Now that Pennsylvania is about to get a new attorney general, perhaps the state will finally take responsibility for curbing abuses at the $12.3 billion Hershey Trust.
The resignation last week of Kathleen Kane, hours after she was convicted of perjury, means that in November the state will elect a new top law-enforcement officer. He or she will inherit the long-running scandal at the trust, which has become a symbol of the broken state and federal systems for regulating charities.
One of Ms. Kane's final acts was to announce a settlement with the Hershey Trust. It came after Mark Pacella, who oversees nonprofit regulation in the attorney general's office, demanded that the trust dismiss all board members who have served more than ten years and reduce trustee compensation.
The settlement also came after regulators learned about the latest troubles at the trust, which oversees the Milton Hershey School, a boarding school for needy students. Internal board disputes grew so serious that Hershey spent $4.2 million to conduct legal investigations. The U.S. Justice Department was reviewing a claim of discrimination against disabled youngsters, and the school faced allegations of inappropriate conduct toward students by staff members.
Even with such serious difficulties, a total overhaul of the school's governance structure was not in the cards. The agreement with the state essentially leaves that structure intact, does nothing to ensure improved school policies and programs, and doesn't require a change in school administrators.
The latest problems are hardly the first at the Hershey School, which for more than 20 years has been plagued by poor administration, political patronage, board pay that exceeded $100,000 annually for each member, conflicts of interest involving trustees, and questionable real-estate deals.
In all that time, local, state, and federal regulators have repeatedly failed to hold the trust and school officials accountable. They have been incapable, or, more likely, unwilling, to stop school policies and practices that have been harmful to students, preferring instead to support the political and financial interests of board members and administrators.
They have tolerated board excesses and actions that are rarely seen in the nonprofit world.
A series of Pennsylvania attorneys general sought to curb the school's problems, but they never went as far as they should have.
In 1994, responding to state pressure, the Hershey Trust announced some changes, including limits on board tenure (to two five-year terms) and new criteria for membership, such as experience working in education and child development. But today there still are no board members with such qualifications.
Another round of regulation was touched off in October 2010 when then-attorney general (and future governor) Tom Corbett launched an investigation into Hershey's purchase of a failing golf course for $12 million, way above the actual value of the property.
Two-and-a-half years later, Ms. Kane, who had inherited the case, closed the investigation, absolving the board members of any criminal wrongdoing but adding some mild requirements to improve governance at Hershey. She sought to tamp down excessive board pay, take steps to avoid conflicts of interest, limit trustees' ability to serve on multiple boards at the same time, and bring in new members with education backgrounds.
But the agreement had no teeth and failed to attack Hershey's substantial governance issues.
The 2016 deal is probably worse. It doesn't require any repayment of the $4.2 million wasted on internal investigations. It permits board members to step down at their own convenience and name their successors. It doesn't require new trustees to possess experience in education or youth development. And it permits board compensation to be as much as $110,000 annually per person — a sum higher than that in the 2013 agreement, which was supposed to curb excessive pay. It also allows three board members to double-dip by sitting on subsidiary boards of the trust and collecting additional lucrative stipends. The agreement is shameful in the way it protects the board at the expense of the students.
But it's not just the state that is at fault here. The federal government has been slow to take action.
Three years ago, as a result of the suicide of Abbie Bartels, an outstanding Hershey School student and athlete who suffered from moderate depression, the Justice Department started an investigation of the school's policies toward students with mental-health problems — policies that may have denied students like Abbie the possibility of getting suitable treatment.
The school denies any wrongdoing. The Justice Department is still investigating. Why is it taking Justice so long to act?
The Internal Revenue Service has been even less attentive.
Seven years ago, I called the significant problems that had been uncovered at the trust to the attention of Lois Lerner, then the head of the agency's tax-exempt division. She told me the IRS was well aware of the serious nature of the school's troubles but said only that she had a colleague in Texas following the case. The IRS has yet to take any visible action to investigate. (The IRS is typically forbidden from commenting on pending investigations, and when I asked last week whether there was an update on the Hershey Trust, a spokesman declined to provide any details.)
Regulators' ineptitude and cowardice have been reinforced by a widely shared conspiracy of silence throughout Pennsylvania.
With the exception of Bob Fernandez, a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, the state's journalists have done little.
Not even the local paper, The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, has had the courage to cover a major institution less than 20 miles from the capital. The Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations has refused to get involved or make any public comment, even though the school undermines the reputation of all nonprofits. Academics, youth-development specialists, and school educators throughout the state are well aware of what is happening at Hershey but have chosen to remain silent.
Protect the Hersheys' Children — a dissident group of alumni headed by a tough lawyer, Ric Fouad — is the only organization that has continually fought to overhaul the school's policies and practices. Thanks to its persistence and courage — and in spite of harsh criticism and attacks on its integrity by school officials — the Hershey pot has been kept boiling.
It's time the Hershey School scandal was put to rest. The school needs a totally new board with some education and youth-development experts. It needs a change in board-compensation policies. It needs a new set of administrators who have the interests of the students at heart and know how to run an effective educational institution.
It's one thing for the elected state attorney general, buffeted by political pressure, to do little. But why, across years of scandal, haven't the career civil servants in the attorney general's office done more to demand serious reforms?
Given the lack of action, a Pennsylvania citizens' board of inquiry should be established to advise the regulators on developing a new school structure. When a new attorney general takes office in January, I hope he or she will finally help ensure the Hershey School becomes an institution that focuses solely on doing its best to meet the academic and health needs of its students and no longer gets involved in financial shenanigans.
