Elections Government

PA Auditor General Raises Concerns About Gifts Accepted By County Officials

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale briefing reporters on Friday. Credit: PA Internet News Service

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called out officials from 18 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties for accepting items from vendors competing to sell them new voting equipment in time for the 2020 election.

Bucks County officials were on the list of public servants who accepted gifts from companies, although what they received was much less lavish than gifts doled out to officials in other counties.

“As Pennsylvania counties chose new voting equipment, I want them to make decisions based on the best interests of voters – and no other factors,” DePasquale said. “Even if the value of those gifts is below the legal threshold for reporting them, simply accepting them smacks of impropriety.”

The auditor general told reporters at a Friday press conferencing that his goal was to make sure the selection process of purchasing new voting machines was aboveboard.

While county officials are held to their own local ethics rules, county elections directors also have to follow Pennsylvania ethic rules under a 1991 ruling, the auditor general’s office noted.

“Even if this activity was permitted under the law, county officials who are making decisions about spending taxpayer dollars should not accept anything of value from the companies that are asking for their business,” DePasquale said. “It’s not only about the need for officials to follow the letter and the spirit of the law; it’s about preserving the integrity of their role in the democratic process.”

Katie M. Pliszka, assistant director of the Bucks County Board of Elections, wrote in a letter to DePasquale’s office earlier this month that county officials had accepted an $8.05 promotional folding chair from vendor Electec. She also shared, although it was not requested by the auditor general’s staff, that county officials had attended a dinner held by Electec, a buffet lunch sponsored by Election Systems and Software, and accepted from Dominion several $1.75 fares for the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh during a conference last summer.

Additionally, Pliszka wrote in her letter to state officials that two unknown vendors paid for meals for county staff in 2017.

Bucks County officials and the commissioners declined comment to NewtownPANow.com about the gifts.

The gifts Bucks County officials accepted were nowhere close to those accepted by some officials in other counties. Some of those gifts reported to auditor general investigators included expense-paid travel to destinations including Las Vegas; tickets to a wine festival and a distillery tour; dinners at high-end restaurants and other meals; an open bar at a conference for elections officials; tickets to an amusement park; and an assortment of treats such as chocolate-covered pretzels, snacks and coffee.

“It doesn’t matter if the gifts were large or small – my problem is the fact that anyone accepted them, period,” DePasquale said. “I’ll be referring my findings to the state Ethics Commission for further review.”

DePasquale’s investigation was kicked off in December after it was reported Luzerne County’s director of elections accepted trips from the voting machine and electronic poll book supplier.

As part of the probe by the auditor general’s office, DePasquale requested all 67 counties to report any accepted gifts or trips from voting equipment vendors.

DePasquale also raised concerns about the process that led to Philadelphia choosing vendor Election Systems and Software for $50 million earlier this week.

“I urge City Council to carefully review the commission’s action,” he said.

As part of a Pennsylvania Department of State announcement, all counties in the state have to select new voting systems that feature a paper record for more accurate audits before the close of 2019. The new systems need to be in use by the 2020 primary election. Statewide, the costs for the counties could total as high as $150 million, producing a boost for voting equipment companies.

Related to elections, DePasquale has launched a review of the state’s Uniform Registry of Electors after it came out that federal law authorities discovered that Pennsylvania was targeted for hacking by operatives connected to the Russian government in 2016.

A list of gifts accepted by county officials outside of Bucks County:

  • Berks County
    Vendors paid a total of $3,518.24 for travel and lodging for officials in 2018: $1,302.48 for the election director and $1,178.23 for a county commissioner (ES&S), and $1,037.53 for the same county commissioner (Unisyn).
  • Butler County
    At a 2016 equipment demonstration, Dominion provided a meal and ES&S provided coffee and doughnuts; Dominion provided a fast-food lunch at a May 2018 equipment demonstration; ES&S provided lunch for eight county officials at a January 2019 equipment demonstration; various election equipment vendors drop off doughnuts and candy and other small items for the staff.
  • Cambria County
    Attended vendor-sponsored luncheons and dinners during county election conferences.
  • Cameron County
    At a 2016 conference in State College, attended a Dominion-sponsored dinner at a local restaurant; Dominion provided transportation to a wine tour of the area and paid entry to a private tour of a local distillery; at a 2017 conference in Harrisburg, ES&S paid for transportation to and meal at a high-end restaurant; at a 2018 conference in Pittsburgh, accepted from Dominion a meal, transportation, and tour of a museum; in September 2018, ES&S held an equipment demonstration and took board of elections and staff to lunch at a restaurant; Dominion paid for lunch at another 2018 equipment demonstration; ES&S provided boxes of chocolate-covered pretzels; ES&S sometimes provides lunch at annual conferences for those who attend its luncheon meetings.
  • Clearfield County
    Accepted dinners and lunches from ES&S and Dominion.
  • Clinton County
    ES&S and Dominion brought coffee and sweet rolls to system demonstrations.
  • Delaware County
    Attended vendor-sponsored cocktail parties during county election conferences.
  • Elk County
    Accepted lunch from ES&S on April 25, 2018, and lunch from Dominion on May 24, 2018.
  • Forest County
    In September 2018, accepted dinner and admission to a wine festival from ES&S.
  • Lycoming County
    Accepted occasional meals or drinks paid for by vendors at county election conference.
  • Luzerne County
    ES&S paid costs for the elections director to travel to two advisory board meetings: March 2017 ($1,243.03) and August 2017 ($1,249.74).
  • Northumberland County
    Accepted a lunch from ES&S in November 2018.
  • Potter County
    Accepted dinners sponsored by Dominion at conferences held from 2013 through 2018.
  • Warren County
    At the annual election officials conference, a company associated with ES&S provides a hospitality room; vendors covered a cash bar and entertainment at a 2018 conference; Dominion and ES&S have taken conference attendees to dinner one night each year since 2013; Dominion and ES&S gave presentations with coffee and doughnuts; ES&S has sent a representative to deliver items like chocolate-covered pretzels on two occasions; at a 2017 conference, ES&S paid for some elections officials to go to an amusement park, which included entrance fee, lunch and the creation of their own candy bar.
  • Washington County
    Attended voting equipment demonstrations by Dominion and ES&S in summer 2016, lunch was provided and county reimbursed attendees for mileage; attended summer 2018 voting equipment demonstrations, lunch provided by ES&S.
  • Westmoreland County
    In 2018, Dominion and ES&S sent catered lunches to the election bureau; ES&S took bureau director and deputy director to dinner in 2018; bureau director and her husband accepted ES&S invitation to attend a wine festival in September; Dominion and ES&S have also provided occasional boxes of doughnuts to the commissioners’ suite and the elections bureau.
  • York County
    ES&S bought lunch for two members of the election department in 2017 and 2018; Dominion provided bagels and coffee for a meeting in October 2018.

About the author

Tom Sofield

Tom Sofield

Tom Sofield has covered news in Bucks County for five years for both newspaper and online publications. In 2012, Tom was honored at the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association Foundation's Keystone Press Awards for his coverage of President Obama's visit to Falls Township in 2011. When he's not covering news in the area, Tom enjoys checking out the newest restaurants and bars, exploring forgotten places of industry in the area, going to local parks and spending time with his friends and family. If there's one thing you should know about Tom, he is a local news junkie through and through. Email: tom@newtownpanow.com Phone: 215-431-1001