Records Reveal Pennsylvania's Election Czar Was Fired. The Reason Remains a Mystery.

by | November 21, 2017

By Angela Couloumbis

The former head of the Pennsylvania Department of State didn't resign on his own but appears to have been ousted by Gov. Wolf, according to newly released documents.

In an email he wrote to the governor on the day of his Oct. 11 resignation, Pedro Cortes indicated he didn't know why he was being forced from office.

"I have done a great deal of soul searching in the last 24 hours," Cortes wrote. "I remain at a lost [sic] to understand why you would dispense with my services without sharing with me concerns you had about my professional performance or personal life."

"Wished I had that opportunity," Cortes wrote.

The governor's office released the email Monday in response to a public records request by the Inquirer and Daily News for documents pertaining to Cortes' abrupt resignation, information about which the administration has kept tightly controlled.

The reasons behind his sudden dismissal have largely been a mystery, one likely to deepen with the release of the email.

Wolf, a Democrat, has refused to address why Cortes resigned or whether he asked him to step down, saying he does not comment on personnel matters. Cortes, 51, a longtime fixture in Harrisburg, has also not spoken publicly or responded to requests for comment.

He was paid $139,000 to run the state department, which oversees elections, campaign finance and corporate filings, among other things.

Wolf announced Cortes' departure only as a "personnel update" in an email last month. The statement did not say why Cortes was leaving, and focused almost entirely on his replacement, interim Secretary of State Robert Torres. The governor's spokesman, J.J. Abbott, on Monday again declined comment.

Weeks before his dismissal, Cortes' department had come under criticism for a glitch that may have allowed thousands of ineligible immigrants statewide to vote.

The Department of State had also been told weeks before Cortes' resignation that Russian hackers had attempted to target the state's voter registration data before the 2016 presidential election.

Until then, Cortes' tenure under Wolf was largely unblemished. Among other initiatives, his department spearheaded the smooth roll-out of online voter registration.

But Cortes, who had served as the department's secretary under former Gov. Rendell, initially faced strong resistance when Wolf nominated him. At the time, some lawmakers faulted him for not taking strong steps to stop Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell despite indications that he was performing illegal abortions at his clinic. (The Department of State oversees professional licenses.)

Cortes is among a handful of Wolf cabinet secretaries to leave the administration since 2015.

Last year, former Pennsylvania Adjutant Gen. James Joseph resigned after Wolf placed him on administrative leave without stating a reason. It later came to light that Joseph's departure occurred after several legislators received an anonymous letter alleging sexual harassment by him while he was at the helm of the department.

Another department head, former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley, also abruptly resigned last year after a personal email he wrote to environmental advocates stoked controversy and raised questions about his objectivity.

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