Wolf administration refuses to release details after failure derails Pa. clergy sex abuse relief

(Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer)

(Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer)

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The Wolf administration had no system in place to prevent an apparent administrative mistake like the one that derailed a statewide vote on legal recourse for survivors of decades-old sexual abuse, Spotlight PA has learned.

Last week, the Department of State, which oversees elections, disclosed that it had failed to advertise the proposal as required by law. The error prevents the question from appearing on the ballot in May.

The stunning admission devastated clergy sexual abuse survivors and others who are time-barred from bringing litigation under the statute of limitations, and led to the swift resignation of the agency’s top official, Kathy Boockvar.

But in the days that have followed, the Wolf administration has declined to provide additional details of exactly what occurred, how it happened, who else was responsible for the error, and whether any other disciplinary action or terminations had resulted.

“The Department of State did not have a formal process for managing the advertising of constitutional amendments due to their relative infrequency,” Wanda Murren, the agency’s spokesperson, told Spotlight PA.

When pressed for more information, Murren said “there was an established practice among offices to move resolutions received from the legislature,” but provided no detail.

The department did not respond to several requests for information about which offices and staffers within the department were in charge of advertising constitutional amendments, including four proposed changes that the agency properly advertised within the past year.

One source familiar with the process said that, generally, the agency’s legislative affairs staff plays a key role in tracking legislation, including proposed amendments, and informing the agency’s top lawyers and senior staff of where they stand in the legislative process.

The Republican Party of Pennsylvania has tried to pin some blame for the error on the state Attorney General’s Office, which is in charge of writing the language that eventually is posted at the polls and that explains, in detail, what the proposed amendment is.

But the office does not get involved until late in the process, and a spokesperson said it plays no role in advertising proposed amendments.

In refusing to give details about why the error occurred, the Department of State cited Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision last week to ask the Office of State Inspector General to investigate the mistake. Inspector general reports are not released to the public, unless the governor directs them to be.

In late 2017, for instance, Wolf refused to make public a report by the Inspector General’s Office that examined whether the state’s former lieutenant governor, Mike Stack, and his wife had verbally abused and mistreated state employees assigned to work for them.

A spokesperson for Wolf, a Democrat who has frequently said transparency is a core priority, said the governor would work with the inspector general to make the results of the inquiry public. It is not known how long the investigation will take.

Wolf has described the mistake as “human error” and said the agency would “immediately institute new controls, including additional tracking and notifications of constitutional amendments, to ensure similar failings do not occur in the future.”

Under state law, any changes to the Pennsylvania Constitution must pass the legislature in two consecutive sessions. The proposed change is then placed on the ballot for voters to make the ultimate decision.

After each passage, the Department of State is required to advertise the proposed amendment in all 67 Pennsylvania counties.

The legislature, in its 2019-20 session, approved five proposed changes to the state constitution.

One would provide a two-year reprieve in the statute of limitations so older sexual abuse survivors can sue. The measure grew out of a blistering, 2018 statewide grand jury report that documented decades of child sexual abuse and cover-ups in nearly every Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers were on track to approve it for a second time last month, so that the question could appear on the May ballot.

But the Department of State’s failure to advertise the proposal means survivors are back to square one. If the legislature wants to continue pursuing the constitutional amendment, it must begin the process again, meaning the question won’t be before the voters until 2023 at the earliest.

There are other options lawmakers could pursue.

Last week, state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), who championed the two-year reprieve, said there is bipartisan support in the House to use an emergency tactic to get the proposal on the ballot as planned. Leaders in the state Senate, however, did not commit to bringing it up for a vote.

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