On His Second Day, Tom Wolf Recalls Former Governor's Last-Minute Appointments

by | January 23, 2015 AT 10:45 AM

By Amy Worden

So much for a honeymoon.

On his second day in office, Gov. Wolf rescinded more than two dozen 11th-hour appointments by his predecessor -- firing the state's new open records officer, canceling judicial nominations and effectively booting the former lieutenant governor from Temple University's board of trustees.

Wolf's office said he wasn't questioning their credentials for the posts but rather a "murky" appointment process by Gov. Tom Corbett that he called "anything but open and transparent."

Still, the move instantly touched off a war with Republicans who control the Senate -- and whose support the new Democratic governor will need in the coming months to confirm his cabinet nominees.

"The honeymoon is over," said Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre). "He is not off to a flying start for someone who said he was going to do things differently."

Last-minute appointments by outgoing governors is nothing new, Harrisburg observers say. But Wolf's bid to roll back so many so quickly after arriving in office was.

In a statement explaining the moves, Wolf said: "My top priority as governor of Pennsylvania is to restore public trust in government."

Among the most contentious steps was Wolf's decision to fire Erik Arneson as director of the Office of Open Records. Corbett had named Arneson, the former spokesman for Senate Republicans, to the post less than two weeks ago. The job comes with a six-year term.

Arneson, 43, told reporters on Thursday he had no intention of leaving the office -- except in handcuffs.

"This is a nuclear assault on the independence of the Office of Open Records," he said.

Corman said it was hypocritical of Wolf to remove a Republican from the office at the same time the new governor wants the chamber to consider his roughly two dozen cabinet nominees on the basis of credentials, not party affiliation.

"With today's blanket recall and attempted removal of Erik Arneson as director of the Office of Open Records, Gov. Wolf shows he firmly places ideology above qualifications," said Corman.

He said he was not sure what action the Senate would take regarding Arneson's dismissal.

Senate Republicans questioned the governor's authority to remove Arneson but Wolf's spokesman noted that Arneson is an "at-will employee" serving at the pleasure of the governor.

"Yes we do" have the authority, spokesman Jeff Sheridan said. "There's nothing in the law that says we don't."

He also pointed out that Wolf's pick to replace Arneson, deputy open records office director Nathan Byerly, happens to be a Republican and is "not an ally of ours."

The office was created in 2008 to enforce the state's Right-to-Know Law and serve as a resource for citizens seeking government information.

Then Gov. Ed Rendell appointed Mutchler to a six-year term as the first executive director.

Mutchler resigned last month and took a position with the law firm Pepper Hamilton after it became clear Corbett would not reappoint her.

Mutchler in a statement said that she, like Wolf, disliked the "cloudy circumstances" of the handoff in the waning days of the Corbett administration and said it undermined the work she did to improve Pennsylvania's ranking in open government.

Wolf also recalled 28 nominations to boards, commissions and judgeships announced by Corbett shortly before he left office.

The nominations included former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley to the Temple University trustee board, William Lieberman to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and Raymond McHugh and Brian McGuffin to serve as Bucks County Court of Common Pleas judges.

Sheridan said rescinding the nominations does not preclude the nominees' names from being resubmitted for the same positions.

Senate Republican caucus general counsel Drew Crompton said Wolf does not have the authority to recall the nominations and the Senate would move forward with the confirmation process.

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer