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February 8, 2013

State ethics panel probing Paint Township

WINDBER — Paint Township is being investigated by the state Ethics Commission, The Tribune-Democrat has learned.

Township officials were able to offer little about the investigation and its scope Thursday, but all three Paint Township supervisors said state investigators have apparently made several stops at their Basin Drive office during the past few weeks.

One investigator was working behind closed doors at the township building Thursday, and Supervisors Dave Blough and Joe Huff said office staffers are complying with requests.

“We haven’t been told anything. And whatever they ask for, the girls in the office are providing it,” Huff said, noting five years’ worth of meeting minutes have been among the requests.

The Harrisburg-based state Ethics Commission enforces Pennsylvania’s Ethics Act, policing allegations of conflicts of interest and improper moves by elected officials to financially gain from their public posts.

The independent agency investigates alleged missteps by local and state leaders and can impose fines and other penalties.

Huff, Blough and Supervisor Andy Tvardzik said they did not know the investigation’s focus.

All three added they had not been approached by investigators.

“I have no idea what they are looking for,” Tvardzik said.

Blough, the township roadmaster, called the investigation “a first” in his more than 20 years with the township. But given recent events, “it doesn’t surprise me,” he said while working in the township’s garage Thursday.

“There’s been a lot of unrest here. And residents have said they were going to notify the ethics board, so I guess that’s why it happened,” Blough said. “But it is what it is. It’ll clear the air, I guess.”

Since mid-2012, township residents have repeatedly accused the board of improper spending. Tvardzik, the former treasurer, has taken the most heat, accused of collecting pay from the township for administrative work tied to the recent sewer line project.

Tvardzik received $14,791 for the work in 2011, township records show. In many cases, and by Tvardzik’s own admission, he signed off on his own checks along with one other supervisor, a matter that has also infuriated some residents.

Tvardzik has repeatedly defended his actions, saying he’s done nothing wrong.  

He told residents at a heated November meeting that he was able to exceed the annual income a second-class township supervisor is able to receive because the funds were being reimbursed by an outside source, the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, known as PennVEST, which supplied the loan and grant package for the sewer work.

“The people complaining ... and saying these things are doing it because they don’t want to see things improve in this township,” Tvardzik said Thursday, adding that some residents are angry at the township for seeking sewer improvements and zoning.

“Do I think I’ve done anything (wrong)? No, I don’t,” he said.

Ethics Commission Acting Director Rob Caruso said his agency cannot comment on whether specific investigations are, or aren’t, under way, let alone provide details. He cited an Ethics Act confidentiality provision.

But he noted ethics probes do not necessarily mean improper acts occurred.

And, for any investigation, specific procedures must be followed, Caruso said.

The first step: Verifying whether an allegation is an Ethics Commission matter, or if it should be referred to another agency.

“Once we have sufficient information to proceed, there’s a preliminary inquiry that involves reviewing public records, such as bills or payments, to see if (the allegation) is something we should look into,” Caruso said, noting it’s a 60-day process. “At that point, a decision must be made to pursue a full investigation or recommend closing it.”

If further review is warranted, investigators must notify the subjects of the investigation by letter, advising them they are being investigated and, in general terms, why, Caruso added.

The Ethics Commission has 180 days to complete the investigation, but can receive two 90-day extensions if records are still being gathered, Caruso said.

“It can take months to subpoena records and arrange interviews,” he added.

Huff, a first-term board member, said he “welcomes” any investigation.

“If there’s a complaint, that’s why agencies like this exist, to make sure everything is in line,” he said. “I’m not worried because I know I haven’t done anything wrong.”

The township’s board, Huff said, has made mistakes, overspending on the township building and failing to raise taxes in 2011 when the township’s financial issues first became serious.

“But it’s never been about anything illegal or criminal,” he said.

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