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Rendell to disband PennDot unit attacked in report

Gov. Rendell says he did not know his transportation department had a 35-person unit that dealt exclusively with legislators' requests until he read about it in Monday's grand jury report.

Gov. Rendell says he did not know his transportation department had a 35-person unit that dealt exclusively with legislators' requests until he read about it in Monday's grand jury report.

And now that he knows about the unit, Rendell is disbanding it.

"A unit like that should never have existed," he said Tuesday. "It's inappropriate."

A state investigating grand jury singled out the unit for special criticism in a scathing report on legislative corruption and waste.

The "constituent services" unit within the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is part of a network of state employees whose only jobs are to get drivers' licenses, renew motor vehicle registrations, obtain license plates, and do other routine paperwork for businesses and residents who do not want to do it themselves, the grand jury report said.

Legislators hire staffers in their district offices to perform those tasks, and both the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the state House employ dozens of staffers for that purpose, at a cost of millions of dollars a year to Pennsylvania taxpayers, the grand jury said.

The report said the House Republican caucus employs 20 people and the House Democratic caucus 14 people to do those errands.

And 35 state workers in PennDot are "dedicated to handling nothing other than the paperwork received from the elected members of the General Assembly," the grand jury report said. "Not surprisingly, nothing about the work performed by this unit within PennDot suggests that there is any need for state legislators to serve as intermediaries between their constituents and PennDot."

Rendell, whose administration is facing a billion-dollar budget gap, said the PennDot workers in the unit would be assigned to other jobs in the department.

House Republican leaders said Tuesday that they were reviewing what to do with their staffers assigned to run constituents' PennDot errands. Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), said the employees - whose salaries total $895,500 - are being kept in place for now.

"Constituents come to our offices because they have a problem," Miskin said. "They come to us because the bureaucrats were unable to fix their problem for them the first time around. What are we supposed to do, turn them away?"

House Democratic leaders did not respond immediately to a question about their plans for their staffers.

Some witnesses before the grand jury tried to justify the use of state employees to do the routine errands by portraying the beneficiaries as elderly constituents in rural areas who couldn't manage for themselves.

In reality, the report said, car dealers, paving companies, bakeries, and other businesses took advantage of the free service.

And the grand jury found no evidence to support claims that legislators were able to expedite processing by sending constituents' paperwork to the special PennDot unit.

The only rationale offered by many witnesses, the report said, was political: It would "engender good will between the elected member and his constituents, thereby increasing the chance that said constituents would vote for that elected member . . . This is precisely the type of politically motivated activity that the public should not be forced to fund."

The grand jury said that the Internet and other technological advances had made it easier than ever for residents to handle their dealings with PennDot and that they do not need state legislators to do it for them.

If residents need additional help, the grand jury said, there are private agencies such as AAA and "tag" services that will assist, for a fee.

"The legislature has no legitimate justification for using its taxpayer-funded resources to assist constituents with their PennDot issues," the grand jury report said. "This practice must end immediately."

Any elected official who felt strongly about continuing such services could instead "fund such activity out of his campaign coffers or his private funds," the report said.