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No cookies for you! Wolf’s gift ban will foil sweet-toothed Pennsylvania employees

By   /   September 22, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Some sweet-toothed state employees were busted by Pennsylvania’s inspector general for skirting the Wolf administration’s gift ban.

Their offense: accepting a plate of holiday cookies.

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COOKIES BANNED: Some PennDOT employees accepted a plate of holiday cookies from a vendor doing business with the state, a possible violation of Gov. Tom Wolf’s ban on gifts to state employees.

The cookies, which the inspector general notes were “homemade…and were of nominal value” and were “presented on an ordinary tray and not a basket or other decorative container and were for everyone at the Center and not any specific employees,” were apparently a traditional offering from the owner of a vendor company to their business partners, including one local PennDOT Drivers License Center.

The inspector general cleared the state employees of any wrongdoing — the cookies were not a violation of PennDOT’s gift policy at the time because the policy only banned gifts of “substantial value” — but reminded them of the new statewide gift ban imposed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

That ban, which covers all administration employees as well as state employees in executive branch agencies like PennDOT, supersedes agency-specific gift policies, the inspector general ruled.

Thanks to another policy change from the Wolf administration, the whole incident is now recorded on the Internet.

The investigation into the cookies was one of four reports published by the Office of the Inspector General this week, the first time in state history these audits have been made available online.

“My administration is committed to furthering transparency and accountability in state government and this is another step forward towards that goal,” said Wolf in a statement announcing the policy change.

Inspector General Grayling Williams said publishing the reports online will give taxpayers another glimpse into how his office is working to protect taxpayer money and promote good government.

The reports made available online will be summaries and will not include the names of individuals or businesses. The case of the cookies, for example, withheld the name of the vendor that provided the holiday treats and also did not disclose the location of the PennDOT Drivers License Center where they were delivered.

The full reports are available from the Office of the Inspector General, but can only be obtained via a right-to-know request.

Removing names from the online summaries is meant to protect whistleblowers, said Williams.

“Many of our office’s investigations are the result of brave Commonwealth employees and others who come forward with information, and we want future complainants to feel protected,” Williams said.

Eric Epstein, who runs Rock The Capitol and advocates for government reforms, praised the Wolf administration for putting the reports online.

“This is a very positive development, but hopefully the website will be maintained,” he said. “That’s been the snag with other governmental agencies that have tried to be more open and accessible. It’s about timing and accessibility.”

Epstein said withholding the names of whistleblowers makes sense, but those who got busted for violating state policies should be identified and the gift ban should be extended to allow investigations into gift-givers who are attempting to curry favor with state officials.

There’s also bigger fish to catch, he pointed out.

“Let me get this straight: we are going to prosecute cookies but give a free pass to cash handouts to legislators, allow (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) executives to golf on state time and ignore pay-to-play shenanigans at the Turnpike,” he said, referring to a string of recent corruption investigations at state agencies. “Talk about half-baked priorities.”

Moments after taking office in January, Wolf signed the executive order prohibiting all employees, appointees and officials in the executive branch from soliciting or accepting gifts from those who seek to influence government. It makes exceptions for gifts from family and friends, bank loans and free participation in gatherings in which officials are acting in their official duties and have been invited.

The executive order will not apply to the General Assembly or the judicial system, though Wolf has pushed for similar bans to be adopted by the other branches of state government. So far, they have not done so, even in the wake of a sting operation that busted several Philadelphia-area lawmakers for accepting bribes offered by an undercover agent of the attorney general’s office in exchange for votes.

As for the PennDOT employees who received the holiday cookies? The report recommends the department hold a training seminar with them to review the Wolf administration’s gift ban and other applicable state policies regarding gifts.

There’s no word on whether that training seminar took place, or — perhaps most importantly — whether cookies were served during it.

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