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Church v. Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

September 24, 2013

Shawnee Tabernacle Church, Petitioner
v.
Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, Respondent Dennis Bloom, Petitioner
v.
Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, Respondent

Argued: February 12, 2013

BEFORE: HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge

OPINION

P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge [1]

Shawnee Tabernacle Church (Church) and Dennis Bloom (Bloom) (collectively, Petitioners) petition for review of the May 11, 2012 order of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission (Commission). In that order, the Commission denied the Church's petition to intervene in an administrative proceeding initiated by the Commission against Bloom under the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, 65 Pa. C.S. §§ 1101-1113 (Ethics Act). Because the Commission did not abuse its discretion, we affirm the Commission's order.

BACKGROUND

A. Commission Proceeding

On or about November 10, 2010, the Pocono Mountain School District (School District) filed a formal complaint with the Commission. (Reproduced Record (R.R.) 4a-10a.) In its complaint, the School District contended that Bloom, in his capacity as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Pocono Mountain Charter School (Charter School), violated the Ethics Act. The School District contended that Bloom engaged in a series of self-dealing and conflicts of interest stemming from his role as CEO of the Charter School and his simultaneous role as Senior Pastor of the Church, which happens to be the Charter School's landlord. More specifically, the School District alleged the following:

[D]uring his tenure as Senior Pastor of the Landlord-Church and CEO of the Tenant-Charter School, [Bloom] authorized over $900, 000.00 in public taxpayer funds, to be spent on installing a parking lot on the church-owned land, as well as installing an elevator, gymnasium floor, lockers, etc., without obtaining any off-set credit against the annual rent that the Charter School pays to the Church. The Charter School pays an annual rent of $920, 000.00 to its Landlord, the . . . Church, for use of a building that shares a common entranceway with the Church and whose exterior has a sign stating, "Shawnee Tabernacle", with the Church logo. The . . . Charter School spent approximately $39, 000.00 to install an electronic message board that contained the name "Shawnee Tabernacle Church" in the most prominent location of the sign, and [the] Charter School continues to promote the Church to run messages on the sign, with no charge, pursuant to an unwritten agreement. [Bloom] and his wife drew salaries from the School that approximated $200, 000.00 per year. [Bloom] authorized the Charter School to pay for the gymnasium floor and include the words "Shawnee Tabernacle", on said floor.

(R.R. 6a.) The School District noted in its complaint that on October 6, 2010, its Board of Directors (School Board) voted, after a hearing, to revoke the Charter School's charter based on what the School District characterized as an "entanglement that exists between the Church and the publicly-funded Charter School." The School District asked the Commission to investigate, stating:

A full blown investigation is required so that the mandates of the . . . Ethics Act are upheld and so that . . . Bloom is held accountable for using taxpayer monies for his own pecuniary benefit and/or for his church's benefit, at the cost of the taxpayers.

(Id.)

On or about February 24, 2012, the Investigative Division of the Commission (Investigative Division) filed an Investigative Complaint/Findings Report (Complaint) against Bloom. (R.R. 11a-94a.) In that Complaint, the Investigative Division notes that it received the School District's complaint and initiated a preliminary inquiry, which it concluded in 60 days. Thereafter, it determined that a full investigation was warranted. Based on that full investigation, the Investigative Division filed the Complaint.

The Investigative Division alleges that Bloom served as CEO of the Charter School from its creation in or about 2003 until December 10, 2010—i.e., the period at or around which the School District raised its concerns about Bloom's conflicts of interest and sought to revoke the Charter School's charter. Bloom and his wife formed the Church on or about February 9, 1995. Since that time, Bloom has served as the Founder and Pastor of the Church. On or about June 28, 1999, according to the Complaint, the Church purchased approximately 10.5 acres of land in Monroe County, which would become the future home of the Church and the Charter School (Tobyhanna Property). Bloom incorporated the Church in 2001 by filing appropriate papers with the Pennsylvania Department of State, identifying himself as President.

Between 1999 and 2002, Bloom operated the Tobyhanna Christian Academy (TCA), a private school which ceased operations due to a lack of financial resources. At or around the same time that TCA ceased operations, Bloom began the process of creating a charter school to be operated on the Church's property. He formed another corporate entity, the Pocono Mountain Learning Academy (PMLA), which the Investigative Division alleges is the successor to TCA. The corporate purpose of the PMLA was "to provide charter school educational instruction as an alternative to public school." Bloom later amended the corporate charter to rename the entity as the Charter School.

Bloom filed an application for a charter for the Charter School with the School District, proposing a start date of August 25, 2003, and identifying the proposed location of the school as the Tobyhanna Property. The application disclosed, inter alia, that the Charter School would rent space from the Church and that an addition to the building on the property is under construction to accommodate the students. The School Board approved the application on February 19, 2003.

