Pennsylvania’s Senators Will Meet Again to Discuss the City of Harrisburg
See hearing agenda & list of testifiers at end of this article.
The unraveling of a story yet to be truly told.
It will be the second day of hearings on this subject. The first day happened at the start of the month on October 4th, and a long day it was. Lasting six hours and nine testifiers, the hearing ended by providing not so many answers as contradictions. Despite being under oath, some of the people called to stand before the Committee were mistaken, didn’t recall correctly, or lied, and the record shows the disparities. It is because of the range of contradictions made apparent that day that the Senate committee must move forward, must go deeper, must ask more questions.
In fact, if there is any criticism that the Senators have received it’s that they didn’t ask enough questions the first time around. By some observations, the Senators weren’t ardent enough. There in front of them was an elusive crew of the Harrisburg debt story’s most notorious players, such as former Mayor Stephen Reed, former The Harrisburg Authority (THA) Board member Fred Clark, and consultant to the Incinerator retrofit project, Dan Lispi. While Lispi had taken the stand at the THA vs CIT trial, there has been no see nor hear from Reed or Clark in years. Yet there they sat, under oath, willing to be questioned, and the Senators let several significant moments of inquiry pass by.
While there is speculation and even overt claim that the reason the Senators were seemingly soft is because they are merely placaters and lackeys, the proof of their study refutes such limited opinion. Anyone wandering the halls of the Capitol building knows Senators Eichelberger, Blake, and Folmer have been doing their homework diving into the abyss of the Harrisburg debt story. Certain junctures in the proceedings indicated this. Shrewd instants existed. It was clear the Senators were not satisfied with particular responses of testifiers, most notably on the issues of the lack of a performance bond for the Incinerator retrofit project and the City’s Special Projects Fund.
The Harrisburg debt story is complicated, not tight and tidy to promulgate as some would have it simply stated that fraud and crimes have been committed and justness is due. People are roused to hail for justice in immediate, concrete forms of indictments, convictions, and restitution. Unverified murmurings of investigations cause so much anticipation that as in foregone times of public hangings, there is a contagious zest for punishment amongst onlookers.
The debt story. It is fodder for sensationalism. It breeds shocking, startling, dramatized broadcasts. Sensationalism that seizes us and intends to guide our focus to this over that and that over this.
There is a contagious zest for punishment amongst onlookers.
The reality is the debt story is not one set story told but rather multiple stories competing with one another, and that is part of the problem with trying to grasp the truth. If anything, this is one of the most prominent things to come from the first day of the Committee’s hearings. There are persons and factions with their own narratives of what, why, and how it all happened, the accumulation of an immense debt that is increasingly falling on the shoulders of the City of Harrisburg’s taxpayers to the disturbing applause of quite a few observers. There are too many people who believe the City and its residents are getting what is deserved.
With the second hearing to take place less than a week away, the aggregation of scrutiny and commentary since that last hearing has amplified as the public and officials alike anticipate the next round of testimony.
Aside from Dauphin County Commissioner Jeff Haste, the upcoming group of consenting testifiers is a range of professionals who advised and facilitated the financial transactions; knowledgeable City and THA employees, and the former Receiver of Harrisburg, David Unkovic, who took the Harrisburg debt story to this next level of examination with his various declarations of something not right about what he saw when he was hired to attempt to fix the City’s debt crisis.
This next group will be an interesting juxtaposition to the first group, which included some greatly anticipated disclosures from prime players like Reed, Clark, and Lispi. These people were remarkable because they are considered to be “the team” that got things done (along with attorney Andrew Giorgione, who is set to testify next week).
They were clearly ready for their time at the testimony table, so much so that it would be astounding if pre-game coordination had not occurred.
In typical fabled style, Reed took the reins right off the bat, reading the Senators a speech he said he had just prepared that morning in which he claimed–among other things–that the Incinerator retrofit project discussions had been done in the public and never was there opposition or question from anyone. He declared that the entire crux of the problem was a significant underestimation of the retrofit costs. “At the very heart of the issue is the question of how initial project costs were so underestimated. To this day, I have never heard a complete answer to this question,” Reed curiously announced as if he, too, as been headstrong in attempting to figure out the real story.
He said had he known what he knows now, the project would have never happened. Indicating ignorance, he proclaimed that he nor any of the decision makers had “specialized knowledge;” thus, they weren’t able to question the logistics of the proposals in front of them. It was either the Incinerator or a new contentious landfill for Dauphin County, Reed disclosed, implying that the deal was a deal that solved the problems of many parties involved who “had to address municipal waste disposal.”
During his pre-devised speech, the former mayor offered his services to the legislators before him. He volunteered to work with them to reform the Local Government Unit Debt Act, which enabled the Incinerator borrowing to happen. To make his point, Reed presented specific suggestions of change, such as the need to form a State panel of review for any “specialized capital projects” like the Incinerator’s retrofit. He suggested greater State inspection of municipal claims of “self-liquidating debt.” He intimated that when he made his claim, he followed the advice of professionals who told him everything was on the up and up, and that if there was misrepresentation, it was on them not him.
Fred Clark followed this line of logic, too, gallantly pronouncing, “I am not an attorney, I’m not an architect, I’m not an engineer. I’m a public servant.” He was sure to reiterate this sentiment several times throughout his testimony as he excused his part of the project as that of an uneducated board member who relied on the experts to guide him. “That was our involvement in the process, to approve it. To approve it,” he said.
