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Chris Crossing York: York County politicians choose to leave the public in the dark

CHRISTINA KAUFFMAN
YorkDispatch


My great-grandmother Ida, about as Pennsylvania Dutch as they came, had a little plaque tacked above her basement door. "Ve get too soon oldt, undt too late schmart."

Translation: We get old too soon, and smart too late.

It's a fitting introduction to a column about York County Commissioner Chris Reilly flirting - maybe even getting to third base - with the law that sent former York City Rep. Steve Stetler to jail for 16 months on a public corruption conviction.

Anyone who lived in Pennsylvania through Bonusgate should already know it's illegal for politicians to campaign in their public offices, and they can't make other people do it on taxpayer-paid time or with taxpayer-funded supplies or equipment.

It's a fundamental rule that a seasoned politician like Reilly should be able to recite as swiftly as he reads agenda items during commissioners' Wednesday morning meetings.

But Reilly last year hired the county commissioners' secretary to be his campaign treasurer, and she admits she did at least some amount of his political work in the commissioners' office, on county time.

Illegal. See: Stetler. Read the sign above the basement door.

Questionable: His decision to hire Hilary Kilburn for his campaign was questionable anyway, because she also serves as the taxpayer-paid, confidential secretary for Commissioners Doug Hoke (a Democrat) and Steve Chronister (the erstwhile Republican who's now running as an independent because he was booted from the GOP ballot after his petition was challenged).

In other words, Reilly hired the woman who serves as his and two of his political opponents' confidential secretary to work in a top position in his campaign.

That might send all kinds of icky-shivers up your spine like it did mine, but according to county solicitor Mike Flannelly, that part is not illegal, and it doesn't violate a county policy of which he's aware.

But her campaign work became both illegal and a violation of county policy when she did some of it in the office, where she was on the clock in a clerical position paid by county taxpayers.

Confirmed: When I called Kilburn at the commissioners' office on Friday, she confirmed that she had indeed addressed some campaign mail from the county office.

"There might've been mail that I sent out that he asked me to address, or something that I sent out," she said.

This was, she said, before Reilly decided she should not continue as his treasurer because he didn't "want it to be a conflict of interest," and that "because the election was coming up, it would probably be a good idea not to do it."

Hmm. Too late schmart.

The campaign work in the office was essentially an oversight on her part, she said, but it was minimal and she did everything else at home. She couldn't quantify exactly how much she did from the office, and I would still like to know.

"He may have written a check and then said, 'Here, mail this to reply to an invite,' or something," she said. "I don't know if he wrote the check in the office."

May have? Might've? I don't know?

Explanation: After that conversation, Reilly's call pre-empted the one I was about to place to him. Call his cellphone, he told me. (After all, we were about to talk about campaign stuffs.)

Reilly said he asked Kilburn to be his treasurer - though his wife had always done it in years past - because he thought the $100 payment per reporting cycle would be welcome since Kilburn's husband had been out of work.

Reilly said she was his treasurer from last fall until about January, after he heard Flannelly and Kilburn's boss had met with Kilburn about campaign activity in the office.

He said he told her, "'Hilary, you can't do anything. Take everything you have associated with the campaign out of here. Be safe, get it out of here.'"

He added he didn't know she had campaign stuff in the office. "I just said, 'If you do, get it out of here.'"

For example, he said, he keeps his campaign letterhead in his desk drawer in the commissioners' office in case he has to write a thank-you note, but he doesn't actually write the letters in his office.

I'm not sure that bolsters his argument. If I were to have campaign letterhead in my desk at work, it would be because I intended to write campaign notes at my desk at work. Otherwise, I'd have left that campaign letterhead in my car. It's unbelievably inefficient to carry letterhead in to work just to take it back outside when intending to write some emergent thank-you note.

The edge: When you skate that close to the edge, it would be pretty easy to cross the line.

So did he actually instruct her to reply to an "invite" in the office?

"I might have given her the stuff," he said. "I may have, but I never instructed her to do anything in the office."

Might have. May have.

"Hilary has no idea ... no clue, politically," he said. "If she did something in here, she had no idea. It was not malicious or trying to skirt the rules. I tried to do a nice thing and ... it's unfair to penalize her. I'll take full responsibility for it if it did (violate campaign laws)," he said.

He said he "specifically instructed her not to do it."

Well, then I guess that might have come down to an issue of clarity when he might have handed her something campaign-related in the office.

Of course, neither of their recollections are very clear on this. It was, after all, six months ago.

Witness: And in that time, even the man who was ostensibly betrayed by his own party during the primary has been reticent to go on the record.

I've been prodding Chronister for months. Finally, on Friday, he shared what he knows

"I was concerned, went in the office and ... I asked her point blank if any (campaign) work was done as the treasurer in this office, and she said there was," he said. "She was very certainly upset about it and said it wouldn't happen again."

One would think Hoke and Chronister would've been first in line to file a complaint. Reilly is their political opponent. There's also the matter of preserving the integrity of their office.

But as of Friday afternoon, nobody had filed a complaint, according to Don Reihart, who's acting as the solicitor for the county elections board since Flannelly is campaigning for a judge seat.

Hoke told me he's not a person who enjoys controversy, and he didn't want Reilly to be mad at him.

Well that's awful nice.

Hoke said he had seen mail - with Chris Reilly for Commissioner in the return address - in the county's outgoing mailbox in the coffee room.

The envelopes were stamped, which means the county was not paying for the postage, Hoke said.

And after he heard that Kilburn was Reilly's campaign secretary, Hoke wanted to "make sure that whatever happened wasn't at the level that it needs to be investigated," he said. "I think if the truth can be shown that definitely political activity was being done on company time ... that is in

Mike Flannelly's opinion not appropriate, I think somebody's got to look at it."

'Hypothetically': So what does Flannelly think would warrant an investigation?

He declined to address the "personnel issue" and gave opinions only when framed in a "hypothetical" scenario.

He's not aware of any specific legal obligation compelling the county to report that campaign work had been done in a county office, he said.

If such a thing were suspected, "speaking hypothetically," he would "sit down with the employee and explain the rules and obtain a promise that, to the extent that it happened, that it didn't happen again," he said.

There is some discretion in terms of the law, Flannelly said.

"It depends on the nature of the infraction," he said. "If the infraction is relatively small and can be corrected simply by bringing it to the attention of the person and making sure it doesn't happen again, that's one course of action ... and obviously if it's a significant and ongoing issue, that might result in a different course of action."

Examples of something "relatively small," he said, include "licked a stamp or something." Reading between the lines, I get the idea the meeting Reilly referred to concluded with Flannelly deciding Kilburn's campaign work wasn't that big of a deal.

But you and I can't know for sure because it's a "personnel matter" and nobody's filed a complaint to start an investigation that could inform us.

- Christina Kauffman writes Chris Crossing York, an occasional column, and is the managing editor at The York Dispatch. Reach her at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com, @shewritesitdown on Twitter, or 505-5436.