In his simultaneous capacity as CEO of the Charter School and Founder/President of the Church, Bloom participated in the process that led to the lease agreements between the Charter School and the Church. Indeed, according to the Complaint, Bloom was the point of contact on the leases for both the Charter School, as tenant, and the Church, as landlord. Bloom actively negotiated the leases for 2003, 2004, and 2005, which the Charter School's Board of Trustees approved. The Investigative Division alleges that in 2006, when the charter came up for renewal, questions were raised about Bloom's role, presumably with the Church and the Charter School. From then on, the Investigative Division alleges, Bloom concealed his involvement by having members of the Charter School Board of Trustees sign documents.

The gist of the Investigative Division's Complaint is that Bloom acted for both the Church (landlord) and the Charter School (tenant) from 2003 through 2010 with respect to lease terms and negotiations between the Church and the Charter School. During this time, the leased area increased and the amount of rent paid by the Charter School to the Church increased. In addition, according to the Complaint, in 2006, the Charter School and the Church executed a lease amendment that called for the Charter School to pay 100% of the debt service on the Church's mortgage loan of $2.2 million, incurred from the development and expansion of the facilities on the Tobyhanna Property (Expansion Project).

The Investigative Division also details allegations relating to how Bloom, by using his official capacities with the Church and the Charter School, personally profited from the operations of the Church and the Charter School. Bloom, as CEO of the Charter School, directed the Charter School's business manager to make rent and expense payments to the Church, which were deposited into a business checking account at First National Bank of Palmerton. Bloom and his wife both had signature authority on that account. According to the Complaint, without those lease and expense payments, the Church had difficulty maintaining a positive balance in that checking account. In addition, Bloom, in his capacity as Pastor of the Church, either made payments to himself or directed Church staff to make payments to him out of that same checking account. Indeed, the Investigative Division alleges five specific instances where either on the same day or within one day of the Charter School depositing money in the bank account, a check was issued out of that account to Bloom, ranging from $12, 000 to $45, 000 (a total of $146, 500). The Investigative Division further alleges that while these payments were characterized as loan payments, there is no record substantiating a loan of this size by Bloom to the Church.

The Investigative Division also alleges that Bloom used his position as CEO of the Charter School to hire his son and daughter as part-time employees of the Charter School, for which the Charter School paid them $15, 651.88 and $18, 039.60, respectively.

With respect to the Expansion Project, the Investigative Division alleges that Bloom served as the point man for both the Church and the Charter School on the project and that he secured the financing for the project. It alleges that the financing would not have been possible if not for the lease terms that essentially had the Charter School funding the project through increased rental payments. Bloom, as President of the Church, opened a construction checking account with the lender, with himself and his wife having signature authority on the account.

The Investigative Division alleges that following the solicitation of bids for the Expansion Project in early 2007, Bloom, as Pastor of the Church, selected a company called Radium, Inc. (Radium) to serve as the general contractor. From September 2006 on, Bloom was the sole owner and operator of Radium. Bloom authorized payments from the Church's construction account to Radium and to himself personally in 2007. Though Bloom, in his capacity as CEO of the Charter School, updated the Charter School Board of Trustees on the status of the project during the latter half of 2007 and in January 2008, he never disclosed that Radium, his company, was serving as the general contractor for the project. The Investigative Division alleges that Bloom further concealed his involvement with Radium in other ways, including in a Waiver and Release of Mechanic's lien form for Radium. The affidavit accompanying the form was signed by a Shalako Simon for Radium, who, according to the Investigative Division, was Bloom's son-in-law and had no formal position with Radium.

The Investigative Division alleges that Bloom's multiple and simultaneous positions with the Church and Radium allowed him to choose which portions of the Expansion Project would be paid from the loan proceeds or by the Charter School. Indeed, the Charter School opened its own separate construction account, with Bloom as a signatory. This account was used to pay for expenses of the Expansion Project that were not paid for through the loans taken out by the Church. Bloom, in his capacity as CEO of the Charter School, directed payments out of that construction account for such things as doors, a sign board, an elevator, the parking lot, gym flooring, and bleachers. By directing such expenses to the Charter School, Bloom, the Investigative Division alleges, freed up loan proceeds secured by the Church to be paid to Radium as the general contractor and him, as the owner of Radium, by extension.

The Investigative Division further alleges that Bloom, in his capacity as CEO of the Charter School, gave permission to his daughter to use school-leased facilities to operate her own business—The Tobyhanna Impact Athletic Center (Athletic Center). The Athletic Center, however, did not pay either the Church or the Charter School to use the facilities for its operations. The checking account for the Athletic Center identifies Bloom as one of the authorized signatories for the account. Bloom signed several checks from the account, including a November 25, 2008 check made payable to cash. That same day, Bloom made a $2, 000.00 cash deposit to his personal checking account.

