HARRISBURG - Two embattled members of Gov. Rendell's cabinet were overwhelmingly approved for second terms by the state Senate yesterday despite some concerns about potential ethics violations and controversial policy positions.
The nominations of Michael DiBerardinis, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; and Kathleen McGinty, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, had been held up for weeks over concerns that, as agency heads, they had committed ethics violations by awarding contracts to organizations that employed their spouses.
After brief discussion, DiBerardinis was confirmed, 44-4, and McGinty was confirmed, 42-6. Philadelphia-area senators voting no were LeAnna Washington (D., Phila.), on both, and Connie Williams (D., Montgomery), on McGinty.
"The two nominees, it seems to me, are qualified," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). "We will have disagreements, sometimes serious disagreements on policy issues, but they should be confirmed."
Rendell applauded the Senate for supporting two "dedicated public servants" committed to "making sound decisions to protect the environment and conserve our natural resources."
Last month the state Ethics Commission reviewed questions raised about millions in grants to the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, for whom McGinty's husband, Karl Hausker, has worked as a consultant, and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which employs DiBerardinis' wife.
Together the groups have received more than $4.2 million in grants since Rendell took office in 2003.
The commission, which can look only to future actions in its review, concluded there would be ethics law violations if the secretaries continued to oversee the grant process for groups with which their spouses were involved.
DiBerardinis said yesterday he was in compliance with the ethics act when his agency gave a grant to the society for a program with which his wife, Joan Reilly, was not involved.
"But that is not to say that we are not reviewing the prospective ruling and taking it seriously," he said.
McGinty's leadership on several far-reaching environmental policies that go beyond federal requirements - such as limiting mercury emissions at coal-fired power plants and reducing toxic emissions from new automobiles sold in the state - has won her support among environmentalists nationally and drawn fire from some state lawmakers and industry groups.
Washington said her votes reflected lingering ethics concerns, not opposition to policy.
"Officials need to be held to a higher standard of conduct as we attempt to repair and improve state government," Washington said.
Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin) said he remained concerned about the ethics issues, and he objected to McGinty's environmental policies, which he said would be costly to taxpayers.
Williams said in a statement that though she supported McGinty on the environment she voted against her because of her alleged remarks about Public Utilities Commission Chairman Wendell Holland, one of Williams' constituents.
"Unfortunately, it appears that Kathleen McGinty has overstepped her bounds as secretary of one independent department in order to influence another independent agency – the Public Utility Commission," Williams said.
In an interview, McGinty said yesterday she would not discuss a matter that was between Rendell and Holland.
"The governor has made clear he has a disagreement on decisions the chairman has made," she said.
Rendell has threatened to remove Holland over dissatisfaction with his leadership of the PUC, particularly several votes against alternative- and renewable-energy programs.