GOP candidates for Westmoreland commissioner refuse donations tied to no-contract bids
Republican candidates for Westmoreland County commissioner, continuing a coordination effort in early campaigning, said they won’t accept donations from vendors awarded contracts for county work without any formalized competition.
Four of the five declared candidates signed what they called a “taxpayer protection pledge” in which they promised to refuse money from any person or business that received no-bid contracts from the county.
“I want to be free of any influence and have nothing over my head so I can be seen as able to reach a good decision,” candidate Doug Chew said.
The three-member board of commissioners currently includes Democrats Gina Cerilli and Ted Kopas, and Republican Charles Anderson, who announced he will retire. Cerilli and Kopas are seeking new terms.
In addition to Chew, a biochemist from Hempfield, also signing the pledge were retired business executive John Ventre of New Stanton; Heather Cordial, a senior citizens program director from Hempfield; and Paul Kosko, a computer information systems officer from Hempfield.
Ventre said he also would refuse campaign donations from anyone who does business with the county.
“I am not bought and paid for. I don’t want to give the appearance of being bought,” said Ventre, who also proposes that anyone donating more than $500 to a commissioners’ campaign be barred from working for the county.
Kosko said accepting cash from county vendors constituted “corruption.” He declined to offer further explanation.
Cordial did not return calls seeking comment.
Greensburg dentist Ron Gazze, who ran for county commissioner four years ago as an independent, also signed the pledge. Gazze has appeared at several campaign events this year but has not formally announced his candidacy.
Sean Kertes, who serves as chief of staff to Anderson, also is a candidate to replace his boss as commissioner. He has distanced himself from the other GOP candidates and has not participated in any joint statements or pledges issued by the group.
Kertes said the pledge was not vetted by Republican Party officials or lawyers and does not account for the realities of governing.
“It shows a lack of experience from candidates who don’t know that not every contract has to be bid,” Kertes said. “If it’s not ethical, I will not take a dollar.”
The issue of “no-bid” contracts has been a taking point among the GOP hopefuls, specifically a controversial deal approved two years ago by Cerilli and Anderson to hire an insurance company to oversee workers’ compensation claims for county. Charles Volpe, the insurance company’s president, donated $18,000 to Cerilli’s campaign prior to the contract being awarded. Her campaign received an additional $6,500 from Volpe last year.
Kopas, who voted against the insurance contract, received no campaign donations from Volpe.
Kertes’ campaign finance report on file in the elections bureau showed a $2,500 gift from Volpe last year.
Cerilli and Volpe have maintained there was no quid pro quo related to his donations and the $1.6 million contract his firm received from the county. Volpe explained his donation was because of a friendship he has held with Cerilli’s family over many years. The company had previously been hired by the county under different administrations.
That contract is one of about 450 deals approved each year by county commissioners. Only about 10 percent of those are competitively bid, according to Controller Jeff Balzer.
State law requires competitive bids for contracts more than $20,000. There are exceptions, though. Balzer said contracts for legal work and other professional services are not required to be bid.
Most contracts in place with the county would be considered “no-bid” deals, he said.
The GOP campaign pledge carries no enforcement or other monitoring provisions.
Only Kosko and Kertes raised money from donations last year. Kertes reported his campaign raised more than $28,700 in 2018, while Kosko’s finance records show he raised nearly $5,000.
The Democratic incumbents, meanwhile, have significantly more cash on hand.
Cerilli reported raising more than $111,000 last year and still has $115,600 in her campaign account. Kopas had more than $92,000 on hand at the end of 2018.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .