Critics say GOP abused its perks

‘Shocking’ expenses slashed in Del. House

By Ginger Gibson
The News Journal — Feb. 27, 2010

While the controlling political party in Delaware’s General Assembly has long enjoyed the spoils of Election Day victory, Democrats said Republican House members took perks to excess during their 25 years in control.

When the majority flipped and Democrats took control in 2008, they cut $756,000 out of a legislative budget they say was partisan and bloated: $525,000 saved in staffing, $91,000 in postage, $30,000 in tuition reimbursements, $40,000 from gold letterhead and business cards, and $70,000 in travel expenses.

Among the items Democrats say were partisan and should not have been funded with tax dollars were the salary of a political consultant who many longtime staffers say never came to work, thousands of dollars in improper tuition payments to a former Republican legislator, questionable payouts to political advisers for unused vacation and sick time, and money for a Web site that delivered Republican perspectives.

“They did some things that shouldn’t have been done,” House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf said. “It was pretty shocking. It was unbelievable.”

The 2008 election saw nearly a dozen incumbent Republicans ousted, including former House Speaker Terry Spence. As speaker, Spence signed all the chamber’s checks and approved all hires.

Democrats also took control of administrative oversight, changing bookkeeping and spending procedures.

“We were finding stuff every week that we don’t think should have happened, and we took immediate steps to correct that,” Schwartzkopf said.

House Republicans who could knowledgeably dispute the facts would not be interviewed for this article. Spence did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Republican Party Chairman Tom Ross said he couldn’t speak to specific allegations but characterized them as partisan attacks likely fueled by election-year politics.

“I’m well aware of numerous Democratic staffers that have and are very active in Democratic campaigns,” Ross said. “I can’t attest for people clocking in or out on the state time on either the Democratic side or Republican side. As a party, we take it very seriously what is spent with state dollars.”

Minority Leader Richard Cathcart said he could not speak to the allegations because Spence was in control at the time.

Cathcart said he is a stickler for the rules and said he was “shocked and disappointed” at the Democrats’ attack.

Tuition reimbursed

Although state law doesn’t provide for legislators to receive tuition reimbursement, fellow Republicans paid former Rep. Vince Lofink $12,124.50 to reimburse him for the master’s degree in education he received from the University of Delaware in 2008.

Auditor Tom Wagner, a Republican, reported last week that the payment was “improper.”

Lofink was co-chairman of the powerful joint Bond Bill Committee. In the House, he chaired the Education Committee and the Gaming and Pari-mutuels Committee. The nine-term legislator lost his seat in November 2008 to Democrat Earl Jaques.

Speaker Bob Gilligan, a Democrat, wrote to Lofink on Feb. 3, asking him to repay the full amount of his tuition reimbursement.

Lofink, who is employed by New Castle County Vo-Tech schools, refused to repay the expenses. In the letter this week, Lofink argued he was entitled to a reimbursement under Vo-Tech’s tuition policy: Because it’s ultimately all state money, he shouldn’t have to pay it back.

Bob Hicks, deputy auditor, said only about $4,000 would have been paid under Vo-Tech’s policy.

Lofink declined to comment for this article.

Gilligan said he is unsure how to force Lofink to return the money.

“I can ask him to pay it back,” Gilligan said. “I guess that would depend upon the [attorney general] and the state auditor.”

Hicks said it could be difficult to force Lofink to repay it because it was a payment approved by Spence.

Political appointees fired

Payrolls typically change when majority control changes in the Legislature. Political appointees of the party previously in power are replaced by those of the new party.

When Democrats took control, several Republican-appointed staffers were eliminated, Democratic Chief of Staff Erik Schramm said. The Democrats opted not to refill all of those positions, he said, reducing the staff by seven full-time positions and four part-time positions, saving $525,000 a year.

One of those positions was held by campaign staffer Michael Lukach.

