Seth Grove wants to end ‘honor system’ that allows agencies to hide contracts

Matt McKinney
Spotlight PA
Rep. Seth Grove , left, Attorney General Josh Shapiro and members of the General Assembly introduce, Monday, January 13, 2020, a package of bills designed to curb Medicaid fraud. The press conference took place in the Capitol rotunda. Bill Kalina photo

HARRISBURG — A state House lawmaker wants Pennsylvania to end an “honor system” that allows agencies to keep big-dollar contracts from the public, closing a loophole highlighted by Spotlight PA.

Under state law, all agencies and departments are required to publish contracts worth at least $5,000 to an online search tool for government spending maintained by the treasurer’s office.

That’s not what happened in 2018, when the Office of State Inspector General quietly bought nearly $160,000 in guns and related equipment, as Spotlight PA revealed in January. The office later learned its investigators were barred from carrying firearms, and the purchases have been sitting in storage since. (A spokesperson for the office said it is working to “return or repurpose the firearms.”​)

More:Pa. agency that looks for wasteful spending wasted $160,000 on guns, ammo it can’t use

It is not clear why the gun purchases were not disclosed.

The state treasurer’s office has no record of the contract, meaning it did not appear on the online portal. The office also has no authority to compel agencies to upload contracts, meaning the tool provides an incomplete look at state government spending. The issue was the focus of a 2019 investigation by The Caucus.

In response to the Spotlight PA article, Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, is calling on the General Assembly to make state agencies follow the disclosure law.

“It frustrates me a little bit to find this stuff out in the newspaper,” Grove told Spotlight PA, adding that “at some point, the General Assembly needs to do a better job of digging into contracts.”

The Pennsylvania inspector general's office spent nearly $160,000 on pistols, ammunition and related equipment that its investigators are not legally allowed to carry, leaving taxpayers on the hook.

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Current reporting requirements amount to an “honor system” with “no real teeth,” he said. To remedy that, he would like to see the Legislature compel state government entities to report spending for publication on the portal, potentially by withholding funding for agencies that don’t comply.

“This sort of information shouldn’t be tucked away. Rather, it should be readily and easily available to the public,” he wrote on his legislative website.

Grove is asking the Senate to add the requirement into his bill codifying an updated version of the treasurer’s transparency portal. The measure passed the House 200-0 last June and is awaiting consideration in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

That committee’s chair, state Sen. Pat Browne,  R-Lehigh, did not respond to a request for comment.

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A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said ​the proposal has not yet been discussed but "as always, we will consider any House bill when it reaches the Senate."

In January, State Treasurer Joe Torsella sent a letter to all commonwealth agencies reminding them of their obligation to submit required contract details. Those reminders will now go out twice a year, he said.

Ashley Matthews, a spokeswoman for the treasurer's office, said Torsella "strongly supports efforts to increase transparency and efficiency in state government, and he commends Rep. Grove for his continued commitment to transparency."

“Pennsylvanians deserve to know exactly how their tax dollars are spent,” she said.

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