Harrisburg – The state House Judiciary Committee this week voted on a resolution to begin the impeachment process for embattled Lancaster County Sheriff Mark Reese, who has been on paid suspension since sexual harassment allegations against him were made last summer.
Should the impeachment move forward and be successful, it would be the first such action against an elected official in Pennsylvania since PA Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen was impeached in 1994.
However, it was not the move to impeach Sheriff Reese that drew debate from committee members, but rather an amendment filed to the resolution to begin the process that drew concern from a number of Democratic members.
The amendment, sponsored by committee Majority Chairman Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin), authorized the House Judiciary Committee to obtain staff to be utilized by the committee and the Subcommittee on Courts, which handles impeachment investigations, in the carrying out of its duties.
Additionally, the amendment took the step of altering how expenses are reimbursed by taking the power to approve expenditures out of the Bipartisan Management Committee, the House’s internal budget oversight organization represented by members of House leadership, and vested the reimbursement authority with the Office of Chief Clerk, who will pay impeachment expenses at the request of the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader or Minority Leader.
It was the latter provision – relating to reimbursements – that drew concern from committee Democrats and opened up old wounds relating to the impeachment investigation of former Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
“The amendment will change how investigations and impeachment investigations are conducted,” said Minority Chairman Joe Petrarca (D-Westmoreland). “What this amendment would do…is it would cut the minority party out of having any say or control of the funding of an impeachment investigation and I see this as nothing more than a power grab by the majority party to have total control, not only of the process, but of the payment of impeachment.”
Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery), the chair of the Subcommittee on Courts during the Kane impeachment investigation, argued the change was necessary as a result of what he called efforts by Democrats to “obstruct our efforts to conduct a thorough and fair investigation” through use of the Bipartisan Management Committee.
“What we were endeavoring to do last session with the Kathleen Kane investigation was hire outside counsel that would represent both caucuses. That became exceedingly difficult, frankly, because the two caucuses had two different goals,” he said.
“In my opinion, the majority’s goal was to conduct a full and fair investigation…the minority party, frankly, stood to try and obstruct the investigation, impede our progress, and did not want to dig into those facts or have those facts come to light. So, because we had two different interests, it became difficult to align and arrive at a consensus on outside counsel.”
According to Stephens, the amendment would change the process to allow each party to take what steps they feel are necessary relating to the impeachment investigation without being delayed by “political antics” and brings parity to impeachment spending with other House spending procedures.
Petrarca countered that Democrats on the committee and subcommittee did nothing to impede the investigation.
“We agreed to counsel being hired – outside counsel was hired, they certainly did start the process,” he said. “It happened late in the session and tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars were expended on the eve of the criminal trial. So, maybe there was a difference of opinion about how taxpayer money was spent in this situation, but it was done in a bipartisan way.”
While he conceded there were some differences of opinion related to “ex parte communications or even the filing of the report or findings late last session that were in violation of House rules,” he still argued the two parties have worked well together both on the Kane investigation and other investigations in the past.
The amendment was adopted largely along party lines, with Rep. Jason Dawkins (D-Philadelphia) joining Republicans in supporting the changes.
The resolution, House Resolution 161, unanimously passed committee and is awaiting further action by the full House of Representatives.
In the Senate, Sens. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) and Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) filed a resolution in January to begin the direct removal process of Sheriff Reese, the same process that the chamber unsuccessfully used to try to oust Kathleen Kane last session.
That resolution has been referred to the Senate Rules and Executive Nominations Committee, but has not been scheduled for a vote.