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Pennsylvania Senate panel balks at recommending Wolf nominee

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Pedro A. Cortes is secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

HARRISBURG — A Senate committee Tuesday declined to recommend Gov. Tom Wolf’s nominee Pedro Cortes for secretary of the Commonwealth because the panel is divided about the role Cortes played as a regulator in the case of Kermit Gosnell, a doctor convicted of murder while running a Philadelphia abortion clinic.

The Senate State Government Committee’s vote for “no position” was unusual, but staffers couldn’t say it was unprecedented. Almost evenly divided, committee members decided to give the full Senate the opportunity to vote, said Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon.

Cortes, the acting secretary, is the first Wolf nominee to be confronted with an uncertain confirmation. That vote likely will be in June, said Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County.

Cortes made an impassioned argument that he had no knowledge of Gosnell’s criminal activities when he was secretary of State from 2003 to 2010 under former Gov. Ed Rendell. The department oversees the medical board that licenses doctors. The Department of Health regulates clinics.

Cortes denied he was one of the regulators who a grand jury concluded looked the other way.

He said the Gosnell case had been difficult emotionally on him and his family.

“I’m a man of faith and a family man,” said Cortes, who described himself as a “practicing Catholic” and one-time altar boy. He would not comment after the hearing on his views regarding abortion.

Wolf’s spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said the governor “has the full faith in Pedro’s ability to lead the Department of State.” He said that Cortes “has said repeatedly that if he had known of (Gosnell’s) heinous acts, he would have stopped it immediately” and that to suggest he has any responsibility “is offensive.”

Drug agents raided Gosnell’s clinic in 2010. Evidence showed Gosnell liberally doled out prescriptions for painkillers. Authorities described his clinic as a filthy “house of horrors” with untrained staff. The state Health Department last inspected the clinic in 1992, the grand jury found.

“It eluded a lot of folks,” Cortes said, referring to the Philadelphia Health Department and Philadelphia police. To those “who say I looked the other way, I can assure you that was not the case,” he said. He offered to take a polygraph test.

Former Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011 fired several state officials for failing to take action against Gosnell. The question isn’t whether Cortes knew anything, said Kevin Harley, Corbett’s former press secretary. “The question is why he didn’t know what was going on in his own department.”

Cortes is accountable for the staffers Corbett fired for “their action or inaction” on complaints against Gosnell, Harley said.

Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Harrisburg, called Cortes “a distinguished public servant” and “a man of integrity and leadership.”

Gosnell is serving three life terms for murdering babies by snipping their spines with scissors. He received 30 additional years on drug violations.

Cortes said the board investigating doctors is bound by confidentiality and couldn’t convey information to the head of the department unless they filed a formal action, which did not happen. Folmer said he didn’t agree.

Stephen Masoff, a former Gosnell clinic worker, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder in the deaths of two infants. Masoff, formerly of Mt. Lebanon, last year was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].

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