We believe that the conclusions in a review commissioned by Kennett Township Board of Supervisors (KT-BoS) and work conducted by BlankRome at a cost of over $127K could have been completed in one day. How? It all hinges on the decision by the KT-BoS to effectively restrict the review to answer one question: did Kennett Township Manager Eden Ratliff violate the PA Ethics Act, based on the standards of evidence established by the PA Ethics Commission? It also hinges on the fact that almost every fact of significance had been referenced and/or posted on OpenKennett (in some cases, months earlier), or had been sought by open records requests, all of which had been either delayed or denied by Ratliff.
We consider the PA Ethics Commission to be the experts in interpreting the act itself, especially since they would render any rulings.
We understand that the Ethics Commission does not undertake its own fact finding, but renders its decision based solely on evidence gathered by others - in this case, the 80 page complaint (including supporting documents) submitted on December 1st.
The Commission's response to the Complaint, and to Ratliff's Advisory Opinion Request provided a roadmap for any investigations. Most significantly, the Commission clearly specified that only an investigation that uncovered new evidence pertaining to conflicts of interest as defined by the Commission could change their ruling.
The response to Ratliff’s Advisory Opinion made it clear that the Commission would be extremely unlikely to conclude that Ratliff’s volunteer work was problematic. Ratliff's apparent failure to disclose his volunteer work for Longwood Fire Company (LFC) did not constitute a conflict because there was no “private pecuniary benefit” to Ratliff - e.g., some significant personal financial gain (the Commission pointedly turns a blind eye to influence-peddling). Therefore, the Commission would never change their ruling unless BlankRome somehow uncovered evidence that Ratliff received money as a volunteer. This effectively rendered the first 3 of the 5 “questions” and almost ⅓ of BlankRome’s report (from p. 10-18) irrelevant.
With respect to the potential conflicts created when Ratliff’s wife was hired by LFC, the Commission indicated in their response to the Complaint that they would not pursue an investigation without evidence that “Mr. Ratliff used his position to secure employment for his spouse” (p. 6). Our conversations with the Commission indicated that only a “smoking gun” - e.g., some communication in which Ratliff attempted to influence LFC with regards to his wife’s application - might be enough to spark an investigation by the Commission. A simple review of all email and written communication between Ratliff and LFC between August 31, 2021 (when the position in question was posted) and October 28, 2021 (when Ratliff’s wife began her employment) would have revealed any such attempts at influence… a review which could have been completed in one afternoon.
In the coming weeks, we will post on OpenKennett a timeline indicating precisely how a more pro-active response would have resolved the concerns captured in the complaint within a matter of 1-2 weeks. We will also demonstrate how the implementation of a simple series of guidelines for staff regarding conflicts of interest could have easily prevented even the appearance of a conflict, or protected against any meaningful impact . But neither happened. Instead, Kennett Township Supervisors Richard Leff and Whitney Hoffman failed to take our concerns seriously, setting off a chain of events that will have cost the Township more than $140K to clean up.
Consider this brief timeline of opportunities missed by the KT-BoS to address our concerns and prevent the need for an investigation. They could taken our concerns seriously when we first raised concerns last April, or when we flagged the conflict of interest in early November, or when they learned three weeks later that we were considering a formal complaint. We filed the complaint because the KT-BoS did not respond. The next opportunity came around Dec. 20, after the Commission ruled on both the complaint and Ratliff's advisory opinion, providing the supervisors with a clear roadmap for the kind of very targeted investigation described above. We would have made it clear that, if the KT-BoS was determined to focus solely on the question of whether Ratliff broke any laws, such an investigation completed in one day, would have been adequate.
Instead, Supervisors Hoffman and Leff focused on exonerating Ratliff and discrediting Doehring through an official Township press statement released on December 20, a press release peppered with falsehoods and misleading claims that alone cost at least $10k to craft. But just 1o days later, Hoffman and Leff apparently decided to reverse course, retract the statement, and finally take the allegations seriously. Leff and Hoffman proved to be the majority vote in commissioning BlankRome's unnecessarily broad review, resulting in an investigation that revealed few new facts and no recommendations, but that has cost taxpayers more than $127K (and counting). At no point over this 7 week period did any supervisor take Doehring up on his invitation to meet with them individually to understand any of his concerns and discuss a possible course of action.