The public can no longer tolerate what has happened at the Hershey School. It must demand a drastic change.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 August 2016 16:07
Written by Anne Einhorn
“Why can’t we all just get along?” I know I used this quote in a previous blog or column that I wrote awhile back and I really didn’t want to use it again, but Rodney King’s plaintive question is still the best comment on divisiveness that I have heard.
Simple and stark, these words get to the heart of the matter. At the time they were said, racism was strikingly obvious, especially in certain areas of the country, social media was more than 10 years away, and the highly publicized Trial of the Century (the O.J. Simpson murder trial) wasn’t even on the radar because the crime hadn’t been committed yet.
These events contributed to a society that makes those words more relevant and poignant than ever. The Trial of the Century in 1995 changed the way the media cover events. Despite the horror of the crime, the trial became 24- hour entertainment, covered by all the major networks and exploited by cable news in a way that shaped modern media coverage.
Anyone can watch “the news” 24 hours a day in formats that present it the way they want to hear it. Traditional news stations and cable channels offer many shows that are clearly slanted and geared to a certain audience, conservatives and liberals alike. Facebook, born in 2004, opened the door for people to communicate, share, pontificate, gossip and rant whenever they wanted to an audience far larger than any of us had ever experienced in the past.
This is both good and bad — good because we can now express ourselves and communicate more broadly even we have greater access to information; bad because much of the information is shaped and slanted, and social media has made it much easier to express our hatred and disgust as freely as we share family news, happy slogans, and favorite recipes.
So how does this contribute to why we all can’t get along? I have some thoughts, most of which are opinion, based on what I observe and hear and how I evaluate it. The only possible criteria I might have is that I have worked as a social worker and therapist for many years and my field of study and career choice has given me access to solid facts via research as well as the peculiar and sometimes inexplicable workings of the human mind.
What I have been observing more and more, particularly in politics and government, both nationally and locally, is a kind of intolerance for ideas, opinions and beliefs that do not reflect our own.
Discussion is good, debate is good, arguments are good and differences are good, but disparaging people who don’t agree with you is bad, character attacks on people because of their political affiliations and choices are bad, and mean spirited judgments are bad.
I stated above that much of what I am writing is based on opinion. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I hope they don’t personally attack me because even though it has become very common for people to do this to each other, it’s just plain wrong. It is eroding our society, our communities, our country. It is destroying friendships, professional relationships, civil discourse, and most of all, the respect that every person deserves at face value as a fellow human being no matter how flawed or damaged they may be.
I have never seen so much hatred and anger in social and other forms of media as I see every day when I read Facebook or watch a “relevant” political discussion. At one time I loved to watch, listen and take part in a fiery political debate, I enjoyed exchanging opinions and engaging in arguments and discussion, trying out my ideas and sharing my thoughts. Now, I analyze myself endlessly, envisioning every possible response I may get, how I might be misinterpreted, how some will judge me, what insults and hostile comments will be coming my way and how many people will witness my humiliation in the face of these possibilities.
It’s easy to say we shouldn’t care, we shouldn’t be afraid to express our beliefs, what other people think isn’t important and that it shouldn’t matter, but it does, and it hurts, and it takes away our willingness to share and eventually we become very narrow people with narrow views and narrow beliefs. People become discouraged, disparaged, disengaged, and dismissed and how can we all get along in the face of that?
I don’t know. I do know that our country was founded on the people’s right to express their ideas and opinions without being belittled or bullied, support political leaders without repercussions, worship without judgment, experience equal opportunity, and live with dignity and respect.
Our country is very divisive right now and so are our communities. We seem to be in a place where being right is more important than being tolerant, making a point is more important than doing the right thing, being in control is more important than being democratic, and speaking loudly is more important than listening. I think it is appalling that personal attacks on candidates are considered more important than their policies and history of service or private sector achievements and leadership. Personal attacks on the character, intelligence, and integrity of those who support those candidates is insufferable. We support candidates for many reasons and no one should be judged personally on the basis of their political affiliation.
It is not news to anyone that Middletown has experienced its share of divisiveness and duplicity, character attacks and bullying. There are some Facebook pages that are particularly harmful and toxic and there is clearly a propensity for arguing over petty topics.
I think council is trying to move away from this, trying to listen to the community, trying to be more open, trying to do the right thing. It is human nature to quarrel, vie for power, shift allegiances, and attempt to manipulate the thoughts and actions of others. It is our duty as elected officials to be cautious, careful, self-aware, and ever mindful of how easy it is to fall into these patterns, how quickly we can become short-sighted, and how disciplined we must be in our words, actions, communications and advocacy.
It is your duty as our constituents to hold us to the highest standards and keep us focused on how we can best serve you. My greatest hope for this town, for the residents, the elected officials, the business people, and those with whom we share our ideas is that we answer Rodney King’s question not by blindly agreeing with each other or being fearful of expressing ourselves but rather by engaging in vigorous debate, balanced arguments, respectful opinions, and civil behaviors.
We can agree to disagree, present our points of view, tolerate differences, work together and move forward with regard, if not endorsement, of personal beliefs, feelings and thoughts. That is the answer to the question; that is the solution to the problem. Hopefully, that is the future of Middletown.
Anne Einhorn represents the Second Ward on the Middletown Borough Council.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 23 August 2016 16:32