State Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, wasn’t successful in his bid earlier this year to secure $125 million in state funds to help schools finance new equipment, security personnel, and other services that would bolster safety.
He’s now trying a new — and unusual — tactic to get schools what he says is vital to prevent shootings in a post-Parkland America.
Regan announced earlier this month that he will head a new nonprofit foundation called Protect PA Schools, which will collect donations to help private and public schools get security upgrades, personnel, and consulting.
Pennsylvania’s state Ethics Act prohibits Regan, who currently serves as the nonprofit’s president, from using his position as a state senator to solicit donations for his organization.
But the former U.S. Marshal doesn’t think that will be a problem.
Speaking to the Capital-Star on Tuesday, Regan said he formed the nonprofit to pursue a “passion” for school safety, which is an area where he’s passed multiple bills since entering the General Assembly in 2013 as a member of the House.
A bill Regan authored this year created stricter training standards for armed school security personnel, and legislation he wrote in 2018 created the Safe Schools program, including a $60 million grant program for school safety initiatives.
Pennsylvania schools submitted more than $300 million worth of requests when the program launched last year.
Regan said the the grants were particularly competitive among private high schools, especially Jewish schools, which are only eligible for a portion of the grant money.
Frustrated that the state dollars couldn’t accommodate the overwhelming demand among Pennsylvania schools, he saw an opportunity to leverage capital to finance the security upgrades that weren’t covered by Pennsylvania state grants.
“I thought that if we could raise some money and form a non-profit, we could help some schools that are struggling to get the funds together to secure [themselves],” Regan said.
Donors can make individual contributions to the foundation’s general fund or sponsor security enhancements at a specific Pennsylvania school. Regan said the three-member staff and growing board hasn’t done much fundraising yet, but do hope to hold an annual gala.
Regan also said his nonprofit won’t seek any state grants or public contracts. And though the foundation currently has three staff members, none of them, including Regan, currently take salaries.
Along with the organization’s Vice President Bill Cook, a former Drug Enforcement Agency officer, Regan will offer free consultation to schools that need help deciding how to use finite resources to fortify their campuses.
Regan said he’ll draw on his years of experience as a U.S. Marshall, when he was responsible for securing federal courthouses in 33 counties in central Pennsylvania.
On the right side of Pa.’s Ethics Act
Good government groups like the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy have “been very wary” when elected officials get involved in private nonprofits, Policy Director Pat Christmas said, given the potential for “real or perceived conflicts” to arise between their day jobs and private activities.
Those conflicts can seem especially acute when a legislator is raising money for a cause which he also legislates.
Pennsylvania’s Ethics Act prohibits an elected official from using his office or any confidential information he receives through his office to line his pockets or benefit a personal business.
“A public official can’t use their position for private gain,” state Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Caruso told the Capital-Star.
When an elected official wants to get involved in fundraising for a private organization, “the advice that I give is that you can put your name on it but don’t use your public position,” Caruso said.
That’s advice Regan followed on the Protect PA Schools website, where his bio lists his law enforcement and coaching experience — but doesn’t include his service in the General Assembly.
Regan said he sought an advisory from the Ethics Commission, as well as guidance from the office of Senate Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, before he launched his nonprofit.
In a May 2019 opinion that Regan confirmed applied to his case, the Commission ruled that a public official would not violate the state Ethics Act as long as he did not use his public position, or confidential information he gained in his job as a legislator, to solicit donations for his private organization.
Christmas commended Regan for contacting the Ethics Commission before forming the nonprofit — a proactive measure “that probably doesn’t happen enough” among elected officials, Christmas said.
But Christmas warned that Regan could tread into murky territory if his nonprofit ever sought state contracts, begin campaigning for candidates or issues, or formed a political action committee.
Regan said he and his partners “are trying desperately not to do anything wrong” and to stay in compliance with state ethics laws.
But he doesn’t think the restrictions under the Ethics Act will hamstring his fundraising. He said he’ll rely instead on his experience in law enforcement to sell the foundation’s mission to prospective donors and beneficiaries.
“I’m not interested in breaking the law or doing something that’s improper,” Regan said Tuesday. “I think it’s just as effective for me to raise money as a [former law enforcement agent] as it would be to raise money as an elected official.”
Read more education reporting from the Pennsylvania Capital-Star: