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Gov. Corbett's vetting process ridiculed in aftermath of Education secretary's firing

| Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, 11:41 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Less than 24 hours after dismissing his Education secretary for inappropriate comments, Gov. Tom Corbett moved into a potential controversy with the woman he named a replacement.

Corbett, a Shaler Republican, on Monday demanded the resignation of William Harner for comments he made when he was superintendent of Cumberland Valley School District. One that triggered a school investigation was an email to a male employee on vacation asking how he looked in a “speedo” bathing suit, officials said.

It was intended as a joke, a friend of Harner's suggested.

Carolyn Dumaresq, who replaced Harner as acting secretary, failed to disclose income she received from an executive search firm when she worked on a state board in 2009 and when she was appointed deputy secretary in 2010, records show.

“It was an oversight on her part — not intentional, but an honest mistake,” said Tim Eller, a department spokesman. “She has already submitted amended filings for 2009 and 2010.”

What Dumaresq did is not uncommon. Robert Caruso, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said court rulings basically allow public officials 20 days to correct disclosure statements. If they fail to comply, they could be fined up to $250.

Yet on the heels of the Harner fiasco, Democratic Party spokesman Marc Eisenstein emailed a Patriot-News story on Dumaresq to reporters, asking: “Can this be real?”

Critics said Corbett isn't doing enough to vet the background of his nominees.

“It's certainly disappointing the governor and his administration didn't take the steps to vet Mr. Harner,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

The remarks Harner allegedly made point to the need for a higher standard for the Department of Education secretary, who oversees public schools in Pennsylvania, Costa said.

Corbett should do more, and Harner should have told the governor's office everything, said Chuck Ardo, former press secretary to Corbett's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. “They should have talked to a lot of people, rather than simply do a Google search,” Ardo said.

Corbett's spokeswoman, Lynn Lawson, said background checks began on Harner when he was nominated. That's often the case with state officials' employment, which remains conditional on the outcome of the investigation, Lawson said.

“The process just takes time,” Lawson said. By Monday, “there was a level of concern that impacted the governor's comfort level,” she said.

Lawson began working for Corbett only recently, and her background check is incomplete, she said.

Lawson agreed with Costa about the importance of the office that oversees public schools. That's part of the reason Corbett took action, she said.

Exactly what happened in Harner's case remains cloudy, since most officials won't speak on the record about the vetting and the disclosure of inappropriate comments.

The school district's investigation of Harner was secret, administration officials said.

The school board hired a lawyer who found no illegalities in the “speedo” email, Harner and the district said. But that investigation opened a general inquiry that resulted in other comments attributed to Harner, which he was unaware of until he received a personnel file from the district several weeks ago.

The Office of Inspector General, an arm of the governor's office, contacted the district as part of a “routine background check” of Harner, the district said in a statement released by spokeswoman Tracy Panzer.

“With Dr. Harner's prior knowledge and authorization, Cumberland Valley School District released the information requested by the Office of Inspector General earlier this month,” the district said.

Harner left the district with a $10,000 severance payment and $15,000 performance bonus, according to the board's June meeting minutes. Board members accepted his resignation “with regret.”

Cumberland Valley School District for legal reasons won't acknowledge the investigation, widely reported by news media: “The district continues to maintain the stance that, due to privacy, we are unable to comment on any specific personnel matter.”

Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said insufficient background checks “again show it's more important to be comprehensive than speedy.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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