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Editorial | Ethics Rulings

Appearances count

Conflict-of-interest rulings involving two of Gov. Rendell's cabinet members shouldn't result in the overly burdensome existence for public officials that some envision.

The decisions by the State Ethics Commission are causing consternation in Harrisburg, where officials foresee jumping through a lot of new hoops to avoid perceived impropriety. Rendell said it could cause the state grant system to "grind to a halt." That concern looks to be premature.

The rulings arose from a partisan tussle in the Republican-controlled Senate concerning the renomination of two current Rendell appointees.

Senate GOP leaders asked Rendell to withdraw the renominations of Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Michael DiBerardinis. They said the Senate needed to first get an ethics ruling about grants those two agencies gave to environmental groups that had employed the cabinet members' spouses.

Supporters of McGinty and DiBerardinis said it was a partisan smear campaign. But the Ethics Commission's rulings say otherwise.

The commission said McGinty, in the future, should refrain from any role in awarding a grant that could benefit her husband financially.

Her husband, Karl Hausker, received $3,700 as a consultant for Pennsylvania Environmental Council and its subsidiary, Enterprising Environmental Solutions Inc.

Those groups have received $2.6 million in DEP grants to work on conservation and watershed protection projects since McGinty became secretary in 2003.

Likewise, DiBerardinis' wife, Joan Reilly, runs the parks program for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which has received $1.7 million in DCNR grants since DiBerardinis took the cabinet post in 2003.

The commission advised DiBerardinis to "abstain fully" from the grant process involving the nonprofit horticultural society or its "competitors."

Running through these decisions is an abundance of caution, but that's not a bad thing. Perceptions do matter. The cabinet secretaries did approve state grants for groups employing their spouses.

However, the commission's rulings shouldn't disqualify McGinty and DiBerardinis from further service. The history of these groups' work with the state dispels a profit motive on the part of either cabinet member.

The horticultural society has had an ongoing, perennial relationship with the state, and Reilly didn't work on the tree-planting program in Philadelphia that was the subject of the grants.

The groups that hired McGinty's husband received about $4 million in state grants in the four years of Republican administration before McGinty became DEP secretary.

Rendell said he might ask for clarification that the rulings don't apply when family members are volunteers at nonprofits. The commission should clarify that point.

The Ethics Commission offers a solution that might not be unwieldy. In cases where a conflict might lurk with an immediate family member, the governor could designate someone not under the cabinet secretary's "chain of command" to sign off on grant applications.

It isn't ideal, but it's better than fostering the appearance of favoritism.