Pa. senators vow abortion clinic investigation

Dr. Kermit Gosnell
February 8, 2011 5:20:48 PM PST
The leaders of two state Senate committees vowed Tuesday that the panels will independently investigate a grand jury's findings that state regulators ignored reports of serious problems at a filthy Philadelphia clinic where an abortion doctor is charged with eight counts of murder in the deaths of a patient and seven newborns.

"All systems failed," said Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson after members of the committees listened to more than two hours of testimony from Philadelphia prosecutors about allegations of illegal late-term abortions, untrained workers, unsanitary conditions and over-prescribing of pain pills in the shocking, high-profile case.

Tuesday also brought Gov. Tom Corbett's first public comments about the case, as well as revelations that private lawyers representing some state employees in the case have billed taxpayers more than $100,000 already.

Tomlinson's Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee will scrutinize the State Department, which oversees the state Board of Medicine, while the Public Health and Welfare Committee, chaired by Sen. Pat Vance, will focus on the actions of Health Department officials.

Tomlinson, R-Bucks, and Vance, R-Cumberland, said they are prepared to subpoena officials to testify if necessary.

"There must be accountability. There must be justice. There must be change," said Sen. Richard A. Kasunic, D-Fayette.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who prosecutors said netted $1.8 million a year from his medical practice, is due in court Wednesday to face charges after the grand jury alleged that he routinely terminated late-term pregnancies and killed babies born alive by severing their spines with scissors. He is charged in the killings of seven babies and causing the 2009 death of a 41-year-old refugee in a botched abortion.

The grand jury report said the failures of the two state agencies allowed the clinic to operate virtually unchecked since it opened in the late 1970s. It had not been inspected since 1993 and was not shut down until it was raided in a drug bust early last year.

Tuesday's hearing also revealed that taxpayers are being billed for tens of thousands of dollars by private lawyers hired to represent more than a half-dozen state officials and former officials mentioned in the 261-page grand jury report. The tab already totals $116,000, said Ann Ponterio, chief of the homicide unit of the Philadelphia district attorney's office.

The state officials are not cooperating or providing information, Philadelphia prosecutors said. While Ponterio said the grand jury did not find grounds for criminal charges against the officials, Sen. Jeffrey Piccola said the hiring of outside lawyers suggests that they still could face criminal or civil legal action.

"As horrific as this whole thing is . we're also paying extra dollars out in order to clean this mess up," said Piccola, R-Dauphin.

Corbett, asked about the situation at an unrelated news conference Tuesday, said he was unaware of it, and that the hiring of private lawyers would have been authorized by "a prior administration," apparently referring to former Gov. Ed Rendell, who stepped down when Corbett was sworn in on Jan. 18.

The governor told reporters he did not think he has the authority to order state employees to disregard their lawyers' advice and cooperate with prosecutors, but that he would have more to say on the subject soon.

Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams addressed the committee briefly, but left most of the testimony up to Ponterio and other staff members involved in the investigation.


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