DOVER — One of the General Assembly’s most powerful members recently got a second job running a nonprofit that receives state dollars.
House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat, began working as executive director of the Police Athletic League of Delaware about three weeks ago.
PAL was earmarked about $147,000 in taxpayer money through grant-in-aid this fiscal year.
Rep. Longhurst said she has been on PAL’s board of directors for the past five years and decided to apply for the vacant position after Executive Director Robert Jameson retired. In 2015, Mr. Jameson was paid just under $74,000, according to Internal Revenue Service 990 forms obtained through GuideStar.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in that site with those kids because they’re in my district and I’ve helped a lot of those kids that are at-risk kids,” Rep. Longhurst said.
While she has been a full-time legislator since first being elected in 2004, Rep. Longhurst said she hoped to do more to personally help children now that her two kids are in college.
She gave no indication she plans not to run for office again.
“I want to do something that can impact the community, I know where the needs are and this is something that can be fulfilled,” she said.
But while she insists she earned the position because of her qualifications and does not view it as a conflict of interest, others disagree.
“Clearly this is a serious, serious appearance of impropriety whereby it appears she got this job because she was a high-ranking legislator,” said John Flaherty, who sits on the board of directors of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government.
Rep. Longhurst said she was hired because of her volunteer work with PAL and her human resources background.
“Nobody handed me this job,” she said.
She isn’t the only member of the General Assembly who has been scrutinized for her full-time job: Sen. Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat, has worked as president of the nonprofit Jobs for Delaware Graduates, which is allocated taxpayer dollars, since 2014.
To receive grant-in-aid funding, nonprofits must meet 14 prerequisites. One of those is that a nonprofit cannot use those dollars to “pay any part of an elected official’s salary.”
Jobs for Delaware Graduates received $1.1 million in the grant-in-aid bill this fiscal year.
Sen. Poore was already serving in the General Assembly when she was named president of the nonprofit. She has served on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, which determines grant-in-aid funding, since last year.
For her work as president of Jobs for Delaware Graduates Sen. Poore was paid almost $100,000 in 2015, per a 990 form.
Asked in July why she did not abstain from voting for the grant-in-aid bill, she said she has talked to “four different attorneys” and all said it was OK to vote for the measure since it concerns funding for organizations other than just Jobs for Delaware Graduates.
Former Senate President Pro Tempore Tony DeLuca was criticized by some, including then Sen. Karen Peterson, a fellow Democrat, for working as an administrator in the Office of Labor Law Enforcement while casting votes and introducing legislation. He was defeated in a 2012 primary.
While there may not be any wrongdoing, a case of a lawmaker working for the state or an organization that receives taxpayer money can appear to be bad form, good-government advocates say.
“I think it’s an impediment to being viewed by the public as being above any conflicts of interest,” Rep. John Kowalko, a Newark Democrat, said.
Rep. Longhurst, however, doesn’t see any issues with her working as a legislator and for a nonprofit that receives state funding.
“I don’t know if it’s a conflict of interest compared to anybody else that gets money through grant-in-aid and votes on bills,” she said.
Rep. Longhurst said she would not use her new position to advocate for PAL. When asked if she would abstain from voting on grant-in-aid, she said she would have to see and noted she has voted for grant-in-aid while serving on the nonprofit’s board for several years.
The job was publicly posted, and three or four other people expressed interest, she said.
Attempts to contact the officers on PAL’s board of directors were unsuccessful.
PAL’s board of directors includes six current or former elected officials: Ex-state Reps. Terry Spence, Roger Roy and William Oberle, current Rep. Larry Mitchell, Sen. Poore and Insurance Commissioner Trinidad Navarro.
Mr. Roy lobbies for PAL, while Mr. Oberle is a registered lobbyist for the Delaware State Troopers Association. Both Rep. Mitchell and Mr. Navarro are former officers with New Castle County Police Department.
PAL, a nonprofit that operates in New Castle County, focuses on providing “athletic, educational, and social development activities” for kids and teenagers to keep them busy, prevent crime and “help build a solid foundation for Delaware’s youth.” Its funding comes a variety of sources, including fees, grants and state dollars.
Founded by three members of the New Castle County Police Department in 1984, PAL runs three centers, located in New Castle, Hockessin and Delaware City. Rep. Longhurst’s district includes Delaware City.
The Public Integrity Commission has oversight over conduct for most state employees. Notably absent from that, however, are members of the General Assembly.
“I think the public really feels let down that legislators are cashing in on their positions to obtain these high-paying nonprofit sector jobs and it’s very, very disillusioning that the people that we entrust with enacting our laws and enforcing ethics for everybody else exempts themselves from the very strong ethical standards that they impose on everybody else,” Mr. Flaherty said.
Lawmakers in 2014 passed a bill prohibiting legislators from working as lobbyists for one year after leaving office. Added to it before passage: an amendment pushing the effective date back two years to Jan. 1, 2017.