On drug abuse policy, one group wields enormous clout but is shrouded in mystery
One of Pennsylvania's most influential nonprofits is well-connected but reluctant to reveal details about itself.
One of Pennsylvania's most influential nonprofit organizations when it comes to making laws about treating drug abusers has a Robesonia mailing address, no employees and a hesitance to open itself to public scrutiny.
The Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania (DASPOP) and its chief spokesperson, Deb Beck, have so much clout that state House Human Services committee Chairman Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, when asked who is "at the table" when anti-drug abuse laws are hashed out, said, "Deb Beck's group is probably front and center."
But the Reading Eagle was stymied in attempts to find out exactly who belongs to the organization.
Prompted by its recent finding that Berks County taxpayers have poured $27.7 million into drug treatment since 1990 - more than five times the amount contributed by any surrounding county - the newspaper asked Beck and the DASPOP treasurer for a list of its members. Beck and Michael Harle, the treasurer, both indicated hundreds of licensed drug treatment entities were members, but declined to release the list. Harle said there were many reasons for privacy, including possible "retribution" and harassment by marketers.
The identity of DASPOP's membership has taken on greater relevance as Berks County and Pennsylvania struggle to cope with an epidemic of heroin deaths. Many parents, having spent tens of thousands of dollars on drug treatment on children who subsequently return to drug use, view the system that DASPOP appears to represent with skepticism.
"The rehabs are counting on you relapsing," said Cindy Wanamaker, a Chester County resident who has a 28-year-old son with a history of heroin abuse. "I am sorry; they just are."
Patricia Mogan, standards for excellence director at the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, said she knew of no requirement that a nonprofit publicize its member list. But state Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat, was puzzled that DASPOP would not release the list.
Eric Epstein, coordinator of the government-reform group Rock the Capital, said he could not comment directly on Beck because he knows her.
But he said, "Openness and transparency are a cornerstone of good government. People want to know who the players are and who they represent."
Records at Caron
Beck, whose reputation as a crusader for drug treatment in Pennsylvania may be unparalleled, is a registered lobbyist who state records show was paid more than $580,000 as a non-employee lobbyist for DASPOP over a nine-year stretch.
Following a brief phone conversation in which she rebuffed inquiries about the list of members, she wrote in an email that DASPOP has about 300 state-licensed programs and associations among its members.
Harle, in an unscheduled interview during a press event at the Norristown-based drug treatment agency he heads, gave a similar statement and referred to Beck as a DASPOP lobbyist, president and spokesperson.
Beck subsequently did not respond to emails and phone messages left over two weeks seeking a detailed list and full interview.
The man identified on IRS tax-exempt forms as "principal officer" of DASPOP, Steve Roman, also did not respond to repeated messages left at his office at a treatment organization near Pittsburgh.
DASPOP has no employees, according to Harle. A Pennsylvania Department of State document gives Roman's address in western Pennsylvania as DASPOP's registered office.
The IRS forms use a Robesonia post office box address, Harle said, because the organization's financial records are kept at nearby Caron Treatment Centers in South Heidelberg Township.
The forms do not mention Caron, but show the DASPOP books are kept by Becci Shaak.
She oversees finance at Caron. A LinkedIn page said Shaak has been involved with DASPOP since 2001.
In an email, Shaak declined a request for an interview. She said she is not a representative of DASPOP and referred inquiries to Harle and Beck.
David Rotenberg, chief clinical officer at Caron, said he and others there have attended quarterly DASPOP meetings held in Harrisburg.
"My experience as a Caron rep has been that Deb Beck has absolutely led the meetings. I am not even sure of her official title," Rotenberg said. "But she is an advocate, a strong advocate for legislation, funding, patients' families, and really the treatment community as far as I could see."
The Reading Eagle's scrutiny of DASPOP comes as Pennsylvania's leaders struggle to curb a statewide surge in heroin and opiate deaths.
Annual heroin deaths across the state increased from 47 to 800 over a five-year period. Twenty-six people died of heroin-related causes in Berks last year, and the rate of deaths increased early this year.
Beyond the fatalities, struggling families and taxpayers are pouring millions of dollars into a treatment system that some believe is in need of an overhaul, in part because of a "revolving door" dynamic that has become typical and even accepted.
