Veronica W. Degraffenreid

Veronica W. Degraffenreid

HARRISBURG – Republican lawmakers pressed acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid on Wednesday to provide more transparency about how the agency bungled the process of advertising a proposed Constitutional amendment.

State officials announced on Feb. 1 that the Department of State had failed to advertise a proposed Constitutional change that would allow adult survivors of child abuse to sue the Catholic Church and other organizations that covered up for predators when the General Assembly voted on the proposal in 2019.

The measure was poised to be on the ballot in May, but because of the error, it likely won’t be. Ballot questions regarding changes to the Constitution must be approved by the General Assembly in two legislative sessions. 

Lawmakers have suggested they will pursue an effort to get the measure on the ballot by proposing it as an emergency change to the Constitution, but no vote to do that has taken place.

The snafu prompted former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to step down. Gov. Tom Wolf said he’s asked the Inspector General to review what happened and make recommendations about how to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

The mistake was the subject of the first question raised Wednesday by lawmakers to Degraffenreid.

“Due to a blunder in the Department of State,” said state Rep. Torren Ecker, R-Adams, the move to let voters decide in May whether to open the window lawsuits “is not going to happen,” he said, adding that “there’s been no discussion about why and how” the public notice requirement was bungled.

Degraffenreid said the problem was “a mistake involving human error,” noting that the Inspector General’s report will examine what went wrong.

“It’s important for me and the department for that investigation to continue, and we look forward to the results of that report and any recommendations made,” she said.

Degraffenreid said that the Wolf administration is planning to release the results of the investigation, but she stopped short of pledging that the inspector general’s full investigative report will be released. 

Later Wednesday, Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that Wolf “intends to release” the full report from the Inspector General. 

State Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester, said that the full report should be released, not just a summary of recommendations.

“The governor’s failure to commit to release that report in its entirety raises some questions about what the administration anticipates might be in the report,” he said.

Ecker said that, considering how much controversy there’s been over the Department of State’s efforts to administer the 2020 election, the bungling of the Constitutional amendment question “is another black eye,” adding, “How do we tell people to trust the Department of State?”

Cost of defending lawsuits

While Boockvar had become a target of criticism from Republicans over the state’s efforts to oversee the expansion of mail-in voting and the counting of votes in the days after the presidential election, Wolf said that Boockvar’s departure was due to the bungled Constitutional amendment and not due to concerns about the election.

At Wednesday’s budget hearing, state Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, asked Degraffenreid how much the state had to spend to defend itself “against frivolous lawsuits” filed before and after the election.

Degraffenreid said that defending the state from “the out-of-the-ordinary” number of lawsuits has cost the state $3.4 million in attorney fees.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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