Obstacles remain in preventing “double-dipping” by lawmakers

DOVER — Unlike some states, Delaware’s legislature is not full-time.

That means most of the state’s 62 lawmakers have other jobs — jobs that can potentially pose conflicts of interest or lead to questions about “double-dipping.”

Many legislators work in the private sector, either for another company or for a business they own, or are full-time lawmakers.

A few are employed by nonprofits that receive state funding, such as Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat who is president of Jobs for Delaware Graduates, and House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat who serves as the executive director of the Police Athletic League of Delaware.

Currently, Sen. Laura Sturgeon and Reps. Sean Matthews, Larry Mitchell and Shannon Morris either hold full-time jobs with the state or a local government agency.

Sen. Sturgeon, a Woodbrook Democrat, and Rep. Matthews, a Democrat from the Talleyville area, are both teachers in the Brandywine School District. Rep. Mitchell, an Elsmere Democrat and the House majority whip, is chief of public safety for Delaware Technical Community College. Rep. Morris, a Woodside Republican, is Kent County’s chief code enforcement officer.

Additionally, Sen. Ernie Lopez, a Lewes Republican, works as a 4-H youth development specialist for the University of Delaware, which is perhaps best described as a quasi-state agency, while Reps. Jeff Spiegelman, a Clayton Republican, and Andria Bennett, a Democrat from Dover, are adjunct instructors at Delaware Technical Community College.

As government employees, those individuals are responsible for filing time sheets documenting their absences from work when appropriate.

From January to June, when the General Assembly is in session, partial absences are quite common. Time sheets obtained for Sen. Sturgeon and Reps. Matthews and Mitchell through Freedom of Information Act requests show they generally worked the morning and then took off in the afternoon on session days.

While their two jobs appear to be clearly delineated, the case of Rep. Morris is less certain.

There are 35 instances this year, his first as a legislator, in which he was documented at Legislative Hall, either in a roll call or the minutes of a committee meeting, but had not taken time off from his county job.

Most of those instances saw him use paid vacation time later in the afternoon, generally around 3 to 5 p.m. On March 7, for instance, he is recorded as being present when the House gaveled in at 2:08 yet only took time off from the county from 3 to 5 p.m.

On March 6 and March 27, he did not take any time off but was present for roll calls. Both days were committee days, meaning the House was only in session briefly and did not vote on anything beyond a ceremonial resolution.

According to Rep. Morris, there’s a simple explanation for those seeming discrepancies, one that clears him of any potential impropriety.

“The ones that are anything from 3 to 5, 3 to 4, whatever, I actually took off those hours. But my lunch hour was from 2 to 3,” he said.

Rep. Morris, who succeeded Bobby Outten when he chose not to seek another term in the 30th District last year, noted the county office is no more than five minutes away from Legislative Hall. That, he explained, means he would work up until right around 2, then take his lunch break and hurry over to the state capitol.

Kent County in December updated its new dual compensation policy, allowing any employee who also holds an elected or appointed position in government to take up to four hours per week of unpaid leave as long as the total does not exceed 40 hours in a year.

The policy also requires a supervisor to sign off on any time missed due to another job. Rep. Morris’ time sheets do indeed contain the signature of another county employee.

Rep. Morris called suggestions he is double dipping absurd, saying he would not jeopardize his employment status with Kent County.

“If anything, the county owes me time,” he said.

On Jan. 17, he is recorded as taking off from 8 to 11 a.m., 2:15 to 3 p.m. and 4 to 5 p.m., while the attendance for the day lists him as being present as of 1:37 p.m. Asked about that specific instance through email, he replied:

“The vacation time that I have accumulated as a Kent County employee for 19 years and the ability to take my unpaid lunch break have given me the flexibility to ensure there is absolutely no overlap of time serving the legislature with time serving Kent County. With the approval of my county superiors, I have efficiently and accurately deducted any time served in the legislature from county service,” he said.

Kent County Administrator Mike Petit de Mange and Director of Planning Services Sarah Keifer did not respond to requests for comment.

State law notes “taxpayers of Delaware should not pay an individual more than once for coincident hours of the workday,” something that has been questioned as a potential issue in the past. In 2011, then Senate President Pro Tempore Tony DeLuca came under fire from fellow Democratic Sen. Karen Peterson for his dual responsibilities as a legislator and as the administrator of the state’s Office of Labor Law Enforcement.

He was cleared over allegations he violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees who work for an agency that receives federal funding from being involved in politics, but clouds continued to hang over his head, contributing to his defeat in a 2012 primary.

Former Rep. Lonnie George worked at Delaware Tech at the same time he co-chaired the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee in the 1970s. He later served as House speaker and resigned his House seat in 1995 to become president of the college.

Ex-Reps. Dick Cathcart and Nancy Wagner were employed by Delaware State University in the past as well, including while Mr. Cathcart was the minority leader.

While the state auditor is tasked with examining elected or appointed officials who hold other government jobs, the officeholder has encountered difficulties in analyzing whether any violations have been committed.

“The State has not had policies or procedures to monitor or identify dually employed individuals as defined by 29 Del. C. §5822(a). As a result, (the auditor of accounts) has been unable to identify a complete population of dually employed individuals for testing,” an 11-page report released in 2017 states.

“In addition, the State has not maintained time records for elected or appointed officials; therefore, AOA has been unable to test for the proper treatment of dual employment hours and has been unable to conclude if the officials were paid from more than one tax-funded source for working coincident hours of the day.

“As such, AOA has been unable to determine if the State was in compliance with the Dual Employment law due to the above scope limitations. Despite repeated findings, advice letters from the Office of the Attorney General, and advisory publications by the State Public Integrity Commission, these difficulties still exist.”

Legislation that would have required individuals with dual employment to disclose that to the Public Integrity Commission has gone nowhere in the past. A similar bill was filed in April but has yet to receive a committee hearing.

Given the roadblocks prior bills faced, as well as the fact only Republicans are listed as cosponsors, the most recent proposal’s chances appear to be slim to none.

A 2007 measure that would have barred lawmakers who are state employees from serving on the Joint Finance or Capital Infrastructure committees also failed to advance.

John Flaherty, a board member for the Delaware Coalition For Open Government, said while preventing double dipping is certainly in the interest of public trust, the bigger issue arises when lawmakers take a state job after they are elected, as happened with Mr. DeLuca.

Currently, the authority for policing legislators rests with the General Assembly, which rarely uses that power. Mr. Flaherty would like to see lawmakers give the Public Integrity Commission the ability to investigate potential conflicts of interest and similar issues.

Although an astute observer can name plenty of cases of legislators collecting multiple paychecks from the state — in addition to the ones mentioned above, former Rep. Helene Keeley worked for the Department of Labor for years, as did current Rep. John Viola — Mr. Flaherty doesn’t believe it’s more prevalent in the First State than elsewhere.

“It’s probably more apparent here than any other state, but I don’t think it’s any worse,” he said, noting Delaware has one of the smallest legislatures in the country.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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