‘It’s done some really profound things for us’: How a 2-year-old state law changed the role of Pa.’s overlooked government watchdog

March 11, 2019 6:30 am

Bruce Beemer’s office on the eighth floor of the Forum Place building in downtown Harrisburg has a pretty decent view of the Capitol. Which is only appropriate, since part of his job as Pennsylvania Inspector General is keeping an eye on the place.

But getting here took a little doing — in more ways than one.

A little more than two years ago, Beemer’s 200-plus employee office was under the control of Gov. Tom Wolf, who, if he was of a mind, could have snapped his fingers like Thanos in that Avengers movie, and the government watchdog office would have promptly blinked out of existence.

But thanks to a July 2017 act of the Legislature, Beemer’s office got enshrined in state law, making it a permanent cabinet post. And along with that permanent status came some new enforcement and investigative powers.

But more on that in a minute. A bit more about the politics first.

Republicans who control the General Assembly and the Democratic Wolf administration tangled over the law, with Wolf — who’d vetoed an earlier iteration — complaining that bumping the Inspector General’s Office up to cabinet-level would force him to create a whole new state agency at a time when he was trying to streamline government.

An appointed inspector general was “vital to ensuring the proper functioning of the executive branch,” Wolf wrote in his veto message, according to PennLive. But Wolf did sign the bill into law, in what his office said was a nod to the “spirit of bipartisan compromise” after it became clear the Senate had the votes to override any potential gubernatorial veto of the bill.

So that’s that.

But, wait, you’re saying, hold up: Pennsylvania has an “Inspector General?”

Isn’t that the guy from York who holds press conferences, like, every other day? Nope, that’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

And it’s not the super-ambitious guy from Montgomery County who made the splash last year with the grand jury report about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church? Nope. That’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

So who’s this Beemer guy? And what does he do all day long?

The second part is the easy part: Beemer’s watchdog office has the dual charge of rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse (the Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance of public policy) in state programs. It also investigates allegations of corruption in the executive branch.

And if you’ve heard of Beemer, it may well be because the Pittsburgher was called in to clean up the mess left by disgraced and jailed former Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Beemer, a former top deputy to Kane, served as Pennsylvania’s top cop for about 18 months until January 2017 when Shapiro, a former Montgomery County commissioner, was sworn into office.

You may also have heard of Beemer because, as inspector general, he was called in to investigate the mushroom cloud of controversy that erupted over former Lt. Gov. Mike Stack’s office in 2017.

Stack, of Philadelphia, you’ll recall was stripped of his protective state police detail and told to stay away from his domestic staff after allegations emerged that he and his wife verbally abused them. Wolf declined to release Beemer’s final report on Stack, citing privacy concerns regarding Stack’s wife.

It was Beemer’s office that also investigated high-profile allegations of cheating at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy.

That’s kind of a big deal.

Which brings us back to those beefed up investigative powers that new state law gave to Beemer’s office. It gives “subpoena power to the office for its internal investigations [and] allows the IG to investigate and file criminal charges for certain welfare fraud crimes,” Wolf’s office said in a 2017 statement. It also puts the office on a level playing field with other law enforcement agencies, meaning they can trade information and tips that lead to bigger investigations and arrests.

Those changes have done a “couple of really profound things,” Beemer said, noting they’ve resulted in investigations like one announced last week, where Beemer’s office charged three Harrisburg residents in a food stamps fraud scheme.

That added clout has “given us the ability to get information and obtain things in certain situations where if folks inside and outside of state government were not being cooperative, we were not going to be able to do that,” he said.

Before the law changed, Beemer said he was “amazed by the success that people were having here at investigating and prosecuting fraud without those tools available to them.”

Now, that beefed up authority puts his office on par with other law enforcement agencies and the intelligence-sharing that comes with it.

Beemer is quick to note that not every state has an inspector general’s office. And that some states, such as Maryland, are looking to emulate Pennsylvania’s example.

Officials in Arizona briefly considered, and then abandoned, creating such an office. Michigan has one for its Department of Health and Human Services. And Virginia’s office, established by a 2012 act of the General Assembly, has a mandate similar to Pennsylvania’s to investigate waste and inefficiency in the state’s executive branch.

State Sen. Ryan Aument, the Lancaster County Republican who sponsored the bill, said in an email that he continues to be “very proud of the bipartisan effort to establish the Office of Inspector General in statute.”

“I have been pleased with the implementation of the provisions of [the law] and the work being done by Inspector General Bruce Beemer and his staff to identify and eradicate waste, fraud, and abuse in the executive agencies of state government and state programs,” Aument said in an email.

According to Wolf administration spokesperson J.J. Abbott, the sparring over Beemer’s office has long since faded into the rearview mirror.

“Governor Wolf worked across the aisle to make changes to the bill to preserve the office’s important internal audit and investigation function. That change put the governor in a position to be able to sign the bill into law,” Abbott said.

Beemer, he added, “is a dogged investigator and a true public servant. Governor Wolf has called on Bruce to examine some really big challenges facing state government and his work has been invaluable each time. The Office of Inspector General remains a vital oversight agency and Governor Wolf is grateful to have Bruce Beemer leading the office.”

One wonders what would happen if there were a push to expand Beemer’s investigative authority to the General Assembly …

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.