Report: Dept. of State slip-up caused by lack of oversight

Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid

Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid Commonwealth Media Services

After an error at the Department of State derailed a proposed constitutional amendment designed to offer legal relief to child sex abuse victims, the Office of State Inspector General has concluded that the error resulted from a lack of executive oversight and adherence to written policies on how to handle proposed constitutional amendments. 

The error, which was revealed in February, dealt a devastating blow to efforts to amend the state constitution with language giving child sex abuse survivors a retroactive two-year window to sue their abusers. The window would have applied to survivors for whom the statute of limitations had expired, but lawmakers ultimately had to restart the multi-year constitutional amendment process as a result of the amendment not being properly advertised in newspapers across the state.

The administrative snafu led to the resignation of former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and kickstarted an investigation by the Office of State Inspector General, the results of which were released on Wednesday. 

In its review, the office found that the Department of State had no written policies or procedures on how proposed constitutional amendments should be tracked and that department staff were not properly trained on how to handle such amendments. The OSIG also found that despite having subscriptions to a legislative tracking service, the department’s legislative employees used the service “infrequently.”

Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid said the report confirmed that the error was not born from any intentional act, but that it underscores changes are needed within the department.

“While the Inspector General's report found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing or malfeasance on the part of the Department of State, it did find that no formal process of receiving, tracking, processing and overseeing proposed constitutional amendments existed,” Degraffenreid said. “Instead, the department relied on informal and unwritten past practices to address the department's systematic deficiency.”

The OSIG report outlines a long list of recommendations for the Department of State to implement, including the development of written policies and procedures for handling constitutional amendments, establishing a top-down system for managing constitutional amendment procedures and requiring legislative tracking training for Department of State employees.

Degraffenreid noted that the department has since developed written policies for handling proposed constitutional amendments passed by the General Assembly, and that specific offices, bureaus and staff within the department are now tasked with handling proposed amendments. 

Degraffenreid also confirmed that the department’s legislative director resigned on Friday, May 21, but declined to offer more information on the circumstances surrounding their departure. 

State lawmakers reacted with outrage at the report’s findings. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker and Senate State Government Committee Chairman David Argall said in a statement that they are committed to uncovering what led to the Department of State’s error.

“We are appalled by the lack of oversight at the Department of State and stunned that a state agency did not have the core functions of government under control,'' the two Senate Republicans said. “As chairs of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate State Government Committee, we will continue our bi-partisan pursuit to get to the bottom of what happened, and how it can be prevented from happening in the future. The victims deserve better.”

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton said in a statement that she was surprised that the Department of State had no established procedures for tracking constitutional amendments, and called for Senate GOP leaders to run legislation already passed by the House that would create the two-year retroactive window in statute, rather than in the state constitution. 

“This is a statutory solution that will end the needless suffering still being endured by so many adult victims of childhood sexual abuse who are simply waiting to have their day in court,” McClinton said. 

The proposed constitutional amendment that was ultimately bungled by the Department of State would have given child sex abuse survivors — for whom the statute of limitations has expired — a two-year retroactive window to sue their abusers. It was one of the last remaining legislative recommendations made by the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, which unveiled widespread instances of child sex abuse within the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.

In order to amend the state constitution, lawmakers must pass a proposed constitutional amendment — in the same form — during two consecutive legislative sessions. After the legislature approves a proposed amendment twice, the proposed change then goes to the voters.

The proposed amendment at the heart of the OSIG report was first passed by lawmakers in 2019 and was expected to be approved again this session, but was stopped in its tracks once it was discovered that the Department of State failed to advertise it in newspapers across the state, as constitutionally required.

The mistake forced lawmakers to start the multi-year constitution amendment process over again, meaning the soonest the amendment could be presented to voters is in 2023.