John Baer | Spouses, grants and muddy ethical waters

IF IT'S GOOD to have friends in high places, it's probably better to have spouses there.

Take the state grant process, in which more than $1.5 million in grants is knotted in spouse-to-spouse links.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, for example, got grants from a state agency headed by the husband of one its program directors.

The Philly-based society runs the famous Philadelphia Flower Show and Philadelphia Green, an outreach program to enhance urban plantings, gardens and parks.

In the last two years, the society got grants from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) totaling $550,000 to plant trees and work with "at-risk adolescents."

(I don't know. Guns for greens?)

Joan Reilly, a society employee and one of three directors of Philadelphia Green, is named as a grant-recipient contact.

Reilly is married to the head of the agency awarding the grants, DCNR Secretary Michael DiBerardinis, a former Philly recreation commissioner under then-Mayor Ed Rendell.

These are not contracts put out for bids. They are grants that individuals or entities apply for and the state awards. These just happen to be awarded to an organization for which the boss' wife works.

And she's not alone.

There's also Karl Hausker, an environmental consultant to the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and its spin-off firm, Enterprising Environmental Solutions, Inc.

That firm got grants from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) related to agricultural-conservation efforts and watershed-protection programs totaling $120,414.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council has gotten a variety of DEP grants totaling $905,700 since 2004 for watershed protection, abandoned-mine land-reclamation efforts and more.

Hausker is married to the head of the agency awarding the grants, DEP Secretary Kathleen McGinty.

So that's at least $1.57 million in grants to organizations employing the spouses of the heads of Cabinet-level agencies handing out the grants.

Probably makes for happy marriages. Not sure it makes for good government.

And I'm not saying grant recipients - all nonprofit organizations - don't deserve these grants or use them in an improper way.

Seems to me, for example, if you want to plant trees, the horticultural society is a pretty good place to place your grant.

But.

The state ethics law (and, yeah I know, an ethics law in Pennsylvania sounds more like a punch line than a statute) says a public official can't use his or her office for personal benefit or benefit of a family member, or any business with which a family member "is associated."

Seems pretty clear.

Officials at both state agencies say there's no conflict because the grants are awarded in an open, competitive process.

Horticultural Society President Jane Pepper says the same thing, and adds that Reilly does not work on the tree-planting program.

The head of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Brian Hill, says that he's "sensitive" to the issue, that Hausker mostly works on out-of-state projects and that Hausker's involvement with PA grants is "minimal."

The State Ethics Commission doesn't comment on possible cases. But when I ask commission director John Contino about grants from agencies to nonprofits with ties to family members of agency chiefs, he says such a practice raises questions.

When I mention that the agencies say the grants are awarded in an open, competitive process, Contino says, "I don't know that, in and of itself, would answer all of the potential questions."

Neither do I.

Seems to me the intent of the law is to prevent favoritism. Seems to me those in high posts should work to avoid even the appearance of favoritism. And it seems to me, especially in the current atmosphere of government reform, that state grants shouldn't raise questions about friends (or spouses) in high places. *

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