Township manager cleared of claims that he violated ethics laws04/05/2022 04:05PM ● By Richard Gaw
Courtesy photo Kennett Township Manager Eden Ratliff
By Richard L. Gaw
Blank Rome LLP, a Philadelphia-based law firm, submitted a 34-page report to the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors last Friday evening that concluded there were no ethics violations to support claims that township Manager Eden Ratliff’s connection to the Longwood Fire Company – and his wife’s employment there – represent a conflict of interest that may have influenced the township’s decision to consolidate its fire and ambulance service to the fire company.
Blank Rome was hired by the township to perform an independent review of the facts and circumstances that were alleged against Ratliff, as well as to assess compliance with Pennsylvania’s Public Official and Employee Ethics Act in connection with the township’s consolidation of its fire and emergency management services and the township’s participation in the Kennett Fire and EMS Regional Commission.
During the investigation, attorneys Joseph Poluka and Lawrence Beaser reviewed thousands of documents, including relevant emails, letters, and meeting minutes, and conducted interviews with 18 individuals.
“Our conclusion is that Ratliff did not have a conflict of interest with respect to the reorganization of fire and EMS in Kennett Township,” Blank Rome’s report stated. “This is based upon our factual findings that there is no evidence that Ratliff used the authority of his office or employment or any confidential information received through his office or employment for the private pecuniary benefit of himself, a member of his immediate family, or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated.”
The report further concluded that the process to consolidate EMS began well before Ratliff was hired by the township in 2019, and also acknowledged that Ratliff was not a voting member of the Fire and EMS Commission in 2021 when the critical decisions regarding funding were made, and he did not and does not have voting power on Kennett Township’s Board of Supervisors.
Another allegation levied against Ratliff contended that his wife Gabrielle’s employment with the Longwood Fire Company (LFC) – which began last October – represented another ethics violation. In its conclusion, the report circled back to a fact that it had used before, stating that the decisions made by both the township and the Commission to reorganize the township’s fire and EMS service were made prior to Gabrielle Ratliff’s hiring.
“Further, prior to Gabrielle’s hiring, none of the Ratliffs was a ‘director, officer, owner, employee or [had] a financial interest’ in LFC, such as would be required to determine that LFC is a business with which Ratliff is associated,” the report stated. “Finally, there is no evidence of any pecuniary benefit to Ratliff, a member of his immediate family, or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated. Ratliff and his family were volunteer members of Longwood Fire Company, on their own time and not as part of Ratliff’s duties as township Manager, throughout most of 2021. They performed unpaid services to the community.”
Resident’s formal complaint reviewed
The Blank Rome investigation reviewed the three submissions that were made to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission: a letter request for a confidential advisory opinion that was submitted by Ratliff, a letter request for advisory opinion that was submitted by Kennett Square Borough and a formal complaint filed by township resident Peter J. Doehring.
In the middle of December, the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission provided its response to Doehring’s complaint, stating that Doehring failed to provide sufficient specific information to allow a determination as to whether this matter should be further processed, and no evidence to prove that Mr. Ratliff used his position to secure employment for his spouse.
“As such, no investigation will be commenced,” the report stated. “We note that, in our discussion with him, Doehring was candid in stating that his complaint was ‘based on insights’ others had shared with him, and not upon any direct evidence of any conflict of interest on the part of Ratliff.”
Despite Blank Rome’s review absolving Ratliff of any indiscretions, Doehring remains a severe critic of the township manager, documenting much of his commentary on the website openkennett.org. When reached for comment, Doehring said that Blank Rome’s review relied “on the impossibly high evidentiary standards” of the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission to “effectively whitewash” the content of their report.
“We never expected Blank Rome to discover the kind of ‘smoking gun’ that the Ethics Commission relies upon - Pennsylvania public servants perfected the nod-and-wink model of influence peddling long ago,” he wrote in an email. “Despite its hefty 38 pages and cost -- likely $100K+ -- nobody will believe this report truly exonerates someone who negotiated a sweetheart monopoly with the township’s largest vendor, who then promptly hired his wife, and one week later was rewarded with a massive infusion of new funding.
“Regardless, OpenKennett had always considered Ratliff’s ethical issues
to be part of a much larger problem of mismanagement that will cost Kennett
taxpayers millions over the coming years.”
Doehring also wrote that the township’s standard of ethics stems from its lack of having enacted an ethics ordinance or developed an ethics handbook, especially in light of the embezzlement scandal of former manager Lisa Moore.
“Without such standards of conduct, Blank Rome had little choice but to parrot the rulings from the toothless Pennsylvania Ethics Commission,” Doehring wrote. “We can only hope now that our supervisors will finally address this fundamental issue - as many other Chester County townships already have - and get the foxes out of the township henhouse.”
In their comments contained in the release, each of the township’s three supervisors – Chairman Richard Leff, Vice Chairman Scudder Stevens and new board member Geoffrey Gamble – implied that the results of Blank Rome’s review provided “closure” on the issue.
“A few township residents questioned the ethics and actions of our township manager, Eden Ratliff, and the township government,” Leff said. “Because the allegations were serious in nature, the Board of Supervisors heard the concerns and engaged [Blank Rome LLP] to conduct a thorough independent review.
“The results of this review and statements by the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission have shown that the EMS process was proper and there was no evidence that Eden committed any violations of the Ethics Act. The time has come for the township supervisors and staff to conclude this matter and move forward with other important work for the residents of Kennett Township.”
The Blank Rome report is posted in its entirety on Kennett Township’s website, www.kennett.pa.us.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].