Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the September 18, 2018 edition of The Caucus.
In June 2017, Attorney General Josh Shapiro flew with a top aide to the posh ski-resort town of Aspen, Colorado.
Shapiro, the state’s top prosecutor, served on a panel at the elite Aspen Institute Ideas Festival, which arguably is not a government function. Yet Shapiro and his aide billed Pennsylvania taxpayers $2,700 for airfare and another $700 for lodging.
Shapiro, a Democrat, was taking part in the left-leaning think tank’s panel discussion, “Going Rogue: What Happens When the State and Federal Government Don’t Agree.”
The topic was certainly relevant and timely; Shapiro had joined other states in filing a lawsuit against the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Speaking at at the panel discussion, Shapiro noted Donald Trump’s narrow but extraordinary victory in Pennsylvania. But he added that he, too, carried the state in his own election to attorney general.
“Trump is doing this in a state I won.
… At the end of the day I got elected because people want me to solve problems and protect the rule of law,” Shapiro said.
But at the end of the day, Shapiro’s trip served no apparent purpose for the citizens of Pennsylvania, a government watchdog said. Instead, it sharpened the focus on the fine line elected officials walk between politics and public service. That Shapiro billed taxpayers suggests the trip to Aspen should be a benefit to Pennsylvanians, but it is very likely it served more to raise the profile of a potential candidate for governor in 2022.
“It is not official state business. It should not be charged to taxpayers,” said Gene Stilp, a Democratic activist from Harrisburg. “That money should be paid back to taxpayers. This is a test of his goal of running a tight ship.”
Shapiro and his former top staffer were in Aspen representing the state in an official capacity, said spokesman Joe Grace, noting Shapiro’s role as a speaker.
Shapiro is not alone in expensing travel and meals, of course. State records show Auditor General Eugene DePasquale spent more than $12,000 and Treasurer Joe Torsella spent $2,200 in the course of one year. Shapiro’s bills, though, far exceeded those of his fellow row officers; his expenses totaled about $90,000 — $72,000 of which was for airfare on commercial and state planes, according to records obtained under the Right-to-Know Law.
But Shapiro’s spokesman said there was nothing amiss with the attorney general’s spending levels. “Not only do we have nothing to hide, we’re intensely proud of everything our attorney general and his team has done, working energetically and at all hours, all across Pennsylvania over the past 1½ years,” Grace said.
In a written statement, he continued: “When Attorney General Shapiro was sworn into office in January 2017, he pledged to travel the commonwealth and speak directly with Pennsylvanians about the challenges they face. He made a commitment to visiting rural, suburban, and urban areas of the Commonwealth. The role of the state’s top prosecutor is distinct from that of the other row offices, and Shapiro has kept his promise. ...
“Last year, Attorney General Josh Shapiro visited all 67 Pennsylvania counties in his capacity as the Commonwealth’s chief law enforcement officer. During that travel, he announced the Office of Attorney General’s work to break up major drug rings, take dealers off the streets, and help Pennsylvanians suffering from addiction. He visited every one of the agency’s offices — more than a dozen — across the state, as he took steps to restore morale and clean up a mess left by his elected predecessor (Attorney General Kathleen Kane) to a law enforcement agency of more than 800 employees.”
The three row officers are each paid $162,115 a year to head their independent offices. Shapiro, 45, of Montgomery County, and Torsella, 54, also of Montgomery County, are both in their second year of four-year terms. DePasquale, 47, of York, was elected as the state’s fiscal watchdog in 2012 and re-elected in 2016.
At issue is whether the responsibilities of the office, or individual choices by the officeholder on spending, drive the travel expenses. “It’s both,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. There’s also a political element to consider: any or all of the three row officers could run as Democratic Party candidates for governor in 2022, Borick said.
Each of the row officers has used taxpayer money to travel by various modes, including planes, trains and automobiles.
Torsella used his personal vehicle, as well as a taxi at a conference in Minneapolis and several commercial flights. The bulk of Shapiro’s spending was on air travel. DePasquale took four flights during the yearlong period totaling $2,227. Torsella attended a conference of fiscal officers and billed taxpayers for airfare of more than $500. Neither flew on the state’s King Air airplane, which is available to row officers when the governor isn’t using it. Most of DePasquale’s travel is in a Ford Fusion, a fleet car leased through the Department of General Services, his spokesman said. Torsella drives his own car and doesn’t collect mileage. He doesn’t charge the state for meals, his office said. DePasquale doesn’t charge taxpayers for meals, either. He sometimes sleeps on his mom’s couch in Pittsburgh, where he grew up, rather than pay for a hotel room.
