(Pittsburgh) August 22, 2016 Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said that the Commission
charged with enforcing the County’s Ethics Code lacks independence and adequate resources,
and that County employees are given scant training on the Code and have nowhere to turn with questions.
A Controller’s Office review also showed that top County managers were among those who routinely failed
to file required financial disclosure forms, and that appointees to boards and commissions–including those of
County-related authorities–are not required to make disclosures prior to being installed on these bodies.
“Complaints about unethical behavior by County officials or employees need to be handled independently and
confidentially, or else there is likely to be a chilling effect on those who may report violations,” Wagner said.
“Furthermore, the ethical requirements on public employees must be made crystal clear, and the baseline
protections against conflicts of interest that the Ethics Code sets must be taken seriously through enforcement.”
The County’s Ethics Code was enacted in 2001 and covers all County officials and employees.
The Code created a five-member Accountability, Conduct and Ethics (ACE) Commission to investigate
and make findings and recommendations on alleged violations.
Wagner said she intends to propose amendments to the Code based
on the findings of her review to County Council.
Whistleblower protections, dedicated resources needed
The Ethics Code currently requires that complaints about violations be made to the County Manager as well
as to the ACE Commission. The involvement of the County Manager could violate confidentiality or lead to
conflicts of interest, the Controller’s report concludes. It recommends that the ACE Commission should be
solely responsible for receiving and addressing complaints. The Code should also be amended to allow for
anonymous complaints and to allow the Commission to independently initiate an investigation when it
receives relevant information, the report said.
The Commission has also depended on the County Manager’s office for administrative
and legal support. The report recommends that County Council provide the Commission
with an annual budget to support an independent, dedicated staff.
“The ACE Commission needs both the resources to provide robust oversight and to be truly independent
of those it is tasked with monitoring. If there is to be effective oversight, there can be no considerations
other than the letter of the law and the integrity of our County government,” Wagner said.
“Budgets are about priorities. If County government can’t allocate adequate funding for this purpose,
it is knowingly and willingly sacrificing our government’s integrity and the public’s trust.”
In its response to the Controller’s Report, the Commission said
it had recently engaged independent legal counsel.
Employee ethics training is lacking
While incoming County employees are provided a copy of the Ethics Code at new employee orientation
and sign a statement agreeing to abide by it, no additional training is provided over the course of employment.
Furthermore, the Code does not state where questions or requests for clarification can be directed
or explicitly empower the Commission to provide guidance on its requirements.
“Education on the contents and the intention of the County Ethics Code shouldn’t end when an
employee walks out of their orientation, which is the case today,” Wagner said. “Numerous professions
require regular refreshers on important aspects of the job, including ethics. In public service, there should
be no more important consideration than ensuring we meet the highest ethical standards.”
In a comparable jurisdiction, Prince George’s County, Md., the Ethics Code requires the Executive Director
of the County Board of Ethics to meet individually with all elected officials at least annually to ensure understanding
of the Code and its requirements. Wagner said that the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission offers training
that the County should utilize and require for elected officials, department directors and other top management.
“Top managers must meet the highest standards and hold those working under us to the same level
of expectation,” Wagner said. “The ACE Commission, in partnership with the State Ethics Commission,
can take an active role in ensuring our standards are understood and observed.”
Compliance with reporting is spotty, lacks enforcement
The report found that while the Ethics Code requires submission of an annual Disclosure of Interest Statement
by certain employees, the County does not maintain a list of employees or job titles included in this
requirement. Submission was not uniform among those with identical job titles, the audit found.
In addition, the Code does not assign responsibility for requiring submission or enforcing penalties.
Public Employees required to file the County Disclosure of Interest Statement must also file
a Pennsylvania Statement of Financial Interest. In more than 50 instances during the
three-year period reviewed, employees filed one of these required forms but not the other.
These included three County department directors or managers.
Six department directors or managers failed to file both statements in one of the three years reviewed,
and two failed to file either statement during any year included in the review.
“There is plainly a huge void in the County’s ethics policies when it comes to requiring compliance
with basic protections against conflicts of interest. Department directors and managers are not ensuring the
compliance of those working under them, and in several cases were non-compliant themselves,” Wagner said.
“The ACE Commission should be actively promoting compliance with the code, and be empowered
to enforce penalties on those who fail to comply. The Ethics Code should be amended to provide the
Commission with this power, if necessary.”
Wagner said that her report does show that deficiencies with the Disclosure of Interest Statement may promote
non-compliance. The current statement form does not include instructions. Comparable disclosure forms from
other jurisdictions reviewed by the Controller’s office include line-by-line instructions.
Wagner also urged that the County move immediately to enable disclosure through
a user-friendly online form, which can ensure that employees complete all sections of the form
and make responses more easily accessible and searchable. The Commission also must clarify
the availability of Disclosure of Interest Statements to the public. The Code sets no rules for
public viewing of these documents, she said.
“Measures designed to promote public confidence in government are not of great value if the public cannot see
the results. Disclosure of Interest Statements should be readily accessible, and be made available
and searchable online as soon as possible,” Wagner said.
Stopping corruptionbeforeit can occur is common sense
While members of authority boards and other bodies such as the Regional Asset District (RAD)
and the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) are required to file annual disclosures
after attaining these posts, appointees should file disclosures in advance that can be reviewed
by County Council and the public prior to their confirmation, Wagner said.
“The four largest authorities together spend more than $1 billion per year–more than County government
itself–and operate in relative secrecy with regard to contracting and spending. Ensuring that prospective
board members reveal any potential conflicts of interest before they have the opportunity to influence this
spending would be a common sense safeguard against ‘pay-to-play’ corruption,” Wagner said.
Additionally, the County’s financial disclosures should require officials and employees to list any business
entity with which they are affiliated that does business or seeks to do business with the County or an
authority. While business interests must already be disclosed, the financial ties of these entities to
County government are left unstated. The County Manager should provide a complete listing of entities
doing business with the County for the purpose of these disclosures, Wagner said.
“We cannot be satisfied with a level of disclosure which does not require the most relevant information–whether
a prospective official or employee could use their role for personal gain or to benefit those with whom they are
connected. This is the insight the public seeks from financial disclosures and it is clearly information that
the County can and must require if it is to meet the expectations of its citizens.”
The full Report on the Sufficiency of and Compliance with the Allegheny County Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Code Requirements can be viewed here.
Lou Takacs, Communications Director