghost voting.  At no point, on social media, did anyone defend what most saw as shocking, immoral, dishonest behavior.

As it turns out, a total of three votes were cast for members not present in the hall of the house as the rules require.  In the case of Democratic Rep Leslie Acosta, she was reported to be in Nicaragua.  Republican Rep John Maher claimed he was just steps away due to business in his capitol office, and had his vote cast for him as a courtesy.

The following day I was in the capitol.  Being an occasional visitor, in talking to several trusted friends who are there much more often, in a short period of time I heard some very revealing stories about ghost voting.

First, they all agreed that ghost voting is not a rare event but common practice!  It’s one of those things where, in spite of a rule against it, everyone looks the other way.

Beyond this revelation that would shock the average citizen, who would likely question the practice as a serious breach of the public trust, I was told of a practice where legislators sometimes rig their voting devices with pennies to cast a vote for them when off the floor.  Then sometimes they forget to remove them!  If this doesn’t sound like high school, it gets worse!

On the Senate side the rules allow voting for an absent member, but only when on either capitol leave for business within a 10 mile radius of the capitol, or legislative leave, for business within their home district.  I imagine an example of capitol leave may include appearing at Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico’s office to be charged with a crime.

Even so, when Senate votes are cast for a member on appropriate leave, they are required to be cast by the floor leader of that member’s party and no one else.  Yet as I was told, sometimes the leave type is changed for a member prior to a vote to make it legit.  One known story that goes around is of a Senate member tweeting pictures of himself from an Atlantic Ocean beach while on legislative leave, and yes, having a vote cast on his behalf!

Rep Metcalfe has called for a House Ethics Committee investigation.  He also wants to see house rules changed so members could move to invalidate votes where rules have been broken.  While this makes sense, the Senate likewise should take a look at its rules regarding voting.

If there’s good news in all of this, it’s that someone got caught in the act where the outcome of a vote was possibly affected, and the practice has become publicly known.  It presents a real opportunity to clamp down on behavior that no one has tried to defend, making reform in short order a likely possibility, if (and here’s the if) the issue is not allowed to fade from the public discourse.

Make no mistake.  Everyone wants this incident to be behind them.  A representative of House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody’s office told me today that House leaders from both parties have discussed the ghost voting issue over the past week.  Being the type of thing that can quickly fade from people’s minds, silence can quickly open the door to do nothing, allowing continuance in a comfort zone of corruption.  Constant reminders from an aware public, on the other hand, will likely result in quick action.  On this one, ordinary citizens hold an unusual amount of power.



Scandal in Harrisburg PA at 2nd and State?


I don’t live in Harrisburg but visit our state Capitol often in my role as a citizen lobbyist.  I do this at my own expense, a significant part being parking.  On-street is much cheaper than the garage but still $1.50/hr in the immediate area can add up and there’s always the risk of a ticket.  It is from this perspective that the appearance of one parking spot just a block west of the Capitol caught my attention.

I noticed the first parking spot on 2nd St off the southeast intersection with State St had an electric vehicle (EV) charger but no parking meter.  Neither were there any signs indicating terms of use.  Also missing was the typical “No Parking Here to Corner” sign.  Information on the charger’s screen indicated a charge of $.15/kwh for electricity consumed.  For a few months prior to the end of June as I visited the Capitol more often due to the increase in legislative activity, the same black Chevy Volt was in the charging spot from about 7am until around 2:30-3:00 pm, what seemed like every day.  Knowing the owner of that Volt was eligible for a $7500 federal tax credit plus a much lesser known $3000 rebate from the Pa DEP, neither of which I support, I bristled at the thought of further perks like a whole day’s free parking!  I had to know more.

Curiosity began with a Google search that quickly found answers that posed more questions.  A story in the Central Pa Business Journal November 21, 2012 indicated the charger was sponsored by Sutliff Chevrolet with the involvement of WCI Partners and its managing partner Alex Hartzler, a Harrisburg real estate developer.  Hartzler’s firm developed the five story building outside which the EV charger was installed.  Also Hartzler has a connection to electric vehicles as the owner of an ultra high end Tesla.  The report said the charger cost $15000 to buy and install, was available to the public with no charge for parking but a two hour limit applied.  The black Volt was plugged in over 7 hrs most days.  What was meant by “sponsored”?  Was the city or Parking Authority being reimbursed for revenue forgone by having no meter? Was the city paid a fee for the right to claim sponsorship?  Why was there never a parking ticket on the black Volt for exceeding the 2hr limit?  What if I parked my non electric car there?  Who receives the payments for electricity used?  Were any public funds part of the $15000 installation cost?  Who owns and maintains the car charger?  I wanted to know a lot more.

