Ruling: Former North Strabane official violated ethics laws
The state Ethics Commission ruled that former North Strabane Township supervisor Gregory Sulc took advantage of his position as a local government official when he was hired to become the community’s parks and recreation director in 2011, but he maintains that neither he nor the township did anything wrong.
The commission determined Sulc violated the state’s ethics rules when he helped to draft the qualifications for the position and voted on the job description even though he already notified at least one township official he was interested in the job.
Sulc must pay $20,000 in restitution to the township and amend several of his statements of financial interest while he served as a supervisor, according to the ruling. Sulc said that figure is an arbitrary fine, and he is appealing the decision to Commonwealth Court and has contacted the state attorney general’s office.
“We have a standard in the township, and we didn’t cross it,” Sulc said during an hourlong interview at the Observer-Reporter Monday afternoon. “Our standard is higher than that of the Ethics Commission. I have nothing to hide, and the township has nothing to hide.”
Sulc abruptly resigned his seat as the supervisors’ chairman in September 2011 to immediately take the parks and recreation management job. He resigned that position, which paid an annual salary of $60,000, this March after supervisors questioned his use of a township cellphone and vehicle.
The Ethics Commission ruling June 16, which was made public Monday morning following a mandatory “blackout” period, shows Sulc asked the commission to reconsider its order because he felt the $20,000 restitution was “excessive.” That request was denied, meaning Sulc has until Aug. 27 to make payments to the township or face additional enforcement from the commission.
The state Ethics Commission began investigating Sulc in November 2011, just after he accepted the parks and recreation position. Sulc said the complaints that started the investigation were from two residents who did not have knowledge of the hiring process and how he was shielded from receiving information on other applicants. The commission found no evidence that Sulc used his position as a township supervisor to persuade the other board members to hire him and that he was properly isolated from the process.
However, Sulc pushed for the position in November 2010 and informed township manager Frank Siffrinn the following month that he was interested in the job, according to the commission. Sulc had recently lost his public affairs specialist position with Range Resources and was about two weeks away from exhausting his final severance payment from the natural gas drilling company. The report states Sulc voted with the other supervisors to create the position one week after informing Siffrinn he would like to be considered for the job.
“Sulc advised Siffrinn that he was qualified for the position contemporaneous to the time that Siffrinn and Sulc were in the process of creating the job description,” the final report states. “Sulc made his interest known to Siffrinn at a time when Sulc had no full-time employment and was relying on unemployment benefits.”
Sulc said he did nothing wrong by voting to create the position and advertise it to potential candidates.
The advertisement for the position garnered 23 applications, seven of which met the job description’s requirements and were included in the interview process. Sulc submitted his resume on the next-to-last day for consideration, and his candidacy created a split between the four other supervisors about whether he should move through the interview process.
After reviewing the qualifications of the finalists for the post, Siffrinn ranked Sulc last out of the seven candidates, giving him a score of 23 out of 50 total points, nearly half the number assigned to the top candidate. However, the commission report states the supervisors did not consider Siffrinn’s input while making a decision. Sulc claimed he “blew away” the supervisors in the final interview, which included a presentation on what the director would do for the park.
Sulc was one of three candidates selected in June 2011 to continue through the final interview process, although there are no records on how that decision was reached. The report states that Sulc visited then-Supervisor William Brooks, who was opposed to hiring Sulc, at his home to lobby for his candidacy during the process. Sulc said he met privately with each supervisor during the interview stage, which any candidate was permitted to do.
Brooks and fellow supervisor Robert Balogh continued to oppose Sulc’s candidacy in July, but Balogh changed his mind later when Sulc offered to resign his position as supervisor.
“I think I told (Sulc) that I’d consider it if he would resign,” Balogh testified, adding he did not want Sulc to be his own boss as a supervisor.
Sulc resigned his seat on the board of supervisors Sept. 27, 2011, and was immediately hired to become the parks and recreation director by a 3-1 vote, with Brooks dissenting. The supervisors agreed to pay him a salary of $60,000, which was $10,000 more than what they budgeted months before and was similar to Sulc’s salary with Range. Sulc said that number was just a budget line item and not a set salary figure for the position. He thinks the $20,000 fine is due to that figure, but pointed to the amount of unclaimed overtime hours he worked during his tenure as proof of his commitment to the job.
“I lived and breathed that park,” Sulc said. “A lot of people tell me they took the heart out of that park (with my departure).”
Although his recollection of events did not deviate much from the report’s finding, he took exception with the Ethics Commission’s ruling. He also presented a voicemail of a phone call from the commission to inform him of the ruling, which includes two commission employees who apparently thought the call ended laughing about how the $20,000 fine would “make his day.”
State Ethics Commission Rob Caruso confirmed his employees were involved in the phone conversation, but he had not heard the voicemail. He would not say if any employees at the commission’s office in Harrisburg would face discipline. Caruso added the expression likely was a reaction to what he termed “roadblocks” set up by Sulc and his demeanor during public testimony in Pittsburgh last year.
That explanation did not sit well with Sulc, who said he made the unusual decision to open the testimony to the public.
“How can you sit there and joke about this on the phone?” Sulc said of the voicemail. “Yeah, a $20,000 fine will make my day. That’s the class of people we’re dealing with at the state Ethics Commission.”
The report states that Sulc failed to provide the township and commonwealth with a statement of financial interest in 2009 and must amend similar statements in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 because he did not disclose direct sources of income those years. Sulc said that was a simple mistake and he has since provided them with the proper records.
He is appealing the ruling and has no plans to pay the fine. Sulc also would not rule out another run for township supervisor, since the decision does not bar him from holding office.
“Everything should be overturned,” Sulc said. “If I had something to hide or did something wrong, then I would pay my fine and leave town with my tail between my legs.”
The entire 43-page report and final ruling can be viewed on the state Ethics Commission’s website at www.ethics.state.pa.us.