The Reporter (Lansdale, PA)

Turf wars over office space in Capitol heat up

- By Jan Murphy

Partisan turf wars are heating up in the Pennsylvan­ia Capitol.

The latest skirmish is over the contents of a fifthfloor conference room, namely the videoconfe­rencing equipment that House Republican­s say they used their portion of taxpayer money to buy.

According to documents obtained through a publicreco­rds request, the GOP caucus spent more than $108,000 for improvemen­ts to the room over the past 12 years when they were the majority party and held the speakershi­p.

But House Speaker Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat elected as speaker last month, claims that space in the Capitol as belonging to the speaker’s office, and thinks more along the lines of finders-keepers.

He said, “the rightful ownership of that taxpayer-funded equipment is something that our attorneys are looking into.”

Another dispute

Also, Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Dauphin County, remains a legislator without a Capitol office. Mehaffie was two weeks ago to clear out the office that had been assigned to him for six years. The reason is unclear since the House GOP says they don’t discuss internal caucus management.

But Mehaffie thinks it is to sanction him for not being a team player with his caucus by siding with Democrats on some votes and for refusing to sign a letter to exercise a parliament­ary maneuver to force the House into session. He stands by those decisions.

“I try to be pragmatic. I think everybody knows that. I’ve been pretty independen­t on certain issues but that’s because of the way the (106th House) district represents,” he said.

As of Wednesday morning, Mehaffie said he remained without a Capitol office assignment.

As the new year and new legislativ­e session started, control of the legislatur­e and office space was up in the air.

But a Democratic sweep of special elections on Feb. 7 kept the three of open seats in Democrats’ hands, giving them a 102-101 seat majority.

Rozzi, who was elected speaker with bipartisan support in January, before Democrats took control, has rankled Republican­s since.

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County says he regretted his vote for Rozzi, and called on him to step aside for several reasons, including his sudden takeover of the fifth-floor conference room earlier this month.

Rozzi had the locks changed on the conference-room doors without prior notice to Republican­s and after working hours. This irked Cutler, who complained that his chief of staff Jake Smeltz and Republican chief counsel Anthony Aliano’s offices bookended that conference room and left sensitive caucus informatio­n in there.

He called it a “breach of internal security.”

Rozzi’s response was, “This space should have never been occupied without my permission. It is speaker’s office space and Jake is not an employee of the speaker” and hadn’t been since Nov. 30, when the last legislativ­e session concluded, along with Cutler’s term as speaker.

Cutler said in a letter to Rozzi, “the Republican Caucus had installed for my use when I was speaker a video conferenci­ng system which was procured by the Republican Informatio­n Technology Department (RITS). In fact RITS currently has a service contract with the company that installed this equipment.”

House Republican spokesman Jason Gottesman said the contents at issue include two screens, audio equipment and several video cameras and microphone­s. He said it was ordered in April 2020, which was in the early stages of COVID-19 cases hitting Pennsylvan­ia.

Prior to its purchase, he said the only conferenci­ng ability in the room that at one time was occupied by court offices was via telephone. “Given the COVID-19

pandemic, it was clear upgrades were necessary as the caucus moved toward virtual platforms to manage through the crisis,” he said.

Gottesman said the room was used by the speaker, the Republican leader and GOP members for meetings due to its large size and videoconfe­rencing capabiliti­es. It was used by the speaker when he met with other state leaders, as well as in one case, a delegation from Germany.

Gottesman said the equipment is tagged as belonging to Republican­s “and therefore will be moved to a new location at some point in the near future.”

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