Two little-noticed lawsuits that have been slowly working their way through a federal court raise questions about the management style of Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Corbett - and contend that Corbett squelched evidence of mismanagement in the state Attorney General's Office for political reasons.
The suits, brought by one former employee and one current worker in the office, paint a picture of Corbett as a hands-off executive who depends on a military-style chain of command to tell him what he needs to know about the workings of his department, which has about 800 people.
In a March deposition, Corbett answered "I don't know" to numerous questions about how his office was run. He said he could not remember whether any claim of mismanagement had crossed his desk.
Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, described the allegations in the two lawsuits as "baseless" and "without merit."
The cases, which are being handled as one, are moving toward the trial stage only now. They have the potential to become an issue as Corbett heads toward his fall campaign for governor against Democrat Dan Onorato.
The first suit arose while Corbett sought reelection as attorney general in 2008; the other was filed in 2009. Pretrial motions by lawyers are due July 16.
In his suit, Thomas D. Kimmett, a former senior deputy attorney general, contends that he tried in vain to get higher-ups to pay attention to what he saw as the waste of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the attorney general's Financial Enforcement Section.
He says private collection agencies were improperly paid large commissions for work that the attorney general's in-house staff had done to recover taxes and other money owed to the state.
Also, he says, some cases were settled for a small fraction of the money that the state could, and should, have been able to collect.
His suit says those actions amounted to gross mismanagement, perhaps even fraud.
Kimmett, who is a certified public accountant and lawyer, says the agency ignored his findings to avoid drawing negative attention during the 2008 fall election. Soon after the election, he was fired.
Kimmett's contentions, contained in a legal complaint he filed in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, are echoed in the second lawsuit, filed by Sherry E. Bellaman, a collections analyst in the Attorney General's Office who worked a subordinate to Kimmett.
Bellaman says she was "harassed and intimidated" within the agency because of her support for the mismanagement allegations Kimmett was making.
She says workers in the office illegally destroyed some documents. She, too, alleges a political motive.
Kimmett and Bellaman have filed whistle-blower actions, alleging that they were wrongfully punished for doing their jobs.
An e-mail sent by Kimmett's immediate boss to another agency official in May 2009 - obtained by plaintiffs' attorneys during pretrial investigation - lends at least some credence to Kimmett's assertion that something was amiss in the Financial Enforcement Section.
"We found gross mismanagement, but no fraud," the e-mail said.
Corbett, in his deposition, said that he didn't believe there was any mismanagement, but that he couldn't remember what, if anything, he had discussed about Kimmett's allegations with his top aides before the suits were filed.
He said he hadn't paid much attention to the lawsuits, which he regarded as the sort of personnel disputes that often come up in a big office.
"It comes with the territory of being the head of the agency," he said.
Asked about his management style, Corbett, a former captain in the Pennsylvania National Guard, defended his strict reliance on a chain of command. He said he depended on "the judgment of the management team" to keep him informed.
Kevin Harley, spokesman for Corbett's gubernatorial campaign, said Corbett exhibited the leadership required of an attorney general - and of a governor.
"I think it speaks well of his management style," Harley said. "Tom Corbett is not a micromanager. You cannot be a successful head of a large agency if you are a micromanager."
Though Corbett gave his deposition in the middle of the GOP primary for governor in the spring, his party foe, State Rep. Sam Rohrer, did not bring up the cases during the race.
But some of Rohrer's tea party supporters did seek to call attention to the cases, saying they were evidence of neglectful management.
Jim Billman, chairman of the Berks County Patriots, one of the largest tea party groups in the state, said he was troubled by "all the 'I don't knows' " in Corbett's all-day question-and-answer session with the plaintiffs' lawyers.
"He's got a lot of convenient memory loss," Billman said.
On Friday, Billman launched a lawsuit of his own against Corbett in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. It alleges that Corbett's bodyguard "grabbed" Billman when he tried to ask Corbett a question about the Kimmett case at an event the day before the May 18 primary. The suit says Corbett "shook his finger angrily in Billman's face."
Don A. Bailey, Billman's lawyer, also represents Bellaman and formerly represented Kimmett. He is seen within the Attorney General's Office as an old nemesis who has filed other suits against the office.
G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin and Marshall College, said that, depending on the merits of the Kimmett and Bellaman cases, they could be fair game in the fall campaign.
"When it comes to an executive position, you've got to show a measure of competent leadership," Madonna said. "You have to convey that you can be in command. So anything that tends to weaken that view can be a very important concern to voters."
Whether the cases become campaign fodder might depend on the timing of court action. Charles Kimmett, nephew of Thomas Kimmett and his current lawyer, said the cases could come up for trial in Harrisburg in October. But they could also be delayed until after the election.
The cases also could be settled, although Harley said no negotiations were going on.
In his deposition, Charles Kimmett asked Corbett: "If there are problems or issues in a specific unit [of the Attorney General's Office], does that reflect on you as someone who is ultimately responsible, or does it really reflect on those underneath and below you?"
"It reflects upon the office," Corbett answered.
"The office includes you," Kimmett noted.
"That's right," Corbett said.
Contact staff writer Tom Infield
at 610-313-8205 or email@example.com.