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Putting on heirs: Wolf administration gives jobs to legislators' children

Written by Marie Cusick | Aug 15, 2016 5:03 PM
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Photo by AP Photo/Matt Rourke

During his campaign, Tom Wolf pitched himself as "a different kind of governor." He made good on a promise to donate his salary to charity and refuses to drive a state car. Upon taking office, he swiftly enacted a gift ban for the executive branch and has been known to refuse freebies, such as a bottle of water.

But the Wolf administration has continued one dubious political tradition--nepotism.

WITF has identified four children of current and former Democratic state lawmakers who have jobs in the Office of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor. They include the son of Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D- Allegheny), the son of House Minority Whip Mike Hanna (D-Centre), the daughter of Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D- Chester), and the daughter of former Rep. Stephen Stetler (D- York)--a personal friend of Wolf's who was convicted of corruption charges in 2012.

Only two of the four hires competed against other candidates for their jobs.

"During the Wolf Administration the culture of Harrisburg has not changed," says government reform activist Eric Epstein. "Real reform means the governor needs to ferret out cronyism and nepotism by banning the employment of relatives, campaign contributors, and spouses."

None of the four hires would comment for this story. Only two of them, Mike Hanna Jr. and Catherine Stetler, have prior experience in state government. Both hold graduate degrees. Hanna Jr., 33, earns $97,663 a year as Wolf's Deputy Secretary for Legislative Affairs and has five years of experience with the state House Democratic caucus. Catherine Stetler earns $70,005 as the Deputy Chief of Staff to First Lady Frances Wolf and previously worked for former Governor Ed Rendell, the state Gaming Control Board, and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse. 

Wolf's spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, disputes the idea the administration engages in nepotism.

"Who someone's parent is does not disqualify them from serving in a public job," he says. "Mrs. Wolf knows and trusts Catherine. Mike is good at what he does and is well-respected by members on both sides of the aisle."

Jobs in the governor's office are not civil service. They are all at will employment. Previous administrations have functioned in a similar way, in that positions are not publicly advertised, and the governor is free to pick his own team. Yet current and former members of the administration have complained Wolf's staff stands out for its youth and inexperience. 

"In terms of an executive office, you do have lots of discretion in who you hire," says Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College "But ultimately, you're going to be judged by the public in how successful your administration is."

The daughter of Sen. Andrew Dinniman was brought in last year to help process the Wolf administration's new hires. Alexis Dinniman, 37, earns $60,010 working in the Governor's Office of Public Liaison. She also assists the Governor's Office of General Counsel with open record requests. According to Sheridan, several other people were interviewed for the position. Her father says he did not help her get the job.

"Her particular skills were exactly what they needed at that time," says Sen. Dinniman, citing his daughter's background in archival research.

Alexis Dinniman holds a Master's Degree in library science and has previously held a number of positions, mostly less than a year in duration, at prestigious institutions including Harvard University's Houghton Library and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. However, according to her LinkedIn profile, her longest stretches of employment include working at book stores, such as a Barnes and Noble, and doing packaging for a company that makes baby shoes.

The son of Senate Minority leader Jay Costa, spent two years as a lobbyist for the Cameron-Companies before joining the Lieutenant Governor's office. He also worked in local government at the Allegheny County Sheriff's office. Anthony Costa, 27, currently earns $52,010 as a special assistant to Lt. Gov. Mike Stack. No one else was interviewed for his job. 

"[Anthony Costa] was hired because of his experience in local government and good relationships with many people in the public and private sectors in Western Pennsylvania," says Stack's spokesman Gary Tuma.

Other Pennsylvania politicians have previously come under scrutiny for the employment of family members. Embattled State Attorney General Kathleen Kane was criticized when her twin sister got a raise and promotion shortly after she took office. After former Attorney General Tom Corbett left the office to run for governor, his daughter was hired to work there. Former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who was convicted of corruption, hired her sister (who was also convicted of corruption) to work in her court office.

"Pennsylvania needs to break free of feudal hiring practices, and allow the market and merit to determine who is best qualified for employment," says Epstein. "Before hiring a relative or anybody else, taxpayers should ask: "'Is the job even necessary?'"

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