Wolf, legislative leaders tap the well-connected for big salaries as oversight board members

By: - March 3, 2021 2:43 pm

Former House Minority Leader Frank Dermody speaks at a press conference with Gov. Tom Wolf on July 2, 2019. (The Office of Governor Tom Wolf)

Three politically-connected individuals have been handed plush state jobs on key state oversight boards in the last month.

Picked by Pennsylvania’s top elected officials, a former legislative leader, a scion of a political family, and the wife of a sitting state senator all received fresh starts in state jobs since Jan. 28. 

Guaranteed to hold office for the next two to six years, they will earn above-average salaries and will pad state pensions while overseeing casinos and public hirings in the commonwealth.

Such appointments certainly aren’t new. But reformers were quick to call the trend, at best, discouraging to citizens, and at worst, feeding widespread and record low distrust in all levels of government.

“We’re in a climate that is showing decreasing confidence in our democracy,” Common Cause Pennsylvania executive director Khalif Ali told the Capital-Star. 

But three separate decisions to tap insiders from Republican and Democratic leaders alike “doesn’t build confidence in the democratic system, and that worries us,” Ali added.

House Democrats and Senate Republicans respectively picked former House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, and Frances Regan, wife of state Sen. Mike Regan, R-Cumberland, to serve on the state Gaming Control Board.

Established in 2004, the seven-member board is appointed by the governor and state legislative leaders. Board members are paid $144,000 a year to administer and regulate gambling and casinos in Pennsylvania, and can serve up to six years.

Dermody’s successor as leader of the House Democratic caucus, Rep. Joanna McCinton, D-Philadelphia, announced his appointment in a late January press release.

Dermody was denied a 16th term in office by Republican Rep. Carrie DelRosso in an industrial district northeast of Pittsburgh in the 2020 general election.

After year of tough votes, Dermody loses reelection, clearing way for Democratic free-for-all

The former leader “participated in setting the legislative foundation for our gaming industry, which has grown in just over a decade to become a national leader,” McClinton said in a statement. “Frank’s legal background and legislative experience are outstanding assets for his work as a gaming regulator.”

Regan, who served as a federal probation officer for 24 years, was appointed by Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre. 

However, her new job was kept quiet at first. As reported Tuesday by Spotlight PA, a nonprofit online news outlet, she was sworn in during a private ceremony Tuesday without fanfare or a press release.

Regan, like Dermody, has seemingly little background in gambling. Corman cited Regan’s law enforcement experience for the pick.

“Just because your husband is involved in public service doesn’t mean you shouldn’t” be. Corman told Spotlight PA. Corman added that Regan is “a friend” and that he wanted someone he could trust in the job.

The executive branch also joined in the doling out of second chances Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf picked former Philadelphia Democratic state Rep. Maria Donatucci for the state’s three-person Civil Service Commission last month. She awaits approval in the state Senate.

Donatucci was first elected in a 2011 special election to replace her late husband and South Philadelphia political player Robert Donatucci, who unexpectedly died  days after he was reelected to a 16th term. She lost in an upset to now-Rep. Regina Young in the June 2020 primary.

Donatucci would make $88,700 a year during her six -year term. 

According to her House biography, before serving as a legislators, Donatucci was an employee of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and served in the city agency that adjudicates parking tickets.

Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger told the Capital-Star that Donatucci was qualified for the job by statute. 

Commissioners, who oversee state agencies’ personnel moves, must be a resident of the commonwealth for at least one year and have an understanding of “modern personnel methods and the application of merit principles to public employment,” according to state law.

“Donatucci is “a strong supporter of a fair and impartial hiring and appeal process. Her experience and leadership will be an asset to the commission,” Kensinger said in an email.

Donatucci did not respond to a request for comment.

Pennsylvania’s boards administering state liquor law, gambling regulations, and the Turnpike, among other roles, include a number of former legislators who have retired or lost reelection, along with former staffers, relatives and political allies.

Pat Christmas, policy director at the good government group Committee of Seventy, told the Capital-Star that some connections to power can be expected. But hires should be based on “prioritizing expertise, integrity and impartiality.”

“There’s no reason lawmakers should have direct appointments on the Gaming Control Board, and no reason former lawmakers should be serving on it,” Christmas told the Capital-Star in an email.

But political appointments can also serve as a final act for deserving public servants, argued former House Speaker and Capitol power player Bill DeWeese.

Overall, appointments would only go to loyal legislators who’ve towed the party line, DeWeese added, such as Donatucci.

“Every fiber of her being was an exponent of the House Democratic ethos,” he said.

DeWeese also argued that most public jobs pay less than private sector jobs. For a well schooled attorney like Dermody, an appointment to the gaming board served as a just coda to his time in elected office.

“Frank Dermody has an Ivy league education and could have ensconced himself internally in the warm embrace of one of Pittsburgh’s prestigious law firms,” DeWeese said. “He could have gone to work in one of those striking skyscrapers and earned two or three times the salary.”

But Common Cause’s Ali wasn’t buying it.

Dermody’s choice may have been “a noble one, but it’s his choice. There is no recompense because of that.”

Ali added that he wasn’t trying to pick on Dermody; he was just “a beneficiary of a system that’s not where it needs to be.”

Elizabeth Hardison contributed reporting.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.