“Wherever this takes us…”
- Lancaster County District Attorney, Donald A. Totaro, on the scope of a grand jury investigation he launched, November 10, 2005. The secret inquiry is centered on the hiring of a county administrator charged with falsifying a resume. It is only the third grand jury impaneled in Lancaster County history. The other two were homicide cases.
The sale of a county building would seem an unlikely issue to dominate news coverage during a city mayoral election campaign. But the sale of the Conestoga View nursing home was unquestionably the ‘big story’ in the summer and fall of 2005, at least according to the editors at Lancaster Newspapers. Nothing else came close.
Between the time the Lancaster County Commissioners voted unanimously to enter into a sales agreement to sell Conestoga View on July 6, 2005, to the final vote to close the sale on September 28, 2005, and well past the election in November, the media coverage, particularly newspaper, of the transaction can only be described as ‘saturated,’ or blanket coverage. And the coverage was overwhelmingly negative as it concerned the County Commissioners.
The harshest and most outspoken critic was former Lancaster mayor, Art Morris, who attended every commissioners’ meeting throughout the summer and fall, vociferously opposing the sale. Morris, clad in a business suit, tall and well-spoken, peering over his glasses, would stand and speak directly to the commissioners during the public comment portion of the meetings, excoriating them on various aspects of the transaction.
“There is absolutely no justification for the speed with which you are moving forward on this sale,” Morris told the commissioners at an August 24 commissioners’ meeting, six weeks after they announced the pending, not yet complete, sale.
Morris’ comments and opinions found their way increasingly into front page reports in the Lancaster newspapers. His scathing criticisms were reflected, as well, in the editorial and letters-to-the-editor sections.
Sunday News editor Dave Hennigan’s hokey, but popular, “Coffee with Clyde” column prominently incorporated, sometimes mirrored, Morris’ criticisms of the Commissioners. Morris used his own Sunday News column to slam the sale.
County Controller (and future County Commissioner) Dennis Stuckey made public his office’s analysis of the sale, concluding that Conestoga View was not losing money, as the current board claimed, but rather was operating at a cash flow profit.
Stuckey said a five-year review of the facility’s finances revealed the nursing home lost only $362,378 since 1999 when depreciation of the home is factored into the budget. Without depreciation, Stuckey said, Conestoga View was profitable.
“We think there was some faulty logic coming up with the [Commissioners’] numbers,” Stuckey told the New Era. “It’s operationally sound at this point.”
Don Elliot, then County Administrator, who was centrally involved in the sale negotiations, responded by saying Stuckey’s accounting did not reflect that Conestoga View had been tapping a savings account, an “enterprise fund,” in order to balance its budget the past several years. Without enterprise funding, Elliot said, the facility operated at a loss.
As the September 28 final vote on the sale approached, Morris was joined at commissioners’ meetings by former county commissioner, Paul Thibault: “There are holes in this agreement you could drive a truck through,” said Thibault; and then-Mayor and candidate for Mayor, Charlie Smithgall, who raised the emotional issue of indigent care, “This is the last and only place that will take ventilator patients, quads, paraplegics, etc.,” the Mayor said with characteristic indelicacy.
Also in the audience at each county commissioners’ meeting were Smithgall’s seventy-something year-old mother-in-law, Jane Albright; Chamber of Commerce President, Tom Baldridge (“We cannot support the sale as presently structured,” said Baldridge.); and Lancaster Township Supervisor, Tony Allen, (who encouraged Shellenberger to release himself “from the evil clutches of Molly Henderson,”) added his voice to the gallery of detractors.
Several of these people wore t-shirts with “Save Our Home” printed on them.
These critics of the Commissioners had something else in common apart from opposition to the Conestoga View sale – all, including Morris, were strong, day-one, on-the-record supporters of the convention center project.
The unusually extensive newspaper coverage – dozens of articles; tens of thousands of words, above-the-fold banner headlines, editorials, letters, photographs – devoted to criticizing the County Commissioners over the Conestoga View sale had a strong, though strange, impact on the convention center debate.
By running so many items on Conestoga View, the public’s attention was largely diverted from the convention center project. This was after the TIF defeat for the sponsors, which galvanized the public opposition against the project. Instead of Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson talking about the then-$137 million project, they were forced to constantly defend an increasingly unpopular, and newspaper-hyped, $8.5 million sale of a county asset.
The Steinman family owned, operated, and controlled a print monopoly in Lancaster County for most of the 20th century. The Steinmans published all three major publications – the morning Intelligencer Journal, the afternoon Lancaster New Era, and the Sunday News, as well as the leading farm journal and the Spanish language weekly. (The Intelligencer Journal and New Era merged in 2008.)
In 2005, most Lancastrians still relied on one of the two daily broadsheet newspapers for local news coverage. The Sunday News (also a broadsheet) combined the readerships of both dailies and had a circulation around 90,000 in 2005. Both dailies had circulations of roughly half that amount at the time.
Lancaster County then had a population of about 490,000. That meant that one of the Lancaster Newspapers was delivered to the vast majority of households every single day of the week in Lancaster County. There was no print competition for any of the three.
The question of why Lancaster Newspapers’ top editorial leadership decided to devote such extensive coverage to the legal $8.5 million sale of a county facility, rather than thoroughly investigating the feasibility of a controversial and publicly funded $140 million convention center project (in which Lancaster Newspapers was a major private investor), was a question the editors were not going to answer, at least not publicly.
Six days before the final vote to close the Conestoga View sale, on September 22, 2005, Senator Gib Armstrong and Lancaster Mayor Charlie Smithgall publicly called for Commissioner Shellenberger’s resignation.
“The guy is out of control,” Armstrong was quoted on the front page of the Lancaster New Era.
Armstrong cited Shellenberger’s alleged pressuring of John Fry to resign from the LCCCA board and the handling of Conestoga View as the reason for asking for Shellenberger’s resignation.
Mayor Smithgall, in the same New Era article, said: “He should resign. It is time. … The county commissioners – Shellenberger and Molly Henderson – seem bent on killing any forward movement in the city, especially in downtown.”
Two days later, Commissioner Pete Shaub, the original and driving force behind the Conestoga View deal, reversed his position and announced he would not vote to finalize the sale.
“The numbers just don’t add up,” Shaub said, referencing Controller Stuckey’s report.
On September 28, 2005, at a packed Commissioners’ meeting, Shellenberger and Henderson voted to finalize the sale. Shaub, though expressing privately that he wanted the sale to go through, dissented.
If the board of County Commissioners, specifically Shellenberger and Henderson, thought the media firestorm would end after the sale of Conestoga View they were mistaken.
The scale and vitriol of the response in Lancaster Newspapers after the vote could not to be anticipated. Letters condemning the sale continued. ‘Clyde’ kept grousing about it each week. In the month after the sale, there were 37 separate articles and letters on Conestoga View. All were negative except for one – Commissioner Henderson’s explanation (“Why we sold Conestoga View”)..
The first Sunday News editorial after the vote, (“A shameful deal” on October 2, 2005,) captured the tone of the Lancaster Newspapers’ response:
“Barring a miracle, by the time you read this, Conestoga View will be the property of Complete HealthCare Resources. The sale was to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
“We’d hope the Lancaster County commissioners would be ashamed, but they’ve proven themselves a shameless lot.
“They did a sloppy deal in secret to sell the county nursing home, sprang it on the public, then whined that the county would lose millions if the commissioners backed out. …
“…With a gang that not only can’t shoot straight but can’t even shoot themselves in the foot properly, why should we trust that they’ve done the right thing by the people of Lancaster County?”
That was far from the last word on the subject.
Former mayor, Art Morris, was not letting go of the issue. His approach after the vote seems to have been to try to find an issue, any issue, that would reverse the sale, or cast the Commissioners in a disreputable light for making it.
Morris criticized the Commissioners on the hiring of lawyers; specifics of the deal; and the speed the sale. He followed Conestoga View vans after the sale was complete, reporting they hadn’t changed license plates. He wanted to know why county-issued gas cards were still being used.
And in the days and weeks following the September 28 vote, all three Lancaster newspapers continued to publish articles, some two-and three-thousand words, harshly critical of “the commissioners.” Most ran with photographs of all three Commissioners, or of ‘citizen’ Morris commenting on commissioner malfeasance.
But the fact is that the sale of Conestoga View was perfectly legal. State law did not require, by specific exemption, the county put the property out for bid. Multiple appraisals were required by the County Code before it was sold. The county got multiple appraisals.
(In fact, the new ownership continues to receive high ratings from the state and there have been little if any newspaper reports critical of its operations.)
In late October 2005, four weeks after the final sale of Conestoga View, Art Morris finally got his wish. His ‘throw-everything-against-the-wall-and something-will-stick’ approach yielded a direct hit: Gary Heinke.
Heinke, Shellenberger’s friend hired as Chief Services Officer for the county in 2004, was first mentioned as a target of investigation on October 24, 2005.
In a New Era article, “Who is Gary Heinke?”, questions were raised by Art Morris about Heinke’s background and credentials listed on his resume.
On that same day, the Commissioners announced they were ordering an investigation into Heinke’s hiring. The head of the county’s human resources department, Thomas Myers, was to lead the investigation.
The next day, October 25, Heinke told the Commissioners the information on his resume was accurate.
An article published Octobert 25 by the New Era (“A question of credentials”) uncovered several glaring misrepresentations on Heinke’s resume. It also was revealed that Gary Heinke not only received advice from Shellenberger, Shaub, and solicitor John Espenshade prior to his hiring, but he also substantially lied about his work experience and educational credentials on his resume.
On October 28, 2005, Gary Heinke resigned as Chief Services Officer.
On November 10, the day the Myers Report was to be released, Lancaster County District Attorney Donald Totaro announced that his office was launching a grand jury investigation. It was only the third grand jury impaneled in the County’s history. The other two were murder cases.
Totaro then blanketed the fifth floor of the County Courthouse, which held the Commissioners’ and other county offices, with more than 80 subpoenas, including handing them to all three Lancaster County Commissioners.
Totaro launched the investigation before reading the Myers report. The Myers report concluded that Heinke falsified his resume, but not his county application for employment.
It didn’t seem to matter what the Myers report said; Totaro was going to use Heinke’s hiring to investigate the Lancaster County Commissioners.
“I hope [the District Attorney] expands the investigation to include all aspects of the Conestoga View sale,” said a pleased Art Morris after Totaro’s announcement.
Again, Art Morris would have his wish granted.
Chapter Twenty: To build or not to build?: New Mayor plays Hamlet