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Critics: Corbett's team is business, as usual

Aides say 400 transition advisers have expertise

HARRISBURG - Democrats and citizen advocates are criticizing the composition of Gov.-elect Tom Corbett's transition team for the number of its members with ties to industries and companies that are regulated, permitted and, occasionally, punished by government agencies.

The 400-member transition team was selected to help guide Corbett, the state's Republican attorney general, as he prepares to take control of state government Jan. 18.

The team's 17 committees are meeting with officials in state agencies and are expected to deliver reports to Corbett that highlight important issues and ways to improve and streamline the government's operations, Corbett aides said.

Selected for their expertise, viewpoints or life experience, the unpaid members also must sign a code of ethical conduct to guard against the kind of conflict of interest that is worrying critics, including state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn.

"We're extremely concerned," Burn said. "Disappointed? Yes. Surprised? No."

Bank executives and lobbyists are on the banking team. Representatives of large insurers, including Highmark Inc., are on the insurance committee. Representatives of power and water utilities, gas-drilling companies, the coal industry and more are on the energy and environment committee.

"Can you say, 'Letting the fox in the hen house?' " said Tim Potts, co-founder of the citizen advocacy group, Democracy Rising PA, and a former House Democratic aide.

For example, a registered lobbyist on the energy and environment committee works for the law firm K&L Gates, which is registered with the state as a representative of Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. The Houston-based natural-gas-drilling firm is butting heads with the Department of Environmental Protection over whether it is to blame for polluted well water near its Marcellus Shale operations in Susquehanna County.

Instead of relying on people who represent corporate interests, Corbett could have selected people in the nonprofit and academic sectors who have the same expertise, Potts said.

A Highmark spokesman, Michael Weinstein, said the company had been asked to fill a slot on Corbett's transition team and had done so because it views it as a public-service obligation. Questions about conflicts of interest, Weinstein said, are for the Corbett team to answer.

A Corbett spokesman, Kevin Harley, said he disagreed with the characterization that representatives of state-regulated industries and companies present a conflict of interest, and he cited the 14-point code of ethical conduct that each member signs.

One point says: "I will disqualify myself from involvement in any particular matter during the term of the transition project which to my knowledge directly conflicts with a financial interest of mine, my spouse or family member."

Harley also noted a frequent economic theme during the campaign to improve business and job opportunities.

The head of another citizen advocacy group, Barry Kauffman of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said he saw nothing wrong with including people from all walks of industry, as long as the perspective is balanced. But he criticized Corbett's team as being light on public interest viewpoints.

Kauffman gave Corbett credit for reserving a transportation committee slot for AAA, the consumer-oriented nonprofit travel club with millions of members, but noted that the health and welfare committees lack AARP representation. There are no student associations or parent-teacher organizations on the education committee, Kauffman said.

"Sure, he's free to consult with whoever he wants to consult with, but I would encourage him to consult with more people from the public sector," Kauffman said.