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April 16, 2010 | By | Posted in Investigations

“Whistleblower” Suit Allows Peek into AG’s Office

Civil Rights denied, plaintiff says

First in a series.

A “whistleblower” suit in federal court against state Attorney General Tom Corbett and most of his senior staff is offering a glimpse into both Mr. Corbett’s management style and the continuing inability of the state to collect debts.

In August 2008, former Deputy Attorney General Thomas D. Kimmet filed suit in U.S. Middle District Court claiming violation of his constitutional rights and that he had been thwarted by Mr. Corbett and his lieutenants from correcting inefficiencies in the Office of Attorney General’s (OAG) Financial Enforcement Section. Three months later Mr. Kimmet’s state employment was terminated after about two years in the OAG and a decade in the state Department of Revenue (DOR).

FES is a debt collector of last resort after efforts to collect debts and back taxes have failed in a wide variety of state activities including state universities, DOR and other agencies. The 20-month old suit is currently before U.S. District Judge John Jones, a longtime Republican, former head of the state Liquor Control Board and who was mentioned in the recent past as a gubernatorial prospect. A jury trial has been requested by Mr. Kimmet.

Responses from the OAG deny most, but not all, of the claims made by Mr. Kimmet. Court documents obtained by Pennsylvania Independent indicate continuing problems with FES management procedures, debt collection and accounting that have been going on for years. The OAG claims Mr. Kimmet was hired and directed to correct the problems spelled out in the complaints of Mr. Kimmet.

Attorney General Tom Corbett

A deposition by Mr. Corbett on March 11, 2010 indicates the attorney general relies heavily on his senior staff to deal with problems inside the office of his 1,100 employee bureaucracy, which includes 200 attorneys. Mr. Kimmet’s suit paints a picture of a castle guard surrounding Mr. Corbett, who is running in the May 18 Republican primary for governor against state Rep. Sam Rohrer of Berks County.

The Corbett Team

Mr. Corbett’s six-hour deposition makes clear he believes in a military style chain-of-command management and feels it is the proper way to manage the offices of the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

Also named in Mr. Kimmet’s suit are First Deputy Attorney General William Ryan, Executive Deputy AG Louis Rovelli, former AG Chief of Staff (and Corbett Gubernatorial Campaign Manager) Brian Nutt, Deputy AG Michael Roman, AG Human Resources Director Bruce J. Sarteschi, FES manager Jill Keiser, retired FES manager Steve Brandwene and DOR employees James Furlong and Robert Coyne.

During his deposition Mr. Corbett indicated he could not recall or did not know the answers to more than 35 questions put to him by Charles Kimmet, a Washington D.C. attorney representing his uncle, Thomas D. Kimmet. Sherry Bellaman, a former administrative assistant to Thomas Kimmet at FES, is also part of the Kimmet suit as a plaintiff. She is still employed at the OAG and is represented by Harrisburg Attorney Donald Bailey.

In his deposition, Mr. Corbett said he couldn’t remember whether he had heard of any management or accountability problems at FES prior to the Kimmet-Bellaman lawsuit in August 2008. He did say has “no plans at the moment” to make any changes in the current FES system.

Asked to explain his duties as attorney general, Mr. Corbett told attorney Kimmet, that his deputies “…all report to me. I am the chief law enforcement officer of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the chief civil officer of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I execute those duties through my appointed deputies and agents.” He explained the FES division chain of command would move from Mr. Roman up to Mr. Rovelli up to Mr. Ryan.

First Deputy Attorney General William Ryan

Mr. Corbett said that issues that rise to his level would do so by the judgment of “the management team” and that he has “…a standing, I’ll call it a verbal order, I always remind them, ‘no surprises’.”

When Did He Know?

Attorney Kimmet asked Mr. Corbett, “Sitting here today do you recall there being any issue or problem of enough significance that it made its way to your attention that related to the FES?”

“I would be speculating right now based upon my memory sitting here today,” Mr. Corbett replied.

Attorney Kimmet then asked, “You have no memory sitting here today of an issue of gross mismanagement (a claim in the Kimmet-Bellaman suit) in FES being brought to your attention at all, prior to Mr. Kimmet filing his law suit?”

“No,” Mr. Corbett said.

Again, “You have no memory sitting here today of any allegations of fraud or misconduct in FES being brought to your attention prior to Mr. Kimmet’s lawsuit,” Mr. Kimmet asked.

Mr. Corbett answered, “Not without seeing documents that might refresh my memory.”

The Kimmet Hiring/Firing

How Mr. Kimmet came to OAG from DOR in 2006 is a bit muddled. Mr. Corbett said in his deposition that Mr. Nutt brought him to Mr. Corbett’s attention after a reference from Rich Hudic, a member of Team Pennsylvania. Team Pennsylvania is a foundation working to enhance economic development in the state.

Susan J. Forney explained Mr. Kimmet’s hiring differently in a Nov. 3, 2008 answer to Mr. Kimmet’s original complaint. She wrote:

“Over a period of months prior to plaintiff Kimmet’s employment, the Director of OAG Management Services Division (Sheri L. Phillips) reported to defendant Rovelii than an extensive and ongoing review of administrative collection accounts by the OAG Comptroller’s Office was revealing managerial and operational problems and issues. Such reports motivated defendant Rovelli to consider plaintiff Kimmet, who had applied for OAG employment, for employment in the Financial Enforcement Section (FES).”

Ms. Forney continued, “…the OAG had immediate need for an attorney to manage administrative collections and address recently-indentified operational problems and issues; that opportunities for advancement were likely because defendant Brandwene and another senior attorney in the section, John Condrige, were nearing retirement; and that opportunities to acquire litigation experience would be afforded as the operational issues in administrative collections were addressed and resolved.”

(In his deposition, Mr. Corbett said he was aware of Mr. Brandwene and referred to him as “RIP” or “retired in place. People that don’t work necessarily as hard as if they were there for five years.” He added, “It’s a function of government, I think. Not all people, but there are some.”)

Ms. Forney also wrote, “Neither defendant Rovelli nor any other OAG defendant promised plaintiff a promotion”, a claim Mr. Kimmet makes in his suit.

However Mr. Kimmet came to the OAG, it is clear how he left. Mr. Corbett signed his walking papers in November 2008.

“When I make a decision to, if a decision has been made to terminate, it has to come to me. I can’t say I necessarily look to see whether they’ve (the aggrieved employee) asked for a review (of their dismissal) or not,” Mr. Corbett said in his deposition.

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Jim Panyard is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Jim@PAIndependent.com.

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