After years of scandal, the embattled Hershey Trust board has a chance to clean up its act and set a new course. But it remains to be seen if the board will ever reform itself or continue to paper over its problems.
Three board members are set to resign on Dec. 31 and two others are scheduled to depart at the end of 2017. The overhaul is part of an agreement reached with the state attorney general earlier this year in an effort to clamp down on the board's dysfunction and excessive pay.
One problem: The board will pick the replacements. So the chances of attracting members with integrity and independence are slim. Granted, the attorney general has 30 days to review the new appointees but no veto power over them. And this is not the first time the scandal-plagued board has been through an overhaul.
If ever a board needed a fresh start, it is the Hershey Trust. The board oversees a $12.5 billion charity that owns Hersheypark and has a controlling interest in the famed chocolate company. Milton Hershey created the trust in 1909 with the mission to oversee a private boarding school for orphans and poor children.
The trust's $12.5 billion endowment is larger than the University of Pennsylvania's. Despite vast wealth to help needy kids, the board has seemed more focused on taking care of itself and throwing good money after bad.
The board's troubles go back years and never seem to get fixed.
In 2002, the board was accused of conflicts of interest, wasted assets and changed admissions policies that excluded the neediest children. The response was a deal with the attorney general that included removing 10 board members and shrinking the board from 17 to 11 members. Sound familiar?
In 2006, the trust spent $12 million for a golf course and then built a $5 million bar and restaurant on the property, claiming it needed buffer land for student safety. There were allegations the course was purchased at an inflated price to bail out a board member. Around the same time, the trust paid $7.5 million for an 18-acre roadside market that was then leased back to the owners.
In 2010, the school paid $3 million to resolve sexual abuse cases involving five former students.
Earlier this year, Hershey Trust Co. executive vice president John Estey was fired after federal prosecutors revealed he had been charged with wire fraud unrelated to Hershey. Estey, a political insider who was an aide to former Gov. Ed Rendell, admitted to pocketing $13,000 in bribe money.
In the meantime, the trust has spent more than $4 million on outside lawyers to investigate charges of misconduct that board members have lodged against one another.
The board spent $362,000 on travel, meals, limo services and hotels over a 2 ½ year stretch. Eight directors spent $18,000 just for a weekend board meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
Most of these details have come to light as a result of the relentless reporting by staff writer Bob Fernandez, whose book, The Chocolate Trust, details the scandals.