Pa. GOP lawmaker vowed transparency, but negotiations for election probe are private

‘Contracting with the Legislature is a unique circumstance, but the procedure we are following is consistent with every other contract the Senate engages in,’ Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, said

By: - October 20, 2021 11:10 am

Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, speaks during a Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee meeting to vote on a subpoena for an investigation into the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

The Republican state senator leading the Pennsylvania election investigation promised a transparent process, but negotiations with potential vendors are happening behind closed doors.

Because the General Assembly does not have to follow the same procurement practices as executive branch offices, Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, who vowed a “responsible, thoughtful, and transparent” review, has no legal obligation to publicize engagements with third parties.

Pennsylvania’s Procurement Code outlines how offices for the governor, attorney general, treasurer, auditor general, state boards, commissions, and other agencies acquire services and supplies. It guides how to advertise projects, accept offers, and select successful bidders. 

The Legislature and Judiciary, however, don’t fall under the policy. That also means a request for proposal, which is a document to solicit services, does not exist for the probe into the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections.

“Contracting with the Legislature is a unique circumstance, but the procedure we are following is consistent with every other contract the Senate engages in,” Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, wrote in an email to the Capital-Star. “We are dedicated to finding the right vendor to do the job efficiently and effectively.”

Legal challenges brought by legislative Democrats and Attorney General Josh Shapiro to block a subpoena for Pennsylvania voters’ identifying information have delayed the taxpayer-funded review.

Although a contract with a vendor won’t happen until the court proceedings end, negotiations are ongoing, Thompson confirmed.

“He wants a firm that is not partisan and can complete the work fairly and professionally,” Thompson said of Dush, whose office did not respond to a request for comment. “Information is also very high on his list of priorities.”

Thompson did not answer whether the four Democrats on the 11-member Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee are privy to the negotiations with possible vendors and the vetting process.

Instead, he replied: “[Dush] will make the final determination on which vendor meets those criteria in conjunction with Senate leaders.”

Caucuses act independently from one another when members enter into third-party contracts, a GOP source told the Capital-Star, adding that taxpayer-funded Senate Republican accounts will likely front the cost for the probe. Dush confirmed last month that Senate funds, generated by taxpayer dollars, will pay for the review and that the vendor will be public once chosen.

Paying for the investigation will resemble the process for how lawmakers pay for legal services, cleaning, security, and office supplies. As of September, all Senate office expenses are available online and updated monthly.

Efforts to review the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections come after a months-long campaign from former President Donald Trump, who made unsubstantiated claims that voter fraud and misconduct resulted in his loss to now-President Joe Biden, who won in Pennsylvania by 80,555 votes.

Trump allies, including some in Harrisburg, used the baseless allegations to fuel calls for a review.

Two post-election audits — a statistical sampling required by law and a risk-limiting audit — were conducted after the 2020 election in Pennsylvania. Sixty-three out of the commonwealth’s 67 counties participated in the risk-limiting audit pilot, and neither assessment found evidence of fraud. Federal judges dismissed challenges to the election in court. Trump’s attorney general and local election officials also debunked the former president’s claims.

The election review will not reinstate Trump to office, Dush said before the first hearing as part of the investigation.

It’s also not a recount, Corman, who has argued there are “irregularities” worth examining, said in August. Both lawmakers signed a letter asking Congress to delay certification of Pennsylvania’s Electoral College results after the 2020 election.

Senate Democrats have dubbed the election review “a taxpayer-financed sham” and an “election contest.” Caucus spokespeople told the Capital-Star that Democrats on the committee are not involved, nor were they invited to participate, in conversations about potential vendors. Democrats have reserved questions about vendors and the selection process for public committee meetings.

Before the Senate panel voted along party lines last month to subpoena for voters’ address, birth date, driver’s license number, and partial social security numbers, Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks, asked a series of questions about the firm vetting process.

Though Dush was largely undescriptive in his responses, he said the Senate’s legal team — and potentially outside counsel — will assist with vendor selection. He declined to disclose potential candidates but said vendors under consideration were from Pennsylvania and out-of-state.

Dush also said it has yet to be determined whether Sens. Judy Ward, R-Blair, and Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, will play a role in the selection process. Ward and Mastriano, who sit on the Senate committee, asked Fulton County to comply with an unofficial probe into the 2020 election. The Department of State, which has election oversight, decertified the county’s voting machines as a result.

Mastriano, a staunch Trump ally, requested a taxpayer-funded hearing on election fraud in Gettysburg last November. He also attended the Jan. 6 rally that ended with rioters storming the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the election result certification. Though Mastriano has denied participation in the violence, video footage shows him closer to police lines than he claimed.

Prior to the subpoena vote, Santarsiero also asked if a vendor could have ties to the ex-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, who contracted a company to conduct the GOP-backed election review in Arizona, or the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which reportedly sponsored efforts to discredit the 2020 election.

“The answer to that is I really don’t know because it is not something that is relevant to my determination as to whether these people have qualities,” Dush replied.

“So it’s possible then?” Santarsiero continued.

“It’s absolutely possible. Putting a man on the moon was found to be possible,” Dush answered.

Dush refused to promise that the vendor selected would not have any connection to candidates in the 2020 election, saying that would be a “difficult task” due to a need for “multiple investigators” and “multiple areas of expertise.” 

“We live in a world where people are getting more and more actively involved with the political sphere,” Dush said — adding that he won’t hire “political activists” as investigators.

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.

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