The Investigative Division further alleges that in 2009, Bloom, as CEO of the Charter School, directed the Charter School's business manager to issue bonus checks to Bloom and his wife, which Bloom deposited in his personal checking account. No such bonuses were authorized by the Charter School's Board of Trustees. Soon thereafter, Bloom's wife leased a 2009 Mercedes automobile for $422.63 a month with a $4, 500.00 down payment. Bloom paid for the down payment from his personal checking account. Thereafter, Bloom, as CEO of the Charter School, instructed the business manager to issue monthly $450.00 payments to him as a car expense. Pursuant to this directive, the Charter School paid Bloom $4, 950.00 as a car expense for the period of August 2009 through November 2010. Again, according to the Investigative Division, this expense was not authorized by the Charter School's Board of Trustees. The Investigative Division also alleges Bloom authorized vehicle lease reimbursements by the Charter School to him during the 2003-2004 school year.

Based on the foregoing, the Investigative Decision claims that Bloom, a public official/employee based on his capacity as CEO of the Charter School, violated Sections 1103(a) and (f) and 1105 of the Ethics Act. Section 1103 prohibits a public official or employee from engaging "in conduct that constitutes a conflict of interest." 65 Pa. C.S. § 1103(a). "Conflict" or "conflict of interest" is defined in the Ethics Act as follows:

Use by a public official or public employee of the authority of his office or employment or any confidential information received through his holding public 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. The term does not include an action having a de minimis economic impact or which affects to the same degree a class consisting of the general public or a subclass consisting of an industry, occupation or other group which includes the public official or public employee, a member of his immediate family or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated.

Id. § 1102. Section 1103(f) limits self-dealing by providing:

No public official or public employee or his spouse or child or any business in which the person or his spouse or child is associated shall enter into any contract valued at $500 or more with the governmental body with which the public official or public employee is associated or any subcontract valued at $500 or more with any person who has been awarded a contract with the governmental body with which the public official or public employee is associated, unless the contract has been awarded through an open and public process, including prior public notice and subsequent public disclosure of all proposals considered and contracts awarded. In such a case, the public official or public employee shall not have any supervisory or overall responsibility for the implementation or administration of the contract. Any contract or subcontract made in violation of this subsection shall be voidable by a court of competent jurisdiction if the suit is commenced within 90 days of the making of the contract or subcontract.

Id. § 1103(f).

Section 1104 of the Ethics Act requires public officials to file a statement of financial interests. The Investigative Division accuses Bloom of failing to include the following required information in his statements of financial interests:

(5) The name and address of any direct or indirect source of income totaling in the aggregate $1, 300 or more. However, this provision shall not be construed to require the divulgence of confidential information protected by statute or existing professional codes of ethics or common law privileges.
(8) Any office, directorship or employment of any nature whatsoever in any business entity.
(9)Any financial interest in any legal entity engaged in business for profit.

Id. § 1105(b).

Pursuant to the Ethics Commission's regulations, specifically 51 Pa. Code § 21.21(a), on or about March 23, 2012, Bloom requested a formal hearing on the charges against him. (R.R. 95a.) He also filed a paragraph-by-paragraph response to the Complaint, along with additional averments under the heading of "New Matter and Affirmative Defenses." (R.R. 96a-170a.) In that document, Bloom denies every allegation of the Investigative Division material to its claim that Bloom violated the Ethics Act.

B. Church Intervention Petition

On April 13, 2012, the Church filed a petition to intervene in the matter before the Commission. (R.R. 171a-74a.) Excluding contentions of law, the Church alleges the following in its petition to intervene:

1. [The Church] is a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation formed in August 2001.
2. [The Church] owns property located at 16 Carriage Lane, Tobyhanna, PA, which includes rental space leased to the Pocono Mountain Charter School.
3. [The Church] is governed by a Board of Directors, including trustees, deacons and elders.
4. As a result of an investigation of Dennis Bloom, the State Ethics Commission issued an Investigative Complaint/Findings Report on February 24, 2012.
5. In its Investigative Complaint/Findings Report, [the Church] is repeatedly named with regard to certain business transactions with Dennis Bloom and Pocono Mountain Charter School.
8. [The Church] is extremely concerned about the ramifications of the Findings Report and subsequent action of the State Ethics Commission in this matter.
12. [The Church] seeks to intervene to protect its interests and the interest of its members in support of Respondents' Answer to the Investigative Complaint/Findings Report . . . .

(R.R. 171a-72a.) In terms of responding to the Complaint against Bloom, the Church incorporates by reference certain paragraphs of Bloom's answer. In addition, the Church alleges the following:

[The Church], by way of further answer, avers that any reference in the Commission's Report to [Bloom's] relationship to the Church is objected to, as this is outside the scope of the Commission's authority and an impermissible intrusion by the State into Church affairs in violation of the constitutional principal of separation of Church and State.
The activities of [the Church] in leasing its property to the [Charter School] and in expanding its physical plant to accommodate the growth of the [Charter School] are activities that occurred between the [Charter School] and [the] Church, each a valid and lawful not for profit corporation each governed by a Board of Trustees and each properly run by their respective Boards and, therefore, are not the proper subject of inquiry of an investigation concerning the individual Dennis Bloom.