“We’re not really sure what his title was or what he was doing,” Schramm said. “He left right before the election.”

Lukach worked for the Legislature for four months starting June 24, 2008. He collected his last paycheck Oct. 11, 2008. The 25-year-old came to Delaware after working on a political campaign in Virginia and as a consultant for the state Republican Party, according to Virginia campaign finance reports.

He left Delaware after the 2008 election and returned to working on campaigns in Virginia last year leading up to the November election, according to campaign finance reports.

Lukach denied that he did any political activity while on the state’s time.

“For the last month or so before Election Day, yes, I was doing only political work. But I had gone off state payroll,” Lukach wrote in an e-mail. “While on state payroll any campaign work I did was done on my own time.”

Cathcart, who had served shortly as majority leader when the Republicans were in control, said Lukach was hired to replace Garrett Wozniak, who left state employment in summer 2008 to work on former Sen. Charlie Copeland’s campaign for lieutenant governor.

In September, as the election neared and Lukach’s duties became more political, Cathcart said, Republicans stopped paying him from state funds and started paying him in October from campaign funds.

“We recognized the fact that he was working on campaigns,” Cathcart said. “I don’t know what they’re crying about; that’s just ridiculous.”

Benefits paid

Democrats have questioned other Republican practices.

When Wozniak and fellow staffer Rodney Brittingham, who served on a task force, left in June 2008, they were paid for their unused sick and vacation time, according to House payroll records. Wozniak, 27, and Brittingham, 32, were not state employees long enough to qualify for retirement.

“That’s pretty much breaking state policy,” Schramm said.

Agency and executive branch employees must be eligible for retirement to receive unused sick-time payments, said Catherine Kempista, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget. Employees of the Legislature are exempted from law, she said.

Wozniak, who now serves as policy director for the right-leaning Caesar Rodney Institute think tank, received $4,525.50. Brittingham received $6,251.90.

Wozniak said he had no idea that the money violated state policy.

“I just received the check and put it in my bank account,” Wozniak said. “I honestly did not think twice about it.”

Gilligan said he’ll ask for the money to be repaid.

“They obviously weren’t following state policy,” he said. “I think they followed their own policy.”

Political activities funded

Steve Tanzer worked in the Legislature for more than 25 years, most recently as a Democratic House staffer, until he was lost his job as part of the reductions. He said it was common to see Republican staffers working on campaign materials while collecting a state paycheck.

“I saw them doing blatantly political work on the 11th floor of the Carvel State Office Building on state time,” Tanzer said.

Schwartzkopf and Gilligan agreed they knew some campaigning was occurring, but being in the minority, they said, their hands were tied.

“They didn’t follow the state policy, and they sometimes did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it,” Gilligan said.

Republicans also spent $10,000 on the Web site, which featured only Republican leadership, positions and opinions. The Democrats also maintain a Web site, but they pay for it out of campaign funds.

Cathcart said Republican leadership was always clear with staff that campaign work was to be done off the clock. There’s no doubt staffers talked about campaigns, but he characterized it as water-cooler talk.

“They should not be doing campaign work in the office, but having discussions about campaigns, that’s crazy, that’s ludicrous,” Cathcart said. “I was insistent that our people, if they were going to work campaigns, either took a vacation day or did it after hours.”

Cathcart said he had no details about the Web site.

Current regulations prohibit employees from engaging “in any political activity or solicit any political contribution, assessment or subscription during the employee’s hours of employment or while engaged in the business of the State.” Employees can be terminated and prohibited from working for the state for one year.

Attorneys for House Democrats are researching measures in other states, Schwartzkopf said. He hopes the two caucuses will come to an agreement to approve legislation that would impose rules on Delaware lawmakers and their staffs.

“There are guidelines. Every state agency has guidelines on leave, on tuition reimbursement and it’s spelled out, and obviously the House hadn’t been following that,” Schwartzkopf said. “We need to define ‘political activity’ a little better.”