HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell yesterday abruptly withdrew the nominations of two cabinet secretaries after an eleventh-hour showdown with Senate Republicans who threatened not to confirm them amid concerns about possible ethics violations.
At issue was $4.4 million in grants that went to groups that employ the spouses of the secretaries, Michael DiBerardinis of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Kathleen McGinty of the Department of Environmental Protection, since Rendell and the cabinet secretaries took office in 2003.
Rendell said he immediately resubmitted their names after reaching an agreement with Senate Republican leaders to hold the vote by May 8 following an expedited Ethics Commission review.
"We have asked the Ethics Commission to evaluate whether the instances raised by some members of the Republican committee . . . amount to any ethical violations," he said.
The move represented an about-face on his position only hours earlier when Rendell challenged the Senate to proceed with a vote, saying if his nominees were rejected he would keep them on as acting secretaries for the duration of his term.
Rendell said he changed his mind after considering the need for bipartisan cooperation on controversial budget issues in the months ahead.
"We have to try to keep a working relationship going here," said Rendell.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Chester) said he was pleased with the governor's decision. He said the Ethics Commission review would "allow our members to make an informed vote."
Asked whether he thought Rendell had caved to Republican pressure, Pileggi said: "We prefer to think of the governor as recognizing the merit of our position."
But Rendell was far from conciliatory, instead lashing out at Republican leaders for spending more time on partisan issues than solving transportation funding and health-care coverage issues.
"This is what's wrong with this building; we do partisan chicken stuff like this instead of doing real business," he said.
Under state law, nominees for cabinet positions must be approved by the Senate by the 25th legislative session day following their submission. Yesterday marked the 25th day. The cabinet secretaries require Senate approval to serve in Rendell's second term.
Rendell defended both cabinet secretaries, saying they should be confirmed on their exemplary first-term records.
"The Senate should confirm them based on their brilliant body of work they have achieved," he said.
McGinty's husband, Karl Hausker, is a consultant to the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and its subsidiary, Enterprising Environmental Solutions Inc., which have received $2.6 million in grants from her department since 2003.
DiBerardinis' wife, Joan Reilly, runs a parks program for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which has received $1.7 million from his department since 2003.
Rendell called the Republicans' description of the grants, which were first reported in the Philadelphia Daily News, and the relationship between those individuals and the organizations a "gross misstatement."
He said the environmental council was turned down for an additional $4 million in grant requests. Rendell also said Hausker was not an employee but a contractor who received a total of $3,700 in payments.
He said Reilly did not work for the tree-planting program that received the funding.
Rendell said that "in no way shape or form" does either represent a conflict of interest.
He also said that, contrary to some reports, the contracts were put out for competitive bid.
DiBerardinis, who was Philadelphia recreation commissioner under Mayor Rendell, is credited with expanding programming in state parks and launching the "Pennsylvania Wilds Initiative," which combines conservation, tourism and community revitalization in park regions.
McGinty, the first female secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, is widely regarded nationally as an environmental leader. During her term she established Pennsylvania as a leader in alternative energy, increasing the amount of clean energy used, and attracting companies to the state that develop solar energy, biofuels and wind power.