Investigation: No conflict of interest

An independent investigation commissioned by the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors found no merit to the conflict-of-interest complaints by a township resident against township Manager Eden Ratliff, reaffirming the findings of the state ethics commission.

Blank Rome LLP, an outside law firm hired by the township in 2019 in the wake of the Lisa Moore embezzlement, issued a report to the supervisors on April 1 that found, among other things, that “Ratliff did not have a conflict of interest with respect to the reorganization of fire and EMS in Kennett Township.

“This is based upon our factual findings that there is no evidence that Ratliff used the authority of his office or employment, or any confidential information received through his office or employment for the private pecuniary benefit of himself, a member of his immediate family, or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated,” according to the report.

The law firm interviewed 18 people and reviewed emails and other documents, according to the report.

Supervisors’ Chairman Richard Leff said in a press release that the township asked Blank Rome to investigate it as “the allegations were serious in nature.”

“The results of this review and statements by the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission have shown that the EMS process was proper and there was no evidence that Eden committed any violations of the Ethics Act.”

Supervisors’ Vice-Chairman Scudder Stevens said in the release that the supervisors carefully studied the Blank Rome report.

“I’m pleased to have closure on this matter, and I’m confident the board of supervisors will establish a code of ethics to guide us for the future.”

Ratliff reached out to the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission on Nov.  30, 2021, to help determine if, among other things, he had a conflict of interest from serving as a volunteer firefighter with Longwood Fire Company and from his wife being hired as the executive assistant to the LFC fire chief. As the township manager, Ratliff was involved with the Kennett Area Fire and EMS Regional Commission and had researched the possibility of having Longwood Fire Company assume total first-response fire and EMS coverage of the township. He stopped working with the fire and EMS commission 11 days after his wife Gabrielle began her new job, according to the Blank Rome report.

The report cited a Nov. 8, 2021, email to the supervisors in which Ratliff said, “Gabby’s new employment could lead someone to believe that there is a potential for a conflict of interest due to the work I perform for the [fire and EMS] commission. While I believe the potential presence of a conflict may not be rooted in facts, it is my opinion that any potential conflict of interest needs to be handled appropriately. As such, I am abstaining from performing any work … to the Kennett Fire and EMS Regional Commission until the board of supervisors and I can professionally address any conflict.”

Township resident and former supervisors’ candidate Peter Doehring made a complaint to the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission on Dec. 1, of last year alleging Ratliff had several conflicts of interest surrounding Longwood Fire Company. Almost two weeks after the complaint was filed, the ethics commission ruled that an investigation wouldn’t happen because, among other things, “[y]our complaint fails to provide sufficient  [sic] specific information to allow a determination as to whether this matter should be further processed.”

The Blank Rome report said that Doehring “was candid in stating that his complaint was ‘based on insights’ others had shared with him, and not upon any direct evidence of any conflict of interest on the part of Ratliff.”

The report also noted that in December 2021 Kennett Square Borough also sought an opinion from the ethics commission “requesting an advisory opinion on four issues that were similar to those raised in the submissions by Doehring and Ratliff.”

The Blank Rome report said there was no conflict of interest for Ratliff with the fire and EMS decisions in Kennett. Last year the supervisors voted to designate Longwood Fire Company as the main fire and EMS provider in the township.

“The timeline of events shows that the issue of consolidation of EMS dates back at least as far as 2016,” according to the report. “This issue was then considered and voted upon by the [Kennett Area Fire and EMS Regional] Commission in 2018. These actions far predate Ratliff’s hiring in September 2019 or his subsequent involvement with the Commission.”

The report also said there was no conflict of interest with Ratliff and his wife being volunteers at Longwood Fire Company, nor with his wife’s hiring as the executive assistant to LFC’s chief.

“They performed unpaid services to the community,” according to the report. “Ratliff and his family were volunteer members of LFC, on their own time and not as part of Ratliff’s duties as township manager, throughout most of 2021.”

The report also said there was no evidence that Ratliff “used the authority of his office or employment or any confidential information received through his office or employment for the … benefit of himself, a member of his immediate family, or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated.”

Blank Rome also noted in the report that the fire and EMS decision in the township happened before Ratliff’s wife Gabrielle was hired in her current role at LFC, and also that there was no evidence to support that LFC hired Gabrielle as a favor to Ratliff.

“There is simply no evidence that LFC hired Gabrielle Ratliff as a quid pro quo or as a favor to Eden Ratliff.”

According to the township press release, “Gabrielle Ratliff was hired on Oct. 28, 2021; Ratliff stopped working for the commission soon thereafter. All of Eden Ratliff’s work for the commission was pro bono and performed at the request of the commission in order to assist the commission and the fire companies that provide services to the region.”

Supervisor Geoffrey Gamble said in a press release that the Blank Rome report was “definitive. I have no reason to question the findings. It is time to move forward with the business of Kennett Township.”

One recommendation Blank Rome made was that Ratliff “should take all necessary precautions to ensure that he does not intentionally or inadvertently use the authority of his office or employment, or any confidential information received through his office or employment, for the private pecuniary benefit of himself, Gabrielle Ratliff, or LFC.”

About Monica Fragale

Monica Thompson Fragale is a freelance reporter who spent her life dreaming of being in the newspaper business. That dream came true after college when she started working at The Kennett Paper and, years later The Reporter newspaper in Lansdale and other dailies. She turned to non-profit work after her first daughter was born and spent the next 13 years in that field. But while you can take the girl out of journalism, you can’t take journalism out of the girl. Offers to freelance sparked the writing bug again started her fingers happily tapping away on the keyboard. Monica lives with her husband and two children in Kennett Square.

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