Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.
The state Inspector General’s Office, which works to ferret out waste and misconduct in Pennsylvania government programs and agencies, has itself made a costly blunder and left taxpayers on the hook, Spotlight PA has learned.
The watchdog office spent nearly $160,000 on pistols, ammunition, and related equipment that its investigators are not legally allowed to carry. As a result, the weapons have collected dust in storage for nearly two years.
The purchases were made after a 2017 law expanded the office’s powers, handing it the authority to issue subpoenas and search warrants. At the time, Gov. Tom Wolf said the changes would help the office serve taxpayers with “efficiency and accountability.”
Sometime afterward, however, questions arose. The administration determined “the law did not support” arming employees of the office, said Jonathan Hendrickson, a spokesperson for the inspector general.
It’s unclear why that determination was not made before the state solicited bids and ultimately bought the weapons. Bruce Beemer — who led the office at the time of the purchase and who was confirmed in December to become a judge in Allegheny County — did not respond to several requests for comment.
“Somebody has some explaining to do,” said Eric Epstein, a longtime good-government advocate in Harrisburg. "If you spend $160,000 to buy weapons — and then put them on ice — how is this not a classic example of wasting taxpayer dollars?”
» ACT NOW to support accountability journalism that keeps track of your tax dollars in Harrisburg. Donate to Spotlight PA and help power more stories like this one.
In January 2018, the office sought bids for 145 SIG Sauer P320 Compact pistols, records show. The weapons were bought from Philadelphia-based Firing Line Inc. for just under $57,000, according to a purchase order obtained by Spotlight PA. The office also spent approximately $100,000 on ammunition and auxiliary equipment, the spokesperson, Hendrickson, said.
The guns were delivered in April 2018 and never put into service. The state has since held them in a “guarded, secure facility,” Hendrickson said, but he declined to say where, citing “safety and security reasons.” The inspector general’s office is working with the general services department to “return or repurpose the firearms,” he said.
The question of whether to arm inspectors general investigators hangs on the legal authority, their training and the nature of their work, said Carl Bornstein, an adjunct assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
“Typically, if they are investigators, they would be asked in the routine course of their duties to go out into the field and interview people or serve subpoenas,” he said. “Under those circumstances, they may want or need a weapon for self-protection.”
Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and head of the criminology department at St. Vincent College in Westmoreland County, reviewed the 2017 law that expanded the office’s powers and said it lacks express authorization for the investigators to carry weapons. That could put the investigators in a tricky spot, Antkowiak said.
“Nobody wants to go execute a search warrant and not have a firearm on them," he said. "I don’t care how benign the crime may be that you’re investigating — the minute you go into someone’s home or business unannounced, under the authority of the warrant, there’s a serious risk you’re going to meet resistance.”
» SAVE TIME and sign up for Spotlight PA’s free weekly newsletter to receive the most important news from the Capitol and a roundup of can’t-miss stories from across Pa.
The 2017 law gave the office power to investigate and file criminal charges for welfare fraud. The office investigated nearly 23,000 applications in the year after the law went into effect, saving taxpayers more than $75.2 million, according to an annual report.
The nature of that work makes the weapons purchase particularly concerning, said Louise Hayes, supervising attorney at Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that advocates for low-income residents.
Hayes urged the office to keep the guns in storage.
“The overwhelming majority of benefits recipients are eligible for the benefits they receive, and most investigations reveal no fraud, but perhaps families struggling to comply with a complex web of rules,” she said in a statement. “The carrying of weapons is intimidating, stigmatizing and unnecessary in this context.”
Asked whether the administration would support changing rules to allow the investigators to carry guns, J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for the governor, said the current law is “sufficient” for the office to perform its duties.
State Sen. Ryan Aument (R., Lancaster), who co-wrote the 2017 law, did not return a request for comment, but a spokesperson said the lawmaker was not aware of the gun purchase.
Taxpayers also have been in the dark. The office’s most recent annual report posted on its website made no mention of the weapons, and the online portal to access state contracts maintained by the state treasurer’s office has no record of the purchase.
That’s in part because, despite the portal, the treasurer’s office has no authority to ensure state agencies actually upload contracts.
Spotlight PA receives funding from nonprofit institutions and readers like you who are committed to investigative journalism that gets results. Become a Founding Donor today at spotlightpa.org.