Nameplate gate? Is Education Department covering for Tomalis?

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What’s in a name plate?

That’s the question at the center of the latest controversy surrounding former Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, who stepped down 15 months ago but is still collecting a $140,000 taxpayer-funded salary plus benefits.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke the story last weekend and showed phone and email records that suggested Tomalis has done little work over the past year.

On Thursday, acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq refuted the newspaper’s assertion.

“I think we’re getting our money’s worth,” Dumaresq told ABC 27. “I can tell you during the time I had to do my appropriations hearings he was my lifeline.”

Dumaresq understood the appearance of a highly paid, no-work employee and insisted Tomalis was earning his keep.

“I’ve got him working,” she said. “That’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of money and you should be working for your money, absolutely.”

Dumaresq joked that Tomalis is in the office so much she occasionally tells him to go away and then offered this proof.

“His office is three doors down,” she said. “You can look at his name on the door.”

His name is on the door. Dumaresq emphasized that Thursday. She didn’t mention the name plate was just put up on that office door Wednesday, the day before our interview. Upset employees did tell us and the Department of General Services confirmed it.

“She used a prop to convince people,” said activist Gene Stilp, who is known for his inflatable pink pig. “You don’t mess around with me on props. I know a prop when I see one. This was a prop used to prove a point and she is really on thin ice. Miss Dumaresq is on the edge of a cover-up.”

Stilp has called on several state agencies – Ethics Commission, Auditor General, Inspector General – to investigate the Tomalis affair.

Friday, Stilp had props of his own. He showed the Department of Education’s organizational flow chart as of July. Tomalis isn’t on it.

Stilp said he cannot be found in the phone directory of state employees.

We’re told Tomalis is on vacation this week and therefore unavailable for comment, so we tried to leave a message on his voice mail.

We called the main number at the Education Department’s headquarters in Harrisburg.

“Can I speak to Ron Tomalis?”

Operator : “Can you spell the last name?”

“T-O-M-A-L-I-S.”

The operator gave me a number and then transferred me. The transfer went to a lawmaker’s office at the Capitol.

We hung up and called the number the operator had given us. It rang to Dumaresq’s office.

I asked for Tomalis. I was asked to wait a minute and put on hold.

Three minutes later, a different staffer picked up and said she is taking messages for Tomalis. I gave my number.

Before hanging up, I ask if Tomalis has voice mail?

“No, he doesn’t,” was the reply.

A half hour later, the woman called me back and said she can connect me to Tomalis’s cell phone voice mail and does. I left a message for the former secretary.

“It just doesn’t look good, Dennis, it just does not look good,” said Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon), the chairman of the Education Committee.

Folmer said he’s had virtually no contact with Tomalis in the past 15 months since Tomalis resigned. He said Tomalis is a good person, but if the state is paying a six-figure salary to someone doing no work, that’s a problem.

“As a senator, it’s my job to squeeze every nickle out of our tax dollars,” Folmer said. “If a job is not being done for the money, that’s not good. Shame on us.”

Folmer, like Stilp, wants an investigation and he wants answers. But he also concedes it will be very difficult to prove whether a high-level advisor is actually earning a six-figure salary.

The governor’s office insists Tomalis is doing lots of work and earning his salary. Others suspect that he’s not.

How, exactly, do you prove it?

“That’s a very good question, Dennis, and this is the kind of thing that I think makes people upset on the outside looking in at how their government operates,” Folmer said.

We tried to ask Dumaresq about the nameplate on Tomalis’s door but the Education Department spokesman said she was unavailable for comment.

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