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Controversy still dogs two Rendell nominees

Ethics issues seem to be fading, but Kathleen McGinty and Michael DiBerardinis are part of an environmental quarrel.

Mary Jo White
Mary Jo WhiteRead more

HARRISBURG - Two weeks ago, Gov. Rendell presented his "Energy Independence Strategy" in the Capitol Rotunda with his environmental secretary, Kathleen McGinty, at his side. That same day, Senate Republicans were circulating a letter urging him to withdraw McGinty's name from renomination.

There was a sense of déjà vu. Four years earlier, Rendell had pulled his cabinet appointee's name at the request of Senate Republicans wanting to review her role as an environmental adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Today, the Senate again is poised to consider McGinty's nomination, along with that of Michael DiBerardinis, Rendell's conservation and natural resources secretary, for a second term, amid lingering controversy over a pair of short-term ethics issues and a longer, angrier battle over the administration's environmental policies.

Entangled in all of that is the chairmanship of the Public Utility Commission.

The rift between Rendell and PUC Chairman Wendell Holland stems from stances the PUC has taken against some of Rendell's proposals on alternative and renewable energy. That rift spilled over to the McGinty confirmation debate when some Senate Democrats who support Holland threatened to withhold their votes for McGinty, who has led Rendell's energy policy agenda.

It's hard to tell where policy differences end and politics begins in the growing battle over Rendell's environmental agenda, a wish list that would put Pennsylvania, home to high-polluting industries, on par with California for environmental protections.

Nowhere is the tension more palpable than in the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, chaired by Mary Jo White (R., Venango).

For four years, White and McGinty, two of the most powerful women in Harrisburg, have engaged in a clash of wills that veteran insiders say is unusual in fierceness and longevity.

The way one Democratic senator put it, White has been "out for blood" on McGinty since the latter arrived in the capital.

White, a lawyer, worked for 19 years for the Quaker State oil company and represents a rural district in the northwestern section of the state that is the heart of Pennsylvania's oil and gas industry. McGinty, a protege of Al Gore and an environmental adviser to Clinton, spent much of her career in Washington.

McGinty's supporters say her policy initiatives have helped transform a former rust-belt state into a leader in promoting clean energy. Those who oppose her ideas, most notably White, say her proposals are too costly for business and consumers.

In her first term, McGinty championed the administration's alternative and renewable energy agenda and sought to limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and to reduce toxic emissions from cars sold in the state.

McGinty has said she has sought to balance business and environmental interests by streamlining the permit process and attracting companies that produce renewable energy.

The mercury and clean-vehicles initiatives - stronger than those of many other states and the federal government - put McGinty on a collision course with White and other pro-business lawmakers of both parties, along with some industry leaders, but won widespread support among environmentalists and many Democrats.

After a bitterly fought battle that raged for months in both legislative chambers and across the Internet, McGinty won on mercury and clean-vehicles issues; the state has adopted the new rules.

"She's done such a good job for the environment and she's made many enemies as a result," State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.) said in an interview.

Others say McGinty had moved too quickly. "She's upset people who are more incrementalists by nature," said Josh First, a Republican who has worked as an environmental lobbyist.

In a written reply to questions from The Inquirer, White said she had worked successfully with McGinty on several issues, including alternative-energy programs, and that her opposition to the mercury regulation proposal - which superseded federal requirements - had "as much to do with abuse of the regulatory process as it did with actual policy."

McGinty declined to comment for this article.

With a vote scheduled for later today, many senators appeared to have set aside the ethics dispute that involved McGinty and DiBerardinis - an issue that seemed to get resolved with a ruling last week by the state Ethics Commission.

That issue arose after McGinty's agency awarded $3,700 in grants to the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, which employed her husband.

The ethics panel found that if McGinty played a similar role in future grant-making, she would violate state ethics law. It made a similar ruling on DiBerardinis - his wife works for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which has received $1.5 million in grants from the department he oversees for Rendell. The grants are for a tree-planting program that does not involve DiBerardinis' wife.

McGinty and DiBerardinis said they would abide by the commission's ruling and develop policies to avoid any future conflicts of interest.

Top Senate aides in both parties said it was doubtful that lingering anger among some Senate Democrats over Rendell's threats to demote Holland would affect the votes on McGinty or DiBerardinis.

For his part, Rendell, through spokesman Chuck Ardo, remained confident about DiBerardinis' and McGinty's confirmations.

"We are optimistic that if judgment is made on the secretaries' entire body of work, they will both be confirmed," Ardo said.