Shapiro is driven throughout the state by agents working for the Attorney General’s Office. Records show the office purchased a black Chevrolet Suburban at a cost of almost $70,000 in May. Grace, citing security reasons, declined to identify the Suburban as the vehicle used to transport the attorney general.
The new SUV is believed to be the primary vehicle used to transport Shapiro. Previous attorneys general have had security agents driving their vehicles, typically SUVs.
Most of Shapiro’s spending was on air travel in the analysis conducted by The Caucus of records from April 2017 until April of this year. Shapiro used the state plane, commercial carriers, the Office of Attorney General’s plane and chartered planes to fly throughout the commonwealth and beyond, according to his office.
The state plane is a nine-seat King Air under the state Department of Transportation’s supervision and reserved for the governor. Other state officials with PennDOT approval may use it when Gov. Tom Wolf is not.
Shapiro flew on the state plane to locations including Altoona, Bedford, Butler, Clearfield, Latrobe, Lock Haven and Waynesburg.
Using a private charter company, C.B. Air based in Doylestown, Shapiro flew to locations including the Clarion County Airport, Fayette County Airport and Erie International Tom Ridge Field, records show.
Grace, Shapiro’s spokesman, said that before each flight, the attorney general’s staff receives an estimated cost to determine whether air travel is necessary and cost-effective. If the state plane isn’t available, the trip is sometimes canceled. Other times the purpose is viewed as critical enough to charter a plane, Grace said.
“The attorney general crisscrossed the commonwealth to hear concerns and issues directly from Pennsylvanians,” Grace said. “He held roundtables in 37 counties to hear firsthand from local officials, first responders and community members on the opioid epidemic ravaging Pennsylvania — and discuss what (the agency) is doing to combat this public health crisis. He met regularly with local, state and federal law enforcement leaders to rebuild relationships and enhance their collaboration to improve public safety; for example, he held coffee meetings with local police in Cambria, Huntingdon, McKean, and Cameron counties to learn firsthand their views on the epidemic.”
Aviation logs from the Department of Transportation show no use of the state plane by the Office of Attorney General from 2010 through 2015 under three previous attorneys general.
Demands of the office
Shapiro’s agenda is focused on high-profile investigations and those may involve more travel. “His office and his personal style probably define the higher level of spending,” Borick said. “It doesn’t surprise me that is the highest.”
Charlie Gerow, a Republican political and communications consultant, said he doesn’t buy the explanation that Shapiro’s expenses are solely because of the expansive nature of the attorney general’s job. It may be to some extent, Gerow said, but “we have a very, very aggressive auditor general (DePasquale)” who seems to be constantly traveling the state, Gerow said. “Yet his expenses pale by comparison.”
Does spending the most on travel mean it is excessive?
T. J. Rooney, a former state Democratic Party chairman, said that’s subjective. Rooney said he believes the demands on the attorney general’s office, and its higher profile, may be a factor in driving up travel expenses.
DePasquale, meantime, suggested the statewide concerns of his office require frequent travel on critical issues.
DePasquale “is an aggressive auditor general who works relentlessly to improve the lives of Pennsylvanians across the commonwealth,” said his spokesman, Barry Ciccocioppo. “The waste and problems he finds need to be heard in all corners of the state. His travels expose critical problems in our schools, child protection programs, and numerous state and local government agencies that are supposed to help residents.”
There is, of course, the potential for any of the three row officers to be Democratic candidates for governor in 2022, Borick said. None of the three row officers has announced an interest in running for governor four years from now, but making such a leap is logical.
“I am focused on doing the job I was elected to do, and I am not looking that far down the road,” Torsella told The Caucus.
DePasquale told the Scranton Times-Tribune in April: “I’m committed to serving out my term, and whatever happens after that, I’ve not even thought about it.”
Shapiro told PennLive: “I’m ready to ask my wife and four kids whether it’s OK to run for re-election as attorney general (in 2020). It’s the best job in the world. I’m staying put.”
Borick said he’s heard too many officials say they won’t run change their tune. If any of them are interested in being governor one day, they’ll need to raise their profile and name recognition among voters.
And what better way to do that than crisscross the state — whether by plane, train or automobile?
Editor’s note: The Caucus examined expenses incurred by all three Pennsylvania row officers as part of its ongoing reporting on the use of taxpayer money. Its reporters have previously written about travel and meal expenses for the Senate and House, legislative boards and commissions, the state Supreme and Commonwealth courts, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, the lieutenant governor’s office and the Department of Community and Economic Development. If you have a tip, please send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. To send encrypted email please go to bit.ly/LNPSECURETIPS.