‘We are committed to competition’: Top Wolf official says

Admin faces scrutiny for pandemic procurement practices | Wednesday Morning Coffee

July 21, 2021 7:16 am

tate Dept. of General Services Secretary Curt Topper speaks to a state House panel on Tuesday, 3/20/21 (PCN Screen Capture)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

A senior Wolf administration official has defended the state’s procurement practices during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that the commonwealth balanced speed against transparency as it tried to meet massive need.

“We, as an administration, like the prior administration, and the administration before that … are absolutely committed to doing as much contracting on a competitive basis as we can,” Pennsylvania Department of General Services Secretary Curt Topper told a state House oversight panel on Tuesday. “We are committed to competition.”

Topper’s comments came as the Republican-controlled General Assembly kicked off a probe of the commonwealth’s procurement practices during the worst public health crisis in century. It comes in response to published reports that the state awarded $340 million in emergency contracts last year with little oversight.

“Between 2015 and 2019, Pennsylvania agencies made on average 135 emergency procurement requests each year,” the investigative news site, Spotlight PA reported Tuesday, citing records it obtained through an open records request.

Last year, the number of emergency requests jumped to 483, “with about half explicitly for COVID-19 response. Only 15 were denied,” Spotlight PA reported.

The investigative news site highlighted two questionable instances, including the awarding of a contract to a contract tracing firm that, through a security lapse, later exposed the personal information of about 72,000 people.

Speaking to the House State Government Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations on Tuesday afternoon, Topper said that low rejection rate should be taken as a point of pride, rather than a point of contention because it meant agency heads were only submitting requests that they believed were worthy of approval and weren’t extraneous.

“Agencies know better than to send [a procurement request] that we’d say no to,” Topper told the GOP-controlled panel.

State Rep. Jason Ortitay in fall 2019. (Pa. House photo)

The questioning at Tuesday’s hearing was led by two of the Wolf administration’s better-known Republican inquisitors, House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, of York County, and the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny.

Ortitay, who instigated the hearing, had Topper walk lawmakers through the intricacies of the procurement process, of both the emergency and non-emergency variety, and the circumstances under which goods and services are put out to competitive bid and those when they are not.

Speaking to Spotlight PAOrtitay said the state’s emergency procurement process, which sidesteps competitive bidding, is far from transparent.

On Tuesday, Topper defended the agency’s emergency practices, saying they’re “as rigorous and transparent as we know how to make,” them, given the speed with which the state acts on emergency requests.

Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, asked for an audit of PSERS travel expenses Friday, March 6, 2020 at a Harrisburg board meeting. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Topper, who said he’s spent two decades in the procurement business both inside and outside of state government, opened his remarks by drily thanking the panel for their sudden interest in procurement policy. Lawmakers spent the rest of Topper’s remarks drily parrying the jab.

Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, who worked as an accountant before joining the General Assembly, asked Topper if his agency had identified any weaknesses in policy, exposed by the pandemic, that could be improved through legislative action.

Topper told Ryan he’d like to see the agency authorize fewer emergency extensions of existing contracts — saying that could be addressed by better planning.

He also touted what he said were the state’s safeguards against procurement fraud by making sure that bids pass through different sets of hands at every stage of the process.

Returning to a central theme, Topper stressed to Ryan that he remains proud that the state denies few emergency requests because that “means we’re communicating effectively, and giving guidance to have needs met fast.

The last thing we want to do is to take a week and then say no during an emergency,” he said.

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Our Stuff.
How will consolidation affect athletics at the Pa. State System of Higher Education? The NCAA has yet to decideMarley Parish reports.

Gov. Tom Wolf has moderated his hard line on Voter IDCassie Miller has the details.

Local water utilities worried about getting hit with lawsuits and high cleanup costs are stepping up their lobbying of Congress as lawmakers move to regulate toxic chemicals found in drinking water, Capital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa writes.

About 100 women from across the nation were arrested outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday as they urged Congress to pass an elections overhaul and undo new state laws that restrict voting access, Figueroa also reports.

Pittsburgh City Council voted 8-1 Tuesday to approve a plan to spend the city’s $335 million share of federal pandemic relief funds. Our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper have the details.

Philadelphia has seen a ‘small but real increase’ in COVID-19 cases, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, two advocates say roads and bridges aren’t enough — for a strong economy, the state needs to invest in ‘care’ infrastructure. And Taylor Hirth, a columnist for our sister site, the Missouri Independent, explains why she enrolled her 7-year-old daughter in trials for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, speaks at a Capitol steps rally in Harrisburg on June 5, 2021. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Here’s your #Philadelphia Instagram of the Day:


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Heavy Rotation
Here’s ‘German on My Mind,’ the lead track from the first LP from Adele & the Chandeliers. It’s the new project helmed by bassist/vocalist Adele Pickvance, who notably served as the touring bass player for the second incarnation of Aussie pop legends The Go-Betweens. If you loved the Go-Be’s brainy and literate pop, you’ll love this record.


LancasterOnline/The Caucus run down all the lies, distortions, and half-truths surrounding the 2020 election (paywall).

Pennsylvania educators are calling on school districts to use stimulus money to boost teacher diversity, WHYY-FM reports.

Not everyone who is eligible for the federal child tax credit is receiving it, the Inquirer reports.

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Smoke from Canadian wildfires has reached Pennsylvania, affecting local air qualityPennLive reports.

Local health officials are offering conflicting guidance on whether students and teachers will be wearing masks in Lehigh Valley schools this fall, the Morning Call reports.

Luzerne County communities have been awarded more than $23 million in casino revenue grants, the Citizens’ Voice reports (paywall).

York finished behind Harrisburg and Lancaster as one of the best places to live in Pennsylvania, the York Daily Record reports.

USA Today’s Pennsylvania Capital Bureau explains when/why Pennsylvania nursing home workers will walk off the job (paywall).

With cases rising, Gov. Tom Wolf says Pennsylvania companies should encourage their employees to get vaccinatedWLVR-FM has the story.

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What Goes On
9:30 a.m, Lancaster, Pa: House Urban Affairs Committee
10 a.m., Hearing Room 1, North Office Building: Senate Communications & Technology and Health & Human Services committee, joint hearing.
11 a.m, Philadelphia: House Democratic Policy Committee
1 p.m, G50 Irvis: House State Government Committee
3:30 p.m., Pittsburgh Pa.: Senate Democratic Policy Committee

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link
Win one, lose one (again). The day after picking up a win over TampaBaltimore dropped a 9-3 decision to the Rays on Tuesday. Alas.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

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