Editorial: An unsatisfactory finding of state incompetence

Tribune-Review [Pittsburgh PA]

May 30, 2021

Sometimes, an investigation can turn up answers. Sometimes, they turn up questions.

It would have been nice if the Office of the State Inspector General discovered either in the dive into why a constitutional amendment never made it to the Pennsylvania primary ballot.

On May 18, the voters were supposed to decide whether to change up the constitution and allow survivors of child sex abuse legal recourse denied them by time. Because of missteps in the Department of State — which was supposed to advertise the amendment months earlier — that didn’t happen.

With some things, that might be annoying but not actually hurtful. Deadlines are missed every day, right? But missing this deadline meant people who already had been abused and denied justice for years were inadvertently victimized again by the government.

The inspector general didn’t find that someone deliberately botched the process — despite then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar falling on her sword and resigning over it in February.

There were not the kind of questions that lead to deeper digging — the way that an audit might uncover inconsistencies that prompt further exploration and eventually reveal embezzlement.

Instead, the results were depressingly unsurprising. The big finding was incompetence.

The reason that the simple step of advertising — a step all levels of government are responsible for doing when a law is made or changed — was missed was there was no system to make sure those simple steps were followed. No checklist. No standard operating procedure.

This would be bad enough if it were new information. It wasn’t. The investigation determined employees regularly complained there was little oversight or direction and staff was not adequately trained.

It wasn’t that it was a rarely used process that could be forgiven being forgotten. Except there were four other statewide ballot questions this primary — one of which was also a referendum.

Veronica Degraffenreid is the acting secretary. She acknowledged the mistake as “horrifying” and said she has put a “top-down” process in place to prevent such a failure from happening again.

A top-down solution seems to be what would have prevented it in the first place.

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the inspector general’s investigation, but to place all the blame on the department overlooks the administration’s obligation to oversee its agencies.

The would-be amendment was discussed and debated since the 2018 grand jury report on Catholic church sex abuse was released. It was a big deal that drew all eyes to Pennsylvania. Why was the governor’s office not aware the ad hadn’t been run? One could likewise ask why Attorney General Josh Shapiro or the Legislature had missed it, but the Department of State is ultimately under Wolf’s authority.

It’s good that Degraffenreid has made changes, and good that the inspector general has openly revealed flaws. But the governor’s office should also be rethinking how much it oversees and how much if overlooks.