(R.R. 173a.)[2] Bloom filed a document with the Commission, joining in the Church's petition to intervene.

C. Decision Denying Intervention

On May 11, 2012, the Commission issued its order, denying the Church's petition to intervene. In that order, the Commission acknowledged that the Church was not the subject of the Commission's investigation and is not a respondent in any matter pending before the Commission. The Commission noted the request to intervene, as well as Bloom's joinder therein. The Commission further acknowledged receipt of the Investigative Division's answer in opposition to the petition. In support of its decision to deny intervention, the Commission opined, in relevant part:

The Church lacks standing and does not meet the criteria of 1 Pa. Code § 35.28 for eligibility to intervene, in that: (1) the requested intervention would not be necessary or appropriate to the administration of the Ethics Act; (2) the Church is not and would not be the subject of a Commission investigative proceeding; (3) there is no statutory right for a non-party to intervene in a Commission investigative matter; (4) there is no basis for concluding that the Church has any interest in any ongoing Commission proceeding, and any claimed interest would be speculative, remote and indirect; (5) the Church would not be bound by action of the Commission as to Dennis Bloom; and (6) there is no public interest that would support intervention by the Church[.]
Commission investigative matters are strictly confidential (65 Pa. C.S. § 1108), [3] and there is no basis for allowing the Church as a non-party to intervene and/or have access to discovery in any investigative matter before the Commission; and
There is no basis for concluding that references to Dennis Bloom's relationship to the Church would constitute an impermissible intrusion by the State into Church affairs.

(R.R. 177a.)

D. The Present Appeals

The Church thereafter filed a petition for review with this Court (docketed at No. 1082 C.D. 2012). Bloom also filed a petition for review (docketed at No. 1170 C.D. 2012). The Commission filed separate motions to quash these petitions. By separate, single-Judge opinions and orders dated September 27, 2012, the Court denied the Commission's motions.[4] The Commission filed a petition for reconsideration, which the Court, again acting through a single judge, denied. Subsequently, by order dated October 2, 2012, this Court consolidated the petitions for review for disposition.

DISCUSSION

As the Commission points out in its brief, neither the Ethics Act nor the Commission's regulations governing its investigation and enforcement procedures[5]provide for third-party intervention in an enforcement hearing against a public official or employee accused of violating the Ethics Act. While the Commission in its brief appears to question the wisdom of allowing intervention at all in such proceedings, it nonetheless analyzed the Church's petition to intervene below under the General Rules of Administrative Practice and Procedure (GRAPP), 1 Pa. Code §§ 35.27-.32. We, therefore, will apply the same rules in evaluating the merits of the Commission's order denying the Church's petition to intervene.[6]

In reviewing an agency's decision to deny intervention, we employ the following standard of review:

While an agency has considerable discretion to grant or deny a petition to intervene, such decisions remain subject to review of this Court and will be reversed where the agency's decision constitutes an error of law or an abuse of discretion. An agency's decision on intervention will not be disturbed absent a manifest abuse of discretion. An abuse of discretion is not merely an error in judgment. Rather, discretion is abused where the law is overridden or misapplied, or the judgment exercised is clearly unreasonable, or the result of partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will, as shown by the evidence or the record.

Bensalem Racing Ass'n v. Pa. State Harness Racing Comm'n, 19 A.3d 549, 554 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011) (en banc) (citations omitted).

Under GRAPP, request to intervene is by petition, 1 Pa. Code § 35.27(2), which must be in the following form:

Petitions to intervene shall set out clearly and concisely the facts from which the nature of the alleged right or interest of the petitioner can be determined, the grounds of the proposed intervention, and the position of the petitioner in the proceeding, so as fully and completely to advise the parties and the agency as to the specific issues of fact or law to be raised or controverted, by admitting, denying or otherwise answering, specifically and in detail, each material allegation of fact or law asserted in the proceeding, and citing by appropriate reference the statutory provisions or other authority relied on.

Id. § 35.29. With respect to who is eligible to intervene, Section 35.28 of GRAPP provides:

(a) Persons. A petition to intervene may be filed by a person claiming a right to intervene or an interest of such nature that intervention is necessary or appropriate to the administration of the statute under which the proceeding is brought. The right or interest may be one of the following:
(1) A right conferred by statute of the United States or of this Commonwealth.
(2) An interest which may be directly affected and which is not adequately represented by existing parties, and as to which petitioners may be bound by the action of the agency in the proceeding. The following may have an interest: consumers, customers or other patrons served by the applicant or respondent; holders of securities of the applicant or respondent; employes of the applicant or respondent; competitors of the applicant or respondent.
(3) Other interest of such nature that participation of the petitioner may be in the public interest.
(b) Commonwealth. The Commonwealth or an officer or agency thereof may intervene as of right in a proceeding subject to this part.

