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Local Government

Big bonuses, vast powers, and corruption charges: 5 takeaways from an investigation into DuBois’ Herm Suplizio

by Min Xian of Spotlight PA State College and Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA |

A sign that spells DuBois in four foot tall white letters
Nate Smallwood / For Spotlight PA

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

DUBOIS — A seven-month Spotlight PA investigation delved into how suspended DuBois City Manager Herm Suplizio ended up at the center of one of the most sweeping political corruption cases brought by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General in recent years. The case was taken over by federal prosecutors last week, who arrested and charged him anew.

Suplizio capitalized on powers from key positions he held, as well as a network of unlikely political connections and the trust he amassed in the community, to gain almost unfettered access to millions of dollars in taxpayer and nonprofit funds, Spotlight PA’s investigation found.

It was the result of a perfect storm of circumstances: deep roots in DuBois; a city position that gave him broad access to city finances with little oversight; and friends of DuBois that included wealthy entrepreneurs and the former top Republican in Pennsylvania’s Senate.

Suplizio did not enter a plea in the case the commonwealth brought against him, but pleaded not guilty in the federal case last week.

Read the full investigation at spotlightpa.org/suplizio.

A rare form of city government grants its manager vast powers

In 1980, DuBois adopted an optional “council-manager” plan for its government. It is one of only two Pennsylvania cities to currently operate with this form of government. Altoona in Blair County is the other.

Under this structure, an appointed city manager becomes the chief administrator of the city, directing nearly all city staff and acting as a link — and a firewall — between the council and city departments.

When Suplizio became DuBois’ city manager in 2010, he stepped into a position with vast powers — overseeing budgeting, contracting, hiring and firing staff, and other aspects of running the city.

This arrangement, along with the trustworthy reputation Suplizio had in the city, made it difficult to question his decision-making, even at times when concerns arose regarding his bookkeeping.

Record amount of state grants paid for DuBois upgrades

As city manager, Suplizio envisioned turning his small town into a world-class venue for youth and collegiate baseball. It is the kind of dream that requires more cash than what a small-town budget can typically afford.

DuBois, records show, solved that problem in large part with state grants. In fact, under Suplizio’s watch, it received far more in state grants than other Pennsylvania cities of similar size.

A Spotlight PA analysis of state grants distributed to cities with populations between 5,000 and 10,000 people found that DuBois raked in more than $13 million between 2014 and July 2023.

That’s more than double the average grant income for all 20 cities in that category. DuBois — where about 7,400 people live — received the most state grants per capita among them.

Some of the largest grants went toward constructing or upgrading ball fields, including the “miracle” field for players with disabilities. The city paid for it, in part, with a $1.25 million grant from the state.

Political relationships that Suplizio had forged, including with former Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati — now a lobbyist for DuBois — helped pump state dollars into the city.

Suplizio quietly doled out over half a million dollars in bonuses

Suplizio took care of city employees financially, according to records obtained by Spotlight PA through a public records request.

He quietly gave out more than $561,000 in bonuses from city coffers to key staffers between 2014 and 2022.

Suplizio himself was the biggest beneficiary, making $357,358.54 in bonuses during those eight years. In 2020, for instance, his end-of-year bonus was $62,681.45. The next year, it was $64,306.78. And in 2022, just months before he was charged by the state attorney general’s office, it was $64,215.46.

Giving bonuses to government employees — especially in the amounts approved in DuBois — without a clear policy or public discussion is “not a practice that I have ever seen any municipality do or I’m accustomed to in any way,” Greg Primm, a Pennsylvania local government expert, told Spotlight PA.

Suplizio wore many hats — often with potential conflicts

Suplizio held multiple jobs that presented potential conflicts of interest while he worked as the city’s manager. Prosecutors allege he used this tangled web of jobs — and the access it gave him to bank accounts associated with those organizations — to obscure years of theft.

He was the executive director of the DuBois Area United Way, which collected contributions over the years for city-run projects — placing Suplizio at both ends of the deal. Spotlight PA found a total of $560,503 in contributions to the city were handled by the United Way from 2018 to 2020 — a period when Suplizio reigned over both entities.

Suplizio separately played a key role in raising money for Community Days, DuBois’ annual parade and celebration honoring the city’s storied fire department. Bank accounts associated with the festival were controlled by Suplizio. Prosecutors allege Suplizio diverted money that belonged to the city into accounts associated with Community Days. Though they shared the same tax identification number as the city’s accounts, Community Days’ bank accounts were not overseen or even monitored by anyone in city government.

Though the United Way and Community Days both had close financial ties with the DuBois city government — and at points sharing personnel in key positions — no one in the city publicly flagged Suplizio’s cross-involvement in those organizations as presenting the potential for conflicts.

City officials seemingly defended Suplizio in the fallout

Since Suplizio’s arrest by state prosecutors last spring, several DuBois city leaders have defended him and insisted he has done nothing wrong.

Within days of the arrest, City Council voted to place Suplizio on administrative leave — but kept him on the payroll, despite objections from the public (a citizens’ petition to a county court later stopped the arrangement).

City Council has also approved paying more than $270,000 for Suplizio’s legal defense, and at one point, even met behind closed doors with Suplizio’s lawyer, raising concerns about improper collaboration.

Those actions have infuriated DuBois residents, and many people in the city and in neighboring Sandy Township — which has requested the court to pause its consolidation with DuBois — perceive city leaders as turning a blind eye.

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