Harrisburg’s infamously ill-fated incinerator project burned not only the career of longtime Mayor Stephen Reed, but conventional notions of how local government corruption investigations should be conducted.
Pennsylvania law holds that local investigators conduct local corruption investigations and that the state attorney general may get involved only when invited by local authorities to do so.
That makes sense, most of the time. But local government is tied inextricably to local politics and its myriad interconnections. Inevitably, cases arise in which investigating agencies and personnel have close ties to the suspected local government official. Investigators usually recognize conflicts of interest in those cases and ask the attorney general to intervene to ensure the integrity of the investigation, but not always. And even when there is no ill intent, local ties can become entanglements.
In the Harrisburg case, the Reed administration attempted to upgrade a city-owned waste incinerator that had failed to generate its projected business and revenue largely because it is cheaper to dump garbage in landfills. It upgraded the incinerator about a decade ago, driving the total project cost to about $455 million.
An investigation dragged on. Reed already was out of office for three years in 2013 when the Dauphin County district attorney’s office recused itself and the attorney general’s office assumed the case.
By that time, according to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, some records had been lost or destroyed and statutes of limitations had expired for several different potential charges.
Earlier this year Shapiro released a grand jury report. It recommended no charges, due largely to the statutory limits in state law, but provided a detailed chronology of everything that went wrong with the project, which Shapiro characterized as a “debacle.”
The grand jury also recommended changes in state law to enable the attorney general to enter a local corruption case without an invitation. Sen. John Blake, a Lackawanna County Democrat, plans to introduce a bill to that effect. Other legislation based on the report likely will include greater transparency for professional services in such projects, which obviously is necessary given the secrecy that the Scranton Sewer Authority has draped over more than $4 million in fees it paid to lawyers and consultants involved in the sale of the sewer system.
The Legislature should pass the bill to ensure that corrupt local politicians do not escape through the back door of an expired statute.