Id. § 35.28. While Section 35.28 establishes criteria for a third party's eligibility to intervene in a proceeding before an administrative agency, that section does not require the agency to grant intervention. Pa. Dental Ass'n v. Ins. Dep't, 551 A.2d 1148, 1151 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1988); see also Keystone Redevelopment Partners, LLC v. Pa. Gaming Control Bd., 5 A.3d 448, 460-61 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010) ("[E]ven if [petitioner] satisfied all the criteria set forth in the regulation, the Board would not be compelled to permit intervention. Rather, the Board's decision on intervention is an exercise of discretion, the review of which is deferential."). Instead, the agency may exercise its discretion to deny intervention even if the eligibility criteria of Section 35.28 are satisfied.

Bloom filed a brief in support of his appeal, in which the Church joined pursuant to Rule 2137 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure. In support of the appeal, Bloom highlights the Church's property interest in the Tobyhanna Property and its concern about how the proceeding before the Commission against Bloom might affect the lease between the Charter School and the Church. The entirety of Bloom's argument is as follows:

As previously set forth, the investigation by the . . . Commission in this case focused on the dual role of Pastor Bloom as Chief Executive Officer of the Charter School and Pastor of the Church. The thrust of the Complaint was the relationship of the School and the Church because of the dual role. In the Investigative Complaint, the Church is referenced in 79 averments or thirty-seven (37%) percent of the Commission's Investigative Findings (R.R. pp. 11a-94a).
It is the position of the Commission in the Investigative Complaint that because of the improper relationship, the School is paying too much in rent for the Lease of the School facilities and there were improprieties in the construction of the expansion of the School facilities by the Church and the monies expended therefor.
The Church, in order to pay for the construction of the expansion and pay off the mortgage for the construction of the initial phase of the School, borrowed funds using the Church property as collateral. These funds totaling $3, 900, 000 were borrowed from Sovereign Bank. Without the money from the rent being paid by the School, the Church would be unable to make the mortgage payment resulting in the loss of the Church property and, therefore, the School (R.R. p. 186a).
As was previously set forth, it was counsel for the Pocono Mountain School District that filed the Complaint instituting the proceedings against Pastor Bloom. This action was taken after the School Board decision to revoke the Charter was overturned by the Charter School Appeal Board. As part of the revocation proceedings, which the School District is attempting to have reopened, the School District attempted to attack the validity of the Lease contending that it is overbearing and fraudulent.
From the Investigative Complaint, it is clear that the commission is attempting to have the Lease declared invalid. If it is declared invalid, no rental payments will be forthcoming from the School, since the School District will cease funding the Charter School (R.R. p. 93a). Without these payments, the Church will be unable to pay the mortgage and the Church will lose its property (R.R. p. 186a.)
Such being the case, the Church has an interest that is a property right which will be directly affected by a decision of the Ethics Commission. It is submitted this interest is direct and substantive, since it involves a constitutionally protected right. The affect would also be immediate, since if the Lease is declared invalid, the School District can simply refuse to fund it. If the church is not allowed to intervene, it would have no redress in the form of an appeal to contest such a determination, even though it would be aggrieved by such a determination. Rather, the Church would be in a position of sitting hopelessly while suffering the due consequence of losing its property, since it would not be able to defend itself.
Nor, as Judge McCullough determined in her ruling on the Commission's Motion to Quash, is there any existing party who would adequately represent the Church's interest. There is no requirement that Pastor Bloom call witnesses to protect the Church's interest. Given the nature of the proceeding, Pastor Bloom and his counsel are concerned with his defense which is not necessarily the same as the Church. Thus, this prong exists.

(Bloom Br. at 11-13 (emphasis added).) For these reasons, Bloom concludes by claiming that the Commission abused its discretion and committed an error of law in denying the Church's petition to intervene.

Based on the foregoing argument, it appears to the Court that the Church is claiming eligibility to intervene only under Section 35.28(a)(2) of GRAPP—"[a]n interest which may be directly affected and which is not adequately represented by existing parties, and as to which petitioners may be bound by the action of the agency in the proceeding." As we noted in Bensalem Racing, to satisfy this threshold eligibility test, the person seeking intervention must establish an interest that may be directly affected:

It is . . . not necessary for an entity seeking intervention in an administrative proceeding to show that it is suffering present "harm" or will definitively suffer harm in the future . . . because actual harm, if any, can only be determined after the agency issues its adjudication.

Bensalem Racing Ass'n, 19 A.3d at 556 (emphasis in original). The petitioner then, as the rule provides, must establish that its interest is not adequately represented by an existing party and that the petitioner may be bound by an adverse agency action in that proceeding.

As noted above, we will review the Commission's decision in this matter to determine whether it can be set aside for an abuse of discretion. Bloom's first point in his brief is that the Church is referenced in 79 averments, or in 37%, of the factual findings set forth in the Complaint. He argues that "the thrust" of the Complaint is the relationship between the Church and Charter School because of the positions of leadership that Bloom held simultaneously in both entities.

In its order denying intervention, the Commission expressly finds, however, that "the Church is not and would not be the subject of a Commission investigative proceeding." Based on our review of the Complaint, the Church is clearly referenced throughout the document. But we disagree with the Church's characterization, which is at odds with the Commission's finding, that the "thrust" of the Complaint is the relationship between the Church and the Charter School. To the contrary, the Complaint is, in essence, a charging document against Bloom in his capacity as a public official—i.e., the CEO of the Charter School. Bloom is accused of violating the Ethics Act's conflict of interest and self-dealing limitations. The Church, by contrast, is not accused in the Complaint of violating any laws. While the Church is referenced throughout the document, it is referenced because, according to the Investigative Division, Bloom used his position as a leader of the Church to line his own pockets, and those of his family members, with public dollars in violation of the Ethics Act. In short, the Church is part of the story, but it is not the subject of the story. This argument, therefore, fails to persuade us that the Commission abused its discretion.

Bloom's next arguments are based on the lease between the Church and the Charter School. He contends that the Commission, through the Complaint, is seeking to have the lease declared invalid. Because the Church has an undeniable interest in the lease, Bloom contends that the Commission abused its discretion in refusing intervention. We reject this argument.

As noted above, the petition to intervene must "set out clearly and concisely the facts from which the nature of the alleged right or interest of the petitioner can be determined." 1 Pa. Code § 35.29. Simply stated, the Church did not raise its concern over its lease with the Charter School in its petition to intervene. Accordingly, we cannot say that the Commission abused its discretion in denying intervention by failing to consider an interest that was never presented in the petition to intervene. See Wing v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Review, 496 Pa. 113, 117, 436 A.2d 179, 181 (1981) ("[T]he administrative law tribunal must be given the opportunity to correct its errors as early as possible . . . .").

But even assuming the Church had raised this specific concern in its petition to intervene, we have reviewed the Complaint and find no merit to Bloom's contention that the Investigative Division is seeking a ruling from the Commission that would declare the lease invalid. Indeed, the Commission does not even have the statutory authority under the Ethics Act to grant such relief. Section 1109 of the Ethics Act, 65 Pa. C.S. § 1109, provides for penalties. Nothing in that section empowers the Commission to void contracts. Moreover, Bloom is accused of violating, inter alia, Section 1103(f) of the Ethics Act. Although that provision does provide that contracts entered into in violation thereof are "voidable, " they are voidable only in the context of a suit filed in a court of competent jurisdiction within 90 days of the making of the contract. Id. § 1103(f). The Commission is not a court, and the Complaint was filed well beyond the 90-day period.

The Church also references concerns over past and possibly concurrent efforts by the School District to revoke the Charter School's charter on the grounds that the lease between the Charter School and the Church is overbearing and fraudulent. Again, we cannot say that the Commission abused its discretion by failing to look at this asserted interest of the Church, because the Church did not allege this interest in its petition to intervene. See 1 Pa. Code § 35.29; Wing, 496 Pa. at 117, 436 A.2d at 181.[7] But even if we consider it, in examining the Complaint, we do not see any allegation by the Investigative Division, let alone a request that the Commission adjudicate, that the lease between the Charter School and the Church "is overbearing and fraudulent" or otherwise commercially unreasonable, such that it can or should be voided. To the contrary, in examining the relevant allegations of misconduct of the Complaint (R.R. 12a-13a), the Investigative Division is focused not on the legality or reasonableness of the lease terms, but rather on how Bloom (allegedly) personally benefitted from the lease, which he negotiated on behalf of both the Church, as landlord, and the Charter School, as tenant. To prove violations of the conflict of interest and self-dealing restrictions found in Section 1103(a) and (f) of the Act, it is not necessary that the Commission adjudicate the fairness or reasonableness of the contract in question. From our review of the Complaint, those questions are not before the Commission in this matter.

CONCLUSION

Based on the allegations in the Church's petition to intervene below, we cannot say that the Commission abused its discretion, such that we can set aside its decision to deny the Church's intervention request. And even if we were to consider the Church's concerns, raised for the first time in its brief to this Court, that the Commission is seeking to void the Church's lease with the Charter School or to declare the terms of the lease to be commercially unreasonable, overbearing, or fraudulent, we find no support for these concerns in the Complaint itself or in the statutes conferring jurisdiction on the Commission. We, therefore, will affirm the Commission's May 11, 2012 order.[8]

ORDER

AND NOW, this 24th day of September, 2013, the order of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, dated May 11, 2012, is hereby AFFIRMED.

DISSENTING OPINION

PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge

Because Shawnee Tabernacle (Church) has clearly established that it has an interest that may be directly affected, I respectfully dissent. We cannot overlook the impact that a pastor's dual roles in a church and a charter school had upon the church, especially its being identified in a significant number of findings by the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission (Commission) and its position as mortgagor and lessor. Under the unique facts of this case, I would conclude that the Church met the necessary requirements for intervention in the proceedings against Dennis Bloom (Bloom) before the Commission relating to his alleged violations of the Public Official and Employees Ethics Act (Ethics Act), 65 Pa. C.S. §§1101-1113. The Majority aptly notes that the crux of this case focuses upon the pecuniary benefit that Bloom and his family received because of his various roles as founder and Pastor of the Church and founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Pocono Mountain Charter School (School). Contrary to the Majority, I believe that Bloom's commingling of his multiple roles, which form the basis of the alleged violations and underlie the Commission proceedings, and the Church's role as mortgagor and lessor, serve to mandate the intervention of the Church in these proceedings.[1]

As the Majority states, while an agency has considerable discretion to grant or deny a petition to intervene, such decisions remain subject to review of this Court and will be reversed where the agency's decision constitutes an error of law or an abuse of discretion. Bensalem Racing Association v. Pennsylvania State Harness Racing Commission, 19 A.3d 549, 554 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011) (en banc). Additionally, we look, as did the Commission, to the General Rules of Administrative Practice and Procedure (GRAPP), 1 Pa. Code §§35.27 - 35.32, to determine if the Commission's denial of intervention was proper. Section 35.28 of GRAPP addresses a party's eligibility to intervene in agency proceedings, and provides in pertinent part as follows:

(a) Persons. A petition to intervene may be filed by a person claiming a right to intervene or an interest of such nature that intervention is necessary or appropriate to the administration of the statute under which the proceeding is brought. The right or interest may be one of the following:
(1) A right conferred by statute of the United States or of this Commonwealth.
(2) An interest which may be directly affected and which is not adequately represented by existing parties, and as to which petitioners may be bound by the action of the agency in the proceeding. The following may have an interest: consumers, customers or other patrons served by the applicant or respondent; holders of securities of the applicant or respondent; employees of the applicant or respondent; competitors of the applicant or respondent.
(3) Other interest of such nature that participation of the petitioner may be in the public interest.

1 Pa. Code §35.28. (Emphasis added.)

The Church in this case asserts an interest that will be directly affected by the Commission's action, will not be adequately represented by Bloom, and will bind the Church in future actions. Additionally, the Church asserts that this interest was not speculative, remote, or indirect. The fact that the Commission's investigative complaint/findings report sets forth 211 findings, of which 71 findings, or approximately 34%, specifically reference the Church and/or officials within the Church, buttresses these assertions. (R.R. at 11a-94a.)

These findings appear to be an indictment against the Church as much as an indictment against Bloom. While the Commission correctly notes that it has no jurisdiction over the Church and that the Church cannot be subject to its final adjudicatory order, the resulting impact of such an order will or may have a direct and substantial effect on the interests of the Church which is real, not speculative, and direct.

In this regard, I find this Court's recent en banc decision in Bensalem Racing Association to be controlling in establishing the standard to be applied for intervention under GRAPP. In Bensalem Racing Association, we reversed a decision of the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission (Racing Commission) denying a petition filed by Philadelphia Park Racetrack (Philadelphia Park) to intervene in proceedings before the Commission concerning a petition filed by Harrah's Chester Casino and Racetrack (Harrah's) seeking permission to conduct telephone account wagering.

Philadelphia Park, which had previously been licensed to conduct telephone account wagering, was a competitor of Harrah's as to harness racing and pari-mutuel wagering. It sought intervention on that basis and, most significantly, as a prospective competitor of Harrah's in the area of telephone account wagering. While Philadelphia Park conceded that it did not have an exclusive right to conduct telephone account wagering, it expressed concern over the impact that a new entrant will have on that market, especially where the primary market areas of Harrah's and Philadelphia Park overlapped. Philadelphia Park asserted that the financial harm it would incur from such a competitor in the telephone account wagering market established the requisite "interest of such nature that intervention is necessary or appropriate" pursuant to section 35.28(a) of GRAPP.

In reversing the Racing Commission's denial of intervention, this Court agreed with Philadelphia Park that it had the requisite interest and rejected Harrah's contention that Philadelphia Park's interests were "too remote and did not support claims of substantial financial interest." Bensalem Racing Association, 19 A.3d at 554. As we observed:

Like section 702 of the AAL [Administrative Agency Law], [2] section 35.28(a)(2) of GRAPP provides that a person seeking intervention must have '[a]n interest which may be directly affected.' It does not require demonstration of a 'direct, immediate and substantial' interest--which our Supreme Court has characterized in Citizens[3] as the 'traditional' test for standing. It is also not necessary for an entity seeking intervention in an administrative proceeding to show that it is suffering present 'harm' or will definitely suffer harm in the future. This is obvious not only from the use of the words 'may be directly affected' in Section 35.28(a)(2), but also because actual harm, if any, can only be determined after the agency issues its adjudication. It is at that point that a party or nonparty wishing to appeal the agency adjudication under Section 702 of the AAL must be prepared to show that the adjudication caused harm to the person's interests—i.e., that the person has "standing" to appeal.