I called WCI Partners, explained my concerns, left contact information, was told Mr Hartzler would get back to me but he did not return the call.  I visited Mr Richard Kotz, head of the Harrisburg Parking Authority.  He said he would look into the situation, being aware of no agreements with the Parking Authority concerning the spot in question.  I talked with Parking Enforcement.  They said they wondered about that spot since the charger was installed but were never told anything about it and could not enforce any rules without signs being posted.  No one seemed to know anything so I decided to ramp things up.

Before Mr Kotz at Parking Authority could get back to me I presented a Right to Know request asking for three simple things: 1) Copy of any agreements related to the situation 2) Terms of use 3) Records of charger usage and the payee.  Mr Kotz dutifully responded to my request that “none of the information requested exists at HPA”, after which he suggested trying the City of Harrisburg.

Prior to presenting a Right to Know request to the city I sent Mr Hartzler an email since his address was right there on the WCI Partners website.  I presented my questions and asked that he either respond by email or call me.  Later the same day he called.  In that conversation he confirmed that he put the charger there as something nice to do for the community.  He claimed that all payments pass through, that he makes nothing, which at $.15 per kwh is easy to accept.  He also said that the city is not losing any parking revenue since there never was a 100_0496parking meter or parking spot at that location prior to the charger’s installation.   He also informed me that signs were now placed saying “Electric Vehicle Only” and “2 Hour Limit” along with one that says “Sponsored by Sutliff Chevrolet”.  Keep in mind this is all happening in the public right of way, normally used for on-street parking under the direction of a city or its Parking Authority.  Surely arrangements must have been made with the city, if not its Parking Authority.

The next day, Tuesday July 9, I personally delivered a Right to Know request to the City of Harrisburg.  I asked what I had asked of the Parking Authority with a few additions.  This was my request:

1)      Any and all records of correspondence, meeting minutes, or any public records produced in connection with the approval of installation of Electric Vehicle (EV) charger and designation of parking space as free of charge on State St at 2nd Street, within the public right of way, normally considered on-street parking, especially agreements between the City of Harrisburg and developer J Alex Hartzler, WCI Partners, Greg Sutliff, or Sutliff Chevrolet, arrived at either in public forum by elected officials or privately by city agencies or employees.

2)      Agreement as to reimbursement to the city for forgone parking revenue in absence of parking meter.

3)      Terms of public use of above mentioned parking space and electric charger.

4)      Usage records of EV charger since Fall 2012 installation and identification of payee for electricity consumed.

5)     Owner of Electric Charger and who is responsible for upkeep and servicing.

As with the Parking Authority, the City of Harrisburg dutifully responded.  Also, as with the Authority no records could be produced related to the charger or the now suddenly signed parking space.  How is it possible that one citizen or a small group acting alone could be making public policy, installing EV chargers or hanging signs in a public right of way without permission?  Also in my phone conversation with Mr Hartzler he suggested that because I don’t live in Harrisburg, I have no standing in this issue.  But what if Hartzler, WCI Partners or Sutliff shared in grants from the state DEP that are available for electric vehicle charger installations  as did Amerigreen Energy of Lancaster, as outlined in another CPBJ article?  Then every citizen of the state would have standing, beyond the absolute right of anyone to merely be curious or ask questions.  Taking public money should, after all, also involve taking what comes with it.

A couple more mysteries remain.  Who put up the new signs in the absence of any agreements: the City, its Parking Authority, or a private citizen, and are they enforceable without official terms of use ever having been adopted?  Also what about the normal “no parking here to corner” signs that dominate the last parking spot before an intersection to protect public safety?  Did one ever exist at this location as they seem to throughout the city, including on the other side of 2nd St at State?  Could it have been removed and never replaced in the process of construction of the new building?  I’ve informed City of Harrisburg officials of the absence of such a sign.  As a non resident, having expressed my irritations, I’ll now leave these unresolved issues with the citizens of Harrisburg and their chosen officials or perhaps other curious visitors.

Note: This post shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania