HARRISBURG - In his most dramatic actions since taking office, Gov. Corbett on Tuesday fired six state officials he blamed for allowing a West Philadelphia abortion clinic to operate unchecked for 17 years.
In addition to removing three people at the Department of Health and three at the Department of State - including its acting secretary - Corbett ordered broad changes in the agencies responsible for overseeing health facilities.
Corbett's actions come a little less than a month after release of a grand jury's grisly 261-page report that concluded state officials ignored years of complaints against the clinic and its operator, physician Kermit Gosnell, who is charged with murder. The firings bring to 17 the number of current and former state employees caught up in repercussions from the Gosnell case. Corbett said that three former state employees had resigned and that disciplinary action was pending against eight still on the payroll.
"This happened because people weren't doing their jobs, plain and simple," Corbett said at a news conference in the Capitol, four weeks to the day after he was sworn in as governor. "This doesn't even rise to the level of government running amok. It was government not running at all."
Calling the state employees' actions "despicable" and conditions at the Women's Medical Society in West Philadelphia "gruesome," Corbett announced plans to immediately overhaul the Departments of Health and State. The Department of Health inspects health facilities, and the Department of State licenses medical professionals.
Among the grand jury's more startling findings was that Gosnell's clinic had not been inspected since 1993. Gosnell, 69, is charged in the deaths of one woman and seven infants who were alive when he delivered them. The grand jury report alleges Gosnell severed the babies' spines with scissors. The grand jury also cited lack of communication and information-sharing among state agencies that prosecutors contend could have halted the clinic's operation long ago.
The changes announced by Corbett include requiring the 20 freestanding clinics that perform abortions in Pennsylvania - as opposed to those connected to hospitals - to be inspected annually, in addition to being subject to random, unannounced inspections. Hospital-connected clinics are already subject to regular inspections.
The two state agencies also will be required to set up a computerized system to track complaints, injuries, and investigations into clinics, and produce correction plans within 10 days of an inspector's finding a problem at a clinic.
Any facility that fails to report a "serious incident" - including injury or death of a patient - will be fined up to $1,000 a day for each day the incident goes unreported. Corbett said he had the power to institute the changes through executive order without legislation.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, whose office led the grand-jury investigation and who announced the charges against Gosnell and nine clinic employees Jan. 19, praised Corbett for his "quick and decisive actions."
Among those fired was the former acting Department of State secretary, Basil Merenda, and four top lawyers at the Departments of State and Health.
Merenda said he was not surprised when he was told Friday that he had been fired, but he figured it was because he is an active Democrat and a longtime Rendell supporter. He didn't officially learn that his name was being connected to the Gosnell case until he read news reports Tuesday.
Merenda, 59, of Philadelphia, said he never discussed the Gosnell case with any reviewers in the Corbett administration and he was not called before the grand jury to testify on the matter because he had no involvement. "They're besmirching my reputation on this," he said.
Merenda served as commissioner of the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, which oversees licensing boards, including the Board of Medicine. But, because he served as a voting member on that board, state law prohibited him from even discussing with prosecutors the complaints they received over the years related to Gosnell. "If I had questioned their prosecutorial discretion I would be in violation of the law," he said.
The prosecutors never brought a Gosnell case to the board, so Merenda never reviewed the matter.
Merenda also noted that he didn't become acting secretary of the Department of State until June 2010, after Gosnell's clinic was raided.
Three other state employees connected to the case have retired, including acting Health Secretary Michael Huff, who resigned shortly after Corbett took office. Two others who retired after the grand jury convened last spring were Department of State lawyer Andrew Kramer and supervising health inspector Janice Staloski, who oversaw the bureau responsible for such clinics - and who, according to the grand jury, made the final decision not to inspect Gosnell's clinic after a patient's 2009 death.
The eight agency staffers facing disciplinary action are civil servants and have union issues that must be resolved before a final determination is made on their employment, said Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley.
One of those fired on Tuesday was Department of Health senior counsel Kenneth Brody, who was faulted in the grand jury report for ignoring complaints against Gosnell and was among the top officials who decided not to resume regular clinic inspections in 1999.
Corbett also removed Christine Dutton, the Department of Health's chief counsel. The grand jurors had cited one of her answers in testimony about her department's failure to respond to a patient's death: "People die."
Also dismissed was Stacy Mitchell, a deputy secretary in the Health Department, who the grand jury determined was among the leaders exercising a "do-nothing policy on oversight" based on "the legally faulty excuse that the department lacked the authority to inspect abortion clinics."
Corbett said he has terminated all state legal assistance for employees in connection with the case. The grand jury report had revealed that at least $116,000 in public funds had been used to pay for outside counsel for state employees under scrutiny in the investigation.
No criminal charges have been filed against any of the former state employees, according to Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia district attorney.
Gosnell is being held without bail because he has been charged with murder, and prosecutors are considering seeking the death penalty. He is scheduled to be arraigned March 2.