A version of this story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau featuring the most important news and happenings in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up for free at spotlight.org/newsletters/talkofthetown.
A November Spotlight PA investigation reported how the former city manager of a small Pennsylvania city landed at the center of one the state’s most sweeping political corruption cases in recent years.
Spotlight PA reporters Angela Couloumbis and Min Xian detailed how former DuBois City Manager Herm Suplizio wielded vast powers as the city’s chief administrator during his tenure, held outside jobs that presented conflicts of interest, and allegedly stole hundreds of thousands of public and nonprofits dollars because city government oversight was lacking.
The reporters discussed these findings and what they revealed about ethical conduct and fiscal accountability in Pennsylvania local government at a virtual event on Jan. 25.
Here are five key takeaways from the panel discussion, which can be viewed in full at spotlightpa.org/events:
State law sets minimum standards to prevent conflicts of interest in government.
The Pennsylvania Ethics Act spells out basic financial interest disclosure requirements for all public officials and employees, as well as candidates for public office.
Leanne Davis, executive director for Pittsburgh’s Ethics Hearing Board, said the mandatory annual filing sets a floor for making sure elected officials and government workers are not using their public office for private or political gain.
State law broadly defines private gain as “anything that could have a financial impact that can be calculated, which is pretty much everything,” Davis said. The gain could even include benefits for family or entities that public figures are associated with.
State law requires disclosure of secondary employment, certain travel expenses, and seats or offices held at a business or nonprofit. Officials also must report details of debts that exceed $6,500, any gift valued at $250 or more, and outside income of $1,300 or more.
“You are going to see in smaller units, smaller boroughs, smaller townships, more of an overlap between those who are involved with the business community and those who are going to be serving in government,” Davis said. Those contracts are permissible as long as proper disclosures are made public accordingly.
Municipalities can hire law firms instead of individual attorneys as solicitors, and Davis said the Ethics Act should be updated to cover those appointed positions in terms of disclosure. A set of bills in the General Assembly would allow firms to be hired as municipal managers and include reporting requirements.
Fiscal accountability starts with accessible information.
The amount of public and nonprofit money that federal prosecutors alleged Suplizio stole — more than $550,000 over nearly a decade — raised questions about how those funds were handled.
Local governments can adopt best practices — such as adhering to the Governmental Accounting Standards Board guidelines and releasing annual comprehensive financial reports — as the first line of action in fiscal accountability, Rachael Heisler, Pittsburgh city controller, said. These steps would expose potential wrongdoing and generally help the public understand how taxpayer money is managed.
The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development makes municipal annual financial reports available online.
Heisler’s office produces an annual report that she said is a “very digestible” version of the in-depth audited statements and gets distributed widely. This helps inform local business owners and civic leaders of Pittsburgh’s financial position, she said.
The state auditor general is an elected statewide position with the ability to investigate misconduct, and Heisler said empowering that office to do its job could also protect against fraud, waste, and abuse of public money.
Segregation of duties helps eliminate fraud and misuse.
DuBois was “like the perfect storm” where checks and balances were not in place, Jennifer Jackson, a DuBois City Council member, said. The rare form of local government the city operates under grants vast powers to the city manager, and in the past elected officials trusted Suplizio to do his job without much oversight, she said.
“Even now, we don’t have job [descriptions]. We don’t have employee handbooks,” Jackson said.
Clearly defined job responsibilities limit the authority of each public office, and having workplace policies documented is critical to municipal governance, according to the panel members.
Heisler said her office tries to eliminate the opportunity for misconduct by keeping “even smaller duties within the city” separate.
“I think it's prudent,” she said. “Taxpayers expect that. Residents expect that.”
Heisler suggested that the state legislature strengthen the checks and balances in municipal finances by requiring more than two people act as signers for their bank accounts.
Jackson said the new City Council is reaching out for input, including to the Pennsylvania Municipal League, to help establish new practices, policies, and procedures.
Publicizing government information increases accountability.
Panelists spoke about the importance of making government information available to the public by posting it online where possible and following the state’s open records law.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant, right?” Davis said. “We need to have transparency.”
Heisler acknowledged that the process can sometimes be cumbersome for smaller governments and hiring more staff to ensure independence in public office often comes with costs, but she said municipalities can make incremental changes to maximize accessibility, like starting with posting monthly treasurers’ reports online.
Davis added that being transparent might “take a culture shift” and could be initiated and passed down by predecessors in public office as institutional knowledge.
Panelists offered potential improvements to oversight.
Elected officials can decide if their municipal policy goes further than what the state ethics law requires of public employees and themselves, Davis said. Allegheny County, for example, established a five-person Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission by ordinance and tasked it with receiving and investigating complaints regarding unethical behavior by county officials and employees.
The panelists agreed that proper oversight of governments requires a participating public.
“I would go to council meetings as [a] business owner and would walk out and be like, ‘I don't understand how our city is being run because nothing was public. Everything was behind the scenes,’” Jackson said. “I think [the] public needs to truly educate themselves as to how your municipality should be working and ask questions.”
“Once we kind of have some of that fundamental understanding of basic accountability and what we should be expecting, we can hold [elected leaders] accountable,” Davis added.
Jackson successfully ran on a write-in campaign last year to join DuBois City Council, after the allegations of theft against Suplizio were made public and the city faced questions about its governance. Heisler said that running for office is an important way to restore faith in government.
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