A tense exchange during a recent state budget hearing revealed GOP resistance to Pedro Cortés, the governor’s pick to run the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections and professional licensing.
Cortés helmed the agency during the Rendell administration. It was during that time, a grand jury said, that the agency’s Medical Board license investigators fell down on the job when they failed to pursue complaints against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, convicted in 2013 for killing three babies at his West Philadelphia abortion clinic.
“There was a failure to perform,” said Cortés during an interview earlier this month. “And, as the report states, it was at the hands of the prosecutors that were reviewing those complaints.”
Cortés said the department addressed the shortcomings revealed in the Gosnell case. Prosecutors at fault no longer work for the state, he said, and the agency requires more supervision of prosecutors and better cross-agency communication.
But that answer hasn’t satisfied Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair. During a Thursday budget hearing, he said Cortés himself should directly oversee licensing investigators to prevent another Gosnell case.
“I’m concerned about the structure that we have … if we don’t seem to have an appropriate checks-and-balances process in that department,” said Eichelberger.
“And now, we have another pro-abortion governor,” Eichelberger said. “Are we going to get another under-the-table directive that you’re going to close your eyes, and no one’s going to supervise people?”
Cortés said he never received instructions to turn a blind eye to abortion clinics – and he invoked his Catholicism, saying he would never heed such a directive. He said that, as secretary, he had no knowledge of the various complaints against Gosnell. (The grand jury report condemning the Department of State was released in 2011, when Cortés was no longer with the state.)
“Had I known, I certainly would’ve done something,” said Cortés. “I tell you, at least I would’ve said to someone, ‘look at this closer.'”
But he disagreed with Eichelberger that he should directly oversee licensing prosecutors, saying it would violate basic legal principle reinforced in a 1992 state Supreme Court ruling.
“You don’t want the adjudicator, who might be a political appointee, telling the prosecutors what to do or what not to do, who to prosecute and who not to prosecute,” said Cortés. “That would just bring down all sorts of credibility in the system, and our whole democracy would go down if that’s what we do.”
Democrats have somewhat nervously expected the Gosnell case to come up during discussions around Cortés. Two Democratic senators quickly came to the nominee’s defense Thursday after the exchange with Eichelberger, and denounced any attempts to suggest Gosnell was purposely ignored for political reasons.
“You have our complete and full support,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia.
Cortés is subject to a confirmation vote in the Senate, which, like the House, is controlled by Republicans. Eichelberger said he’s not sure whether he’ll support Cortés. He is one of at least two GOP senators to raise concerns relating to the Gosnell case, though he insists that’s not the sole reason for his skepticism.
“It’s not about abortion,” Eichelberger said. “It’s about the structure of the office.”
The Department of State oversees 29 licensing boards. It was unclear Friday how many of them employ investigators.