Murray attorneys scrutinize Eichelberger

On Sunday, state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, voted with a majority of his colleagues in Harrisburg to approve a state budget.

The next morning, Eichelberger, who’s been a critic of public school spending, was in Altoona with the auditor general who said the Altoona Area School District violated Pennsylvania School Code when now retired Altoona Area Superintendent Dennis Murray gave raises to the district’s administrative employees without specific board votes.

“I think the results are clear – that there was a breach of Pennsylvania law done by the superintendent,” Eichelberger said.

While Murray and his attorneys have said they trusted the auditor general’s investigation would be impartial and fair, they smell something wrong with how the final product turned out and was presented.

“We were told at the end of last week that there would be no report and that surprised us. We were even more surprised with the announcement on Monday that there would be a report and that it was different than the one we were expecting,” Efrem Grail, a Reed Smith attorney in Pittsburgh, said on Tuesday.

The report Reed Smith expected would have shone favorably on Murray.

Consequently, Murray’s attorneys are calling for “a full release of the Auditor General’s investigation and all correspondence relating to it,” as a statement from Reed Smith read on Monday.

They have questions about potential influence on the report from locally elected state officials.

“That’s ridiculous,” Eichelberger said.

Eichelberger stood behind Auditor General Eugene DePasquale during his visit to the Altoona Area Public Library on Monday where the audit results were explained.

“It’s not unusual for a visiting state official to bring along local officials,” Eichelberger said. “He brought me because he knew I was interested.”

Eichelberger said he received the report from the Auditor General’s Office prior to the public because “They knew how anxious I was for it.”

The school board had asked Eichelberger to be its mediator with the Auditor General’s Office to speed up the audit’s completion when it was slowed by delays, he said.

Eichelberger said he frequently calls state departments on behalf of local entities, schools and businesses to say “hurry up and get work done ‘people are waiting for this.'”

“This goes on literally on a daily basis. It’s part of my job,” he said.

He said a significant delay resulted from the elimination of the Auditor General’s Office Of Special Investigations because of budget cuts. The OSI had begun the pay raise investigation as a joint effort with the Bureau of Auditors, the audit states. Auditor general spokesman Barry Ciccocioppo said all information collected by the OSI was included in the completed audit report.

Eichelberger said Monday was his first encounter with DePasquale, a Democrat elected in November. He has only contacted legislative liaisons of his office in the past. He said no information was disclosed to him during the investigative process.

Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona said he was interested in the audit results but was not in contact with the auditor general during the investigation.

“If Republicans have influence over Democratic public officials [such as DePasquale], that’s a story there,” McGinnis said.

Eichelberger said he has received questions about whether he was able to work with public officials who are Democrats.

“And at the same time there are questions that I have control over these people,” he said. He emphasized the professional conduct with which public officials including DePasquale conduct themselves.

“Me writing the report or having influence over it is an insult to the auditor general and is certainly inaccurate.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.