Kevin Gaughen is a real estate broker and the executive director of the Pennsylvania Libertarian Party. He has lived in Silver Spring Township, near the state capital of Harrisburg, for 10 years and has concerns about how his town's finances have been managed.
In 2021, Gaughen decided to run for township auditor as a write-in candidate. On Election Day, he mobilized friends to hand out cards to potential voters that read, "Write In Kevin Gaughen for Auditor." Improbably, he won. Now, however, Silver Spring Township's manager won't let him do his job.
On January 3, Gaughen showed up to the year's first meeting of the board of supervisors, a five-person board that "govern[s] and supervise[s]" the township. To his surprise, his swearing-in was not on the agenda. According to Gaughen's account, when he raised the issue during the public comment section, the board insisted that it had been an oversight and that he would be sworn in at the next meeting. But days later, the township manager, Raymond Palmer, sent an email stating that, in fact, the township had retained an accounting firm, Maher Duessel, to serve as auditors and that "the elected auditor has duties lifted when a Township appoints an auditing firm." (Palmer did not respond to an email or text messages requesting comment).
It is within a township's authority to appoint an accounting firm to serve the audit function. Silver Spring Township appears to have retained Maher Duessel since at least 2010. (A representative for Maher Duessel did not respond to emails or a voicemail requesting comment.)
Simply hiring an accountant for the audits is not, in itself, suspicious, says Jennifer Moore, chair of the Pennsylvania Libertarian Party, who also serves as an auditor in the township where she lives. Her local board contracts with an accountant, which she feels is necessary for larger townships with bigger budgets. But, as she tells Reason, "we do still definitely have a role: We're elected by the people to make sure that everything's on the up-and-up." In Moore's case, the firm compiles the audit, and then the board of elected auditors pores through the report for anything that may require further scrutiny.
A Pennsylvania township auditor is not a particularly prestigious or powerful position. Salaries are capped at $2,000 annually—half that for smaller municipalities. Auditors scrutinize their township's finances and deliver an annual report to the state capital. They also set the salaries for the board of supervisors. Each township has three auditors, who serve staggered six-year terms.
In addition to setting supervisor salaries and financial auditing and reporting, township auditors may investigate "official records of the district justices," similar to small claims courts, "to determine the amount of fines and costs paid over or due the township." If a township is writing too many tickets or assessing an inordinate amount of fines, the board of auditors would have the authority to investigate. The board of auditors also has the power to issue subpoenas to investigate members of the board of supervisors and to assess fines to any supervisor who misuses taxpayer funds. An accounting firm would be unable to serve these functions.
"I see them putting projects out, and I don't believe they're doing fair bidding on them," Gaughen told Reason. "I see them handing deals out" without putting it through a "fair bidding process… There's a lot of items of concern that I see in this township, and I thought, 'I want to get involved, I want to open the books, I want to start attending these township meetings, and I want to know exactly what's going on here.'"
It is not clear whether the board of supervisors is even allowed to rely solely on an accounting firm for audits. "They just simply can't do that, under election law," says Moore, who also has an MBA. "It's a violation of the election code. The election code says that they may hire a CPA, but they still have to have a board of auditors." Indeed, state law stipulates that if an accountant or firm is appointed, "the board of auditors shall not audit, settle or adjust the accounts audited by the appointee but shall perform the other duties of the office." (A representative from the Governor's Center for Local Government Services, which oversees the township audit reports, did not respond to voicemails requesting comment.)
In trying to determine what his next steps were, Gaughen sought out the previous office winner. Chris Trafton ran as a Republican in 2019, though he self-identifies as an independent. In an interview with Reason, Trafton described an experience very similar to Gaughen's: Tired of seeing "shenanigans" in local governance, Trafton gravitated toward the township auditor role and mounted a successful write-in campaign based on word-of-mouth. When he showed up to be certified in his new role, town officials seemed surprised to see him. He was informed that "we've been intending to close down those [positions] in the election" anyway, since with a third-party auditing company, "there's no point in having auditors at all."
Trafton also shared with Reason a copy of an email from the township manager at the time, Theresa Eberly. Eberly's email used nearly identical language as Palmer's email to Gaughen, stating that "the elected auditor has duties lifted when a township appoints an auditing firm." (Eberly, who has since moved to a position in a different town, did not respond to emailed questions).
Currently, on the Cumberland County website, Silver Spring Township lists three auditors. Two, Gaughen and Trafton, have yet to be seated; the third, Kathleen Albright, has apparently moved out of the township and has not been replaced. (Albright responded to a text message, but has so far declined to participate in an interview for this article.)
It is entirely possible that the Silver Spring Township board of supervisors is operating in good faith, but by refusing to seat an auditor and instead relying solely on its own hand-picked replacement, the board is not only violating state law, but also defying the most basic principles of good governance. In Gaughen's words, the auditor is "a watchdog for the citizens," put in place to "make sure that economic malfeasance isn't going on. And I don't think that someone hired, who has a financial interest from the township, should be auditing the people that hired them."