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Pa. lawmakers reel after state Sen. Folmer’s ouster

A 2017 file photo of Republican state Sen. Mike Folmer. He was arrested September 17 and charged with possession of child pornography. (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

A 2017 file photo of Republican state Sen. Mike Folmer. He was arrested September 17 and charged with possession of child pornography. (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

News broke of Republican state Senator Mike Folmer’s arrest for alleged child pornography possession a little after 9 p.m. Tuesday night. He was charged with four felonies.

By noon the next day, he was out of office.

Calls for him to step down had been mounting all morning, from Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, Senate Democrats, House Republicans, and members of Folmer’s own Senate GOP caucus.

“We are sickened and disturbed by the charges brought against Mike Folmer yesterday,” Senate President Pro Tempore and Majority Leader Jake Corman said in a statement Wednesday. “We have reviewed the criminal complaint and spoke with Mike Folmer early this morning to insist on his resignation from the Senate.”

Folmer’s 48th Senatorial District seat, they said, “is now vacant.”

The 48th covers Lebanon and small parts of Dauphin and York counties. Folmer has held the seat since 2006, and was reelected to his fourth term in November by a significant margin.

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is in charge of scheduling special elections to fill legislative vacancies. His office said Wednesday he doesn’t yet know when it will happen.

He has 10 days to issue the writ of election, and the date must be more than 60 days after Folmer’s resignation.

The Senate Republican caucus must also find a new chair for its prominent State Government Committee, which Folmer had controlled since 2015. ​The committee mainly deals with issues related to government structure and function, like elections.

A spokeswoman said Wednesday that leaders don’t yet have a timeline for finding a replacement. And in the meantime, lawmakers say they’re unsure how the many initiatives Folmer was involved in will be affected.

Over the past two sessions, the senator took a leading role in an effort to reform Pennsylvania’s electoral system—most significantly, a longstanding, uphill battle to cut down on partisan gerrymandering by changing the way the commonwealth draws its state and congressional legislative boundaries.

Republican Garth Everett, who chairs the House’s State Government Committee and was working closely with Folmer on election issues, said he was “shocked” when he heard about the arrest.

“I go, ‘Wow, you’ve got to be kidding me,’” Everett said, adding that Folmer has invested a lot of time and energy in election reform. “We were going to try to work together through all the myriad of issues that the state government committee has, and I’m, you know, I’m just shocked.”

The effort to update Pennsylvania’s redistricting process is on a tight timeline.

In order to change how state legislative boundaries are drawn before 2022’s scheduled reapportionment, a bill proposing a constitutional amendment would have to pass by next June, and again during January or February 2021 to allow time for the proposal to be placed on voters’ ballots in the May 2021 primary.

Lawmakers are still far from consensus on the issue — though many favor an 11-member independent commission picked by the governor and bipartisan legislative leaders.

Folmer had been a co-sponsor on the most prominent version of the redistricting amendment and was spearheading negotiations aimed at getting enough support for the measure in both chambers.

“It makes it a tougher lift for me because now he’s gone and I’m here,” Everett said. “We were going to try to do this together, he had done a lot of this stuff in previous sessions. And now I don’t know.”

Folmer was involved in a number of other efforts to change how voting works in the commonwealth, including amendments getting rid of the requirement that voters must give an excuse in order to vote absentee, repealing a ban on federal employees working at polling places, and axing a sometimes-confusing requirement that judicial retention votes be cast on a separate ballot.

The day before his arrest, Folmer had presided over a joint State Government Committee hearing and pushed for smaller measures, like creating an advisory board to study election laws.

“I believe that we can put together a very nice package of — preliminary, anyway — election code reforms,” he told members as the session wrapped up.

​Within hours of that meeting, his work in the legislature was effectively over.

Folmer was arrested at his Lebanon County home Tuesday evening, according to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. He is free after posting $25,000 bail ​that night but is due back in Lebanon County Magisterial District Court on Sept. 26 for his preliminary hearing.

The AG’s office, Shapiro said, had been investigating Folmer since March 4 of this year when it received a tip from blogging site Tumblr that an account had uploaded a photo flagged as child pornography, depicting an underage girl engaged in sexual activity with an adult man.

The photo was uploaded in December 2017, according to the criminal complaint against Folmer. The AG’s office could not say why it had taken Tumblr more than a year ​ to report it, and an email to the company was not returned.

The complaint says that law enforcement obtained a search warrant for Folmer’s home on Tuesday, and an officer contacted the former senator at his district office that afternoon. He turned over his cell phone and drove himself home, where he agreed to be questioned without an attorney present.

During that questioning, the complaint says, Folmer admitted to police that the Tumblr account in question belonged to him, and said he “had been dealing with some personal problems/issues and that he had received child pornography through his Tumblr blog.”

Officers ​said they found two additional images depicting child pornography on Folmer’s cell phone.

Since his arrest, Folmer’s public social media accounts have either been scrubbed of posts or deleted entirely, and calls and messages to his top staffers and personal phone have gone unanswered.

A receptionist at the Harrisburg office assigned to Folmer confirmed that his district office is closed, but said “some staff” remain at the Capitol. She said those staff, however, have no further information they can share.

Democratic Senator Lisa Boscola, who was co-sponsoring her chamber’s chief redistricting bill with Folmer, said that like the rest of her colleagues, she was taken aback by the charges.

“If there’s one Republican who I’ve worked with in the Senate, it’s him,” she said. “And he was sincere about it, he really wanted to make the changes.”

However, Boscola is optimistic that Folmer’s departure won’t derail the redistricting reform effort.

“Redistricting and the need for it is much bigger than one person,” she said.

Emily Previti of PA Post contributed to this story.

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