Bensalem Racing Association, 19 A.3d at 556 (all emphasis added). As indicated above, section 35.28(a)(2) of GRAPP only requires a party seeking intervention to have an "interest that may be directly affected." (Emphasis added.)

In the case sub judice, the Church has met this standard. For example, the record reflects that the Church undertook a substantial mortgage to fund the expansion of its facilities to accommodate the school. The Church relies exclusively on the rental payments from its lease with the School to repay this mortgage. If the School would cease operating, the Church would have no manner in which to repay the mortgage, which would result in a foreclosure action by the financing bank. Certainly, the loss of the Church and the School will have an immediate and direct effect on the Church's members, the School's employees, and its students, as well as the community as a whole in regard to the choice of a place of worship and the educational choices available for parents within a particular school district.

Moreover, although the Church does not need to demonstrate that it will definitely suffer harm in the future, only that it may, see Bensalem Racing Association, the effect here is not speculative. Prior to the District solicitor filing a complaint with the Commission, which initiated the proceedings at issue, the District had actually instituted and completed revocation proceedings with respect to the School's charter. This revocation was based, in substantial part, on Bloom's relationship with the Church and the leases executed by the Church and the School. Indeed, the District identified at least 27 reasons underlying the revocation of the School's charter, the most relevant as follows:

1. PMCS [4] operating its business and educational programs in such a manner as to constitute an unconstitutional entanglement with Shawnee Tabernacle Church.
2. PMCS paying an excessive salary and benefits to its Chief Executive Officer.
3. PMCS's CEO, or private institutions controlled by PMCS's CEO, deriving improper financial benefits from PMCS.
4. PMCS paying excessive rental and fees for its school facilities for the direct benefit of the Shawnee Tabernacle Church.
5. PMCS and Shawnee Tabernacle Church entering into a lease for school facilities which was not an arm's length transaction, and unfairly benefited the landlord.
6. Violation of State Ethics Law by employment of relatives by the Charter School and creating conflicts of interest.
7. Failure to obtain competitive bids for products and services where such bids are required by Pennsylvania Law.

(R.R. at 85a.) (Emphasis added.) While the District's revocation has since been reversed by the Charter School Appeal Board, the District has filed a request for additional hearings. Given this history, it is inconceivable that a negative decision from the Commission in the underlying matter would not adversely affect the School's charter and, consequently, the Church.[5]

Further, there is no guarantee that Bloom will adequately represent the Church's interests before the Commission. Although the Commission has scheduled a formal hearing for Bloom, at which time Bloom is free to call representatives of the Church as witnesses, Bloom is not required to so. Given the nature of the Commission's investigative complaint/findings report and the real and substantial interests of the Church in this matter, I would conclude that the Commission erred and/or abused its discretion in failing to permit the Church the opportunity to protect its interests before the Commission.

Most notably, the Church is expressly entitled under GRAPP to intervention as a mortgagor and lessor. The substance of Bloom's alleged violations centers upon the lease and other financial transactions negotiated, approved, and/or executed by Bloom in his dual role capacity. The Church is the mortgagor for the development and expansion of the School's facilities. As a mortgagor and a lessor, the Church has an "interest that may be directly affected." Specifically, section 35.28(a)(2) of GRAPP provides that a petition to intervene may be filed by an interested holder of securities. A mortgage is defined as a "conveyance of title to property that is given as security" or "any real-property security transaction." Black's Law Dictionary 1101-02 (9th ed. 2009). Clearly, as a mortgagor and lessor, the Church qualifies for intervention under the express provisions of GRAPP.

Additionally, section 35.28(a)(2) of GRAPP specifically identifies "consumers, customers or other patrons served by the applicant" as parties that "may have an interest" in a particular matter. "Patron" is defined as "one who gives of his means or uses his influence to help benefit an individual institution or a cause." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1656 (1986). In making financial contributions to the Church, as well as investing their time, members of the Church would meet such a definition. A decision by the Commission against Bloom may lead to the Church's financial ruin, the scattering of its members, and the end of its existence, not to mention the closing of the School, which will result in a loss of employment for local residents and a loss of an educational institution for a significant number of local students.[6]

In sum, there is no existing party who will adequately represent the Church's interests, the Church's standing to intervene is statutorily conveyed by its position as mortgagor, and the financial harm the Church may realize in this case is at least as significant and compelling as what this Court determined to be sufficient for intervention in Bensalem Racing Association. Coupled with the underlying facts herein, including the Commission's 71 findings specifically referencing the Church and/or officials within the Church, Bloom's dual role as Pastor of the Church and CEO of the School, and the complex entwinement between the Church as a property owner/mortgagor and the School as a lessee, warrants the Church's intervention before the Commission.

Accordingly, I would reverse the Commission's order denying the Church's petition to intervene.


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