By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — An ethics complaint alleging that a sitting state representative directed tax dollars to a church for which he serves as pastor has shaken up a state House race in Delaware County.
Jay Schiliro, mayor of Marcus Hook in Delaware County, filed the compliant with the State Ethics Commission this week. It accuses longtime state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-Delaware, of using taxpayer-funded grants to benefit nonprofits and community organizations with which he and his family have a personal connection. Among the organizations to have benefited from the state’s largess in recent years is the church in Chester, where Kirkland serves as pastor.
Schiliro, a Republican, is trying to unseat Kirkland in the 159th state House District in November. Kirkland has held the seat since 1993.
In a letter to the State Ethics Commission, Schiliro detailed a “variety of questionable activity related to nonprofit and other organizations funded with hundreds of thousands in state tax dollars,” including two grants that went to a church that employs Kirkland.
“I believe the method in which these organizations were funded and their close ties to Kirkland, his family, and associates raises serious ethical concerns,” said Schiliro.
Two other organizations to have received grants from the House Democratic caucus — Across Colors, an annual music festival hosted by Kirkland, and the Chester Fine Arts Center East, a performing arts facility and dance school — had officers and employees who were members of Kirkland’s family, Schiliro alleges.
Kirkland did not return calls for comment over multiple days, but he told the Delaware County Daily Times on Monday the accusations would be “laughable” except for the fact that Schiliro was trying to drag his family’s name “through the mud.” He told the paper he welcomed any investigation by the ethics commission.
At the center of the complaint is the Community Baptist Church in Chester. According to his official legislative website, Kirkland is the pastor of the church.
In 2008 and 2009, grant contracts awarded by the state show that $30,000 in taxpayer-funded grants were directed to the Community Baptist Church. Kirkland listed the church on his annual financial disclosure forms since 2009 as a “direct or indirect source of income.” Those forms are filed with the state Ethics Commission.
Schiliro said the timing of the grants — which were awarded at the same time he began listing the church on his financial interest forms — should raise questions.
Kirkland told the Times that he did not benefit financially from “anything that goes to my church.”
Tim Potts, executive director of Democracy Rising PA, a nonprofit that advocates for transparent and accountable government, said state laws should be changed to prevent lawmakers from directing grants to their own institutions.
“Unless you have some kind of a firewall between legislators, their families and the taxpayers, this kind of thing is going to happen,” Potts said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that firewall.”
Schiliro also raised questions about a series of state grants to a performing arts center in Delaware County with a number of ties to Kirkland’s family.
According to its website, the Chester Fine Arts Center East was founded in 1976 by Anzer Kirkland, Thaddeus’ brother. Anzer Kirkland died in September, but an obituary confirms the family connection between the two men.
Since 2000, the nonprofit has received more than $273,000 in state grants through the Department of Community and Economic Investment, including $164,000 for operating costs and salaries.
Kirkland’s wife, Susan Atkinson-Kirkland, is listed on tax documents from 2009 through 2011 as the “acting president” of the nonprofit, though tax documents indicate she did not take a salary in any of those years.
Those same tax documents show that nearly all of the annual income for the Chester Fine Arts Center East was in the form of public money — at least dating back to 2004. Earlier records are not immediately available.
Kirkland’s wife also is listed as an instructor for some of the dance classes offered at the fine arts facility, and a $14,500 grant was used for a “dance program expansion,” according to DCED’s grant tracker.
Schiliro accused Kirkland of using his public office to direct an $85,000 state grant to the “Across Colors Cultural Festival” in 2009.
Kirkland’s office organizes the annual festival, according to multiple news reports over several years.
Monday, Schiliro held a news conference in front of Kirkland’s district office in Chester to announce the ethics complaint.
Potts said the allegations, if true, would be comparable to crimes that sent former state Rep. Mike Veon, D-Beaver, to prison – though Potts said the situations were of a different scale.
Veon was convicted in March of using a state funded nonprofit – the Beaver Initiative for Growth – to funnel millions in tax dollars to his own pocket for political purposes. He was sentenced in May to one-to-four years in prison.
“If they want to help these organizations, they can do that without helping members of their families,” Potts said.
The State Ethics Commission does not confirm or deny any investigations it is conducting.
State House races are usually local contests that fly well under the radar and attract little statewide attention – mostly due to the fact that there are 203 of them every two years, though only about one in three is a contested race this year.
Shaking up a race with a bombshell like this is sure to keep eyes on the outcome of the contest, but the numbers are decidedly against Schiliro in the district – Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-to-1 in the southern Delaware County district.
Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter