Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Tomalis Spent Time in NYC Advising Private Equity Investors

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Tomalis Spent Time in NYC Advising Private Equity Investors

Article excerpt

During nearly 15 months that Ron Tomalis spent as Gov. Tom Corbett's special adviser for higher education, officials at some of the state's key institutions say they never shared a moment of his time.

Not so for a group of private equity investors in New York City.

Swipe card records released by the state Department of Education show Mr. Tomalis entered his agency parking spot in Harrisburg at 4:49 a.m. Jan. 16, prior to a trip by train that the department later described as state business. His destination in midtown Manhattan was the New York Athletic Club, where he and other experts leading an hour-long panel gave those investors insight into issues they will face trying to sell classroom technology.

It's not unusual for state officials to accept speaking invitations. And it seems clear why those looking to profit by selling products to schools would want to hear from Mr. Tomalis, who before being named the governor's adviser served as Pennsylvania's secretary of education.

Less obvious is what the state Department of Education believed taxpayers stood to gain by having a Cabinet-level adviser at an investor conference, whose chairman is a past business associate of Mr. Tomalis, according to federal regulatory records.

The Department of Education did not address written questions asking how the state benefited from the trip, its connection to Mr. Tomalis' official duties and whether the department knew about the gathering's stated purpose as a resource for private investors.

In a statement, department spokesman Tim Eller said:

"Mr. Tomalis' business trip to New York was approved by the department prior to the date of the conference. Mr. Tomalis paid for his own expenses and did not seek reimbursement from the state. Mr. Tomalis did not receive outside compensation."

Reached via email, Mr. Tomalis declined comment for this story.

Organizers titled the daylong conference "Private Equity Investing In For-Profit Education Companies: How Affordability Is the Game-Changer For New Business Models." Mr. Tomalis' participation came seven months before his tenure as adviser ended in controversy after the Department of Education this summer could produce only scant documentation of his work.

Mr. Tomalis resigned the $139,542-a-year post Aug. 26, a month after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on records that raised questions about his workload. In response to a Right-to-Know request, the department could produce only five emails he authored over 12 months, a largely empty work calendar, phone logs that averaged little more than a call per day, no travel expenses and no job description.

Beyond the records, a number of key higher education players said in interviews they had little or no contact with Mr. Tomalis in his advisory role. Officials at Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency and the state Commission for Community Colleges said they had no contact at all, nor did the Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee or the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.

On Wednesday, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said his agency will expand an audit of the Department of Education to examine, among other things, Mr. Tomalis' performance.

Corbett administration officials have defended the former adviser, saying he was not a ghost employee as some critics argued. To buttress that, the Department of Education released daily parking swipes for 126 days between January and August of this year that Mr. Tomalis arrived at the agency garage. Generally, the space was occupied less than eight hours, but the 17 hours that he remained in the spot on Jan. 16 stood out.

At the January conference, Mr. Tomalis was a speaker on a panel discussion about technology in the classroom and how to overcome the obstacles to selling technology products and systems to schools. …

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