This town reveals the problem with family and politics


http://watchdog.org/213720/throop-family-politics-government/

There’s an old aphorism, sometimes attributed to Harper Lee, that goes, “You can pick your friends but not your family.”

We’re more or less stuck with what she called “kin,” she’s saying, so it’s grand that we can operate from something greater than an accident of biology when it comes to choosing our acquaintances.

Sometimes, of course, the friends you pick become your family. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, got him into a pig’s trough of trouble when news broke she was working as a green-energy lobbyist while sleeping with the governor. Confronted with a dilemma (or maybe tri-lemma — family, friends, job?), Kitzhaber chose Hayes. Three cheers for love.

And Hillary Rodham Clinton? She was born to the same parents as Anthony Rodham, an executive at GreenTech Automotive. GTA is the controversial Virginia-based electric-car company founded by Bill and Hillary’s friend and campaign moneyman, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. A recent Department of Homeland Security investigation reveals Rodham and McAuliffe leaned on the highest-ranking DHS officials to expedite visas for foreign investors in their company.

Did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton facilitate that lobbying? Did she delete from her private email server all communications to and from them as “private” — along with email about “yoga routines,” “family vacations” and “planning Chelsea’s wedding”? We may never know.

Contemplating a run for the White House, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has a brother problem, and it’s not Neil or Marvin. Sen. Rand Paul has his father, Ron. Or perhaps it’s former Sen. Ron Paul who has to get by with Rand.

We could go on. But you get the picture: family matters matter. That’s as clear on Pennsylvania Avenue as it is on Main Street — or at 436 Sanderson Street, in the offices of Pennsylvania’s Borough of Throop.

The borough website says, “The Borough of Throop has a fascinating history.” It got more fascinating this week, when my colleague, reporter Andrew Staub, revealed in a three-part series that the local “council has created an employee roster that might be mistaken for a family tree. Close relatives of at least five of the seven borough councilmembers have worked for the borough within the past five years.”

When it came to hiring for government jobs, Throop officials picked their friends and their family.

Throop is a borough — that means it’s smaller than a city — of about 4,000 people. Staub’s review of payroll records from 2010-2013 and most of 2014 show that at least 10 people related to five current council members and one former council member worked for Throop in the past five years. Six of those relatives were hired after a family member took office, according to borough records, while another was promoted in the years after her father took office.

If those numbers seem small, consider the same rates of employment in Los Angeles would mean nearly 10,000 locals hired in the past five years would owe their jobs to a family member on the city council.

Throop borough officials deny there’s a problem even if there’s a pattern of nepotism. “Does it cause a problem? No, it never really has,” Thomas Lukasewicz, the council president, told Staub.

Lukasewicz’s two stepchildren worked for the borough in the past five years. “The actual employees, the family members, that have worked over the years, there’s never been an issue with any of them, and they’ve always been outstanding workers,” Lukasewicz said.

But “job performance and ability aren’t exactly the ethical barometers in these cases,” Staub notes.

Staub reviewed Throop’s payroll records to reach his conclusions about nepotism, and he got them with the help of Watchdog’s lawyers.

It was expensive and time-consuming. The borough delayed the release of any payroll records for three months. The legal basis for their foot-dragging? A shifting rationale that flouted the general wisdom that taxpayers deserve to know what they pay government employees.

Throop claimed to have never received Staub’s initial request for salary information. Fair enough. Staub filed a second request. Throop’s response: Request denied.

Staub appealed to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, the arbiter in disputes like this. And of course he won. Facing the legal decision from the OOR, the borough relented, sort of: When officials finally turned over the borough’s salary data, it was scrambled. As a result, Staub spent weeks reassembling the data into the spreadsheet that ultimately provided the foundation for his investigation.

Watchdog.org was able to muster the resources to see the project through — including lawyers familiar with the ins and outs of open-records laws, the money to pay them and a reporter who simply refused to give up. But it shouldn’t take determined reporters, skillful lawyers and months of back-and-forth to get the public basic information about how their government works.

Is that naïve? Maybe it ignores a basic biological drive, from Wall Street to Main Street, to help our relatives get a job. Maybe it also fails to account for the secrecy gene that animates government officials the world over and throughout history — men and women who instinctively hide their activities from you and me, just so they can do what they think is best for you and me.

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