Lispi, took only a slightly different approach although his testimony lined up perfectly with the substance of the story Reed and Clark told. The difference with Lispi is that he chose to discredit the Incinerator Forensic Audit Report along with the testimony of others who came before him. Submitting his years of experience with the Incinerator, Lispi warned the Senate committee, “I can tell you from what I have read and what I heard today, there are serious statements of misinformation and a lot innuendo in that report that potentially could mislead you in what you’re trying to do.”
Lispi’s alert was a thinly veiled allusion to one person in particular—attorney Steven Goldfield, who had started off the six-hour day of testimony by dipping back as far as 1993 and discussing at technical length the trail of unusual finances that happened then until 2007. At one point, Goldfield said of the way the retrofit decisions were made, “It may be legal, but why would you do it.” Goldfield asserted the advisers and decision makers should’ve known better.
During his turn, Lispi scoffed at those contentions. He insisted he didn’t know how something like what happened could have been prevented. Like Reed, Lispi insisted the real problem was that the project cost more than was estimated in the beginning. “There’s risk in every construction project,” he said. “I just don’t know how you eliminate risk.”
Risk. Many people have pointed to the fact that there was a lack of security involved, that is a performance bond. Lispi stated it was “financially impractical” to get a performance bond on Barlow’s technology. Mayor Reed said he didn’t know about that complication until after the fact, which Lispi confirmed by saying he didn’t tell Reed because the Mayor was not part of the negotiations and discussion. Clark said THA Board never asked and was never told. Plus, Lispi maintained it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
Senator Mike Folmer asked Lispi, “Would you say the mistakes that were made were errors of omission or commission?”
“Omission,” Lispi replied.
Thus, the bottom line of the Reed/Clark/Lispi story is this—we made the best decisions we could at the time based on the advise and information we received. Hindsight is 20/20. Shrug.
It seems the starting point for investigation begins with trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not true. For Harrisburg and its story of indebtedness, such inquiry has been obscured by misplaced facts, covertness, and lack of trust. It’s very difficult to piece the true story together coherently and adequately. Of course, though, it becomes a matter of motivation. Why would someone want to know the truth of Harrisburg’s story? On that note, the contrary becomes evident–why would someone not want to know the truth of the Harrisburg story?
With the Senate Local Government Committee hearings underway, these basic questions are manifesting in the realm of speculation where sensationalism dwells.
Never mind that the City of Harrisburg is already full of the sensational—an ex-Mayor for life who was obsessed with artifacts, a consecrated Mayor in way over her head, outdated social issues that plague every facet of city living from City Council representation to walking down the streets, a trash burning facility and trash on the streets the City’s greatest problems—it is the sensationalism that acutely burdens the City. The citizens of the entire region of Harrisburg are continually pressured to discern what is relevant and what is accurate. Pronouncements of worthiness are slung at citizens and statements are proclaimed in haughty defiance of substantiation, timeliness, and merit. For indication of this look to recent public forums, debates, media headlines, and the various speakers’ corners around town where the vain and anonymous stand and spout, where all too often the facts are deposed in favor of exposing the insignificant and uncorroborated.
When facts are in hand, when they are able to be gotten, it’s challenging processing them and informing others of the vast and intricate details that accompany the issues at hand, especially when battling the titillation of a quick, fast pounding of a story that provides instant satisfaction of our seemingly innate desire for the buzz of scandal.
Therefore, plenty of citizens of Harrisburg teeter precariously in the spaces between understanding, patience and despair looking desperately for a stronghold of hope, fairness, and salvation as end to the whole story. Rightly so there is the call for the arms of the law to come through to find the truth for us to grab onto, but it’s not that easy. Looking back at the last Senate committee hearing, it’s a wonder if perjury was committed. And if so, what does that mean, to perjure oneself in front of a Pennsylvania Senate committee hearing? The Senators must be wondering that, too.
However, what everyone should be wondering now is what stories will the next round of testifiers tell? After all, we’ll soon hear from the advisors and attorneys who are said to be responsible for the decisions the decision makers made. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say about this. No matter individual expectations, the most important aspects the Senate hearings give us is “under oath” and “for the record.” Day two of testimony will yield more public records to be collected, accessed, compared and contrasted. The more records there are, the more likely the truth will be found, and the more likely more people will come to find it.
The PA Senate Local Senate Committee hearing is scheduled for Monday, October 29th from 9:30am-4:30pm in Hearing Room 1, the North Building, Capitol Complex.
9:30 a.m. Call to Order and Introductory Remarks
- Senator John H. Eichelberger Jr., Chairman
- Senator John Blake, Minority Chairman
9:30 a.m.: Thomas Mealy (former Director, Harrisburg Authority)
10:00 a.m.: Robert Kroboth, (Business Manager, City of Harrisburg)
10:30 a.m.: Jeff Haste, Commissioner, Dauphin County
11:30 a.m.: Bruce Barnes (Excel Financial Advisors/Milt Lopus Associates)
1 p.m.: James Losty (RBC Capital)
2 p.m.: Andrew Giorgione, Esq. (Buchanon Ingersoll)
3 p.m.: Carol Cocheres, Esq. (Eckert Seamens)
4 p.m.: James Ellison, Esq. (Rhoads & Sinon)
4:30 p.m.: David Unkovic, Esq. (former Receiver, City of Harrisburg