Payments of up to $30,000 or more are made to place a heroin or opiate abuser in a residential treatment center for about 30 days, after which the drug abuser frequently relapses and is once again pushed to enter a treatment center.
State documents show licensed drug and alcohol treatment providers are both for-profit and nonprofit. Some executives are being paid $400,000 or more.
Wanamaker took out a home equity loan to pay the $30,000 bill for her son's stay at a Berks inpatient facility. It was one of at least six rehab stays.
Rich Gunter of South Heidelberg Township wiped out a retirement account as he and his wife tried to help their son fight heroin addiction. Between multiple rehab stays followed by relapses, wrecked cars and stolen family items, the struggle has cost the family more than $100,000.
Julie Umstead of Lower Pottsgrove Township estimated she has spent $34,500 on treatment alone for her 20-year-old daughter, including $19,000 out-of-pocket for a stay in a Berks program.
Coleen Watchorn of Limerick Township said she and her son's father spent more than $50,000 before their son, Stephen Watchorn, died of a heroin overdose in 2012.
She said, "I can't even remember all of the treatment facilities he went to."
A 'great advocate'
Beck testified at a legislative hearing on the heroin crisis in Reading last summer.
The hearing agenda identified her as "president" of DASPOP and while she testified, she referred to herself repeatedly as a "treatment person." The websites of Schwank and state Sen. Gene Yaw, who ran the hearing, subsequently referred to her as "executive director."
Schwank said, "That's what I thought she was."
Even though Beck gave testimony as DASPOP president to lawmakers on Nov. 1, 2011, another person, Mark Sarneso, had identified himself as president of DASPOP the previous day, Oct. 31, when he signed and dated an IRS form.
There apparently was no change of leadership because Beck also identified herself as president during state House testimony on June 16, 2011.
In Reading, Beck recalled how she once ran a "skid row program" and referred to herself as a treatment person. She said she has worked in the addiction field since 1971.
Recently, when U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. spoke at a press conference on funding drug treatment in Pennsylvania, he called Beck a "great advocate" for drug treatment. He even described how, decades earlier, Beck had harried Casey's father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr., concerning anti-drug initiatives.
"She used to meet him at his car every day," the younger Casey recalled, "and say, 'How are we doing?' "
Department of State records show that during each of the string of four quarters that ended June 30, Beck was paid $21,120 for lobbying. Total payments since January 2007 were more than $582,000.
Harle said DASPOP and Beck have been instrumental in passing laws that keep the power of insurance companies in check.
"Deb's personality and her advocacy is so powerful," Harle said. "That outweighs the dollars being pushed in the other direction."
Those dollars, Harle said, are spent by insurance companies.
"They don't want these laws," he said.
Need for change
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a watchdog group that advocates open government, said he has known Beck for 20 years.
Chief officers of trade associations, he said, frequently serve as lobbyists. For instance, Kauffman said he is registered as a lobbyist to advocate for Common Cause even though he is executive director.
He said he did not know enough about DASPOP to comment on Beck's representation of it. Still, he said, "She has always been a straight-up person."
DASPOP, meanwhile, continues to play a big role in the system being challenged by the heroin and opiate crisis.
Poet Rivers, a Berks County resident whose heroin-abusing son has been in and out of rehab, said, "Anybody who has anything to do with this knows the system needs to be changed."
Contact Ford Turner: 610-371-5037 or email@example.com.
The Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania, frequently called DASPOP, has a major role in steering drug and alcohol legislation and also has a strong tie to Berks County.
- DASPOP is a nonprofit organization classified as a 501(c)(4) under federal rules. It has far more latitude to lobby and promote political candidates than a 501(c)(3).
- DASPOP has no employees. It lists a Robesonia post office box as a mailing address because its books are kept at Caron Treatment Centers, although its state-registered address is in western Pennsylvania.
- Deb Beck, the group's chief spokesperson, is a registered lobbyist. DASPOP officers listed in its latest federal tax-exempt return are William Stauffer, secretary; Stephen Roman, chairman; Michael Harle, treasurer; and Joe Curran, vice chairman.
- The return listed revenue of $335,879 and expenses of $340,586 for the year ended June 30, 2014.
- Although DASPOP will not disclose its list of members, Harle and Beck said it includes hundreds of licensed drug and alcohol treatment providers.
- DASPOP advocated for the creation of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs as well as passage of a state law that requires group health insurance plans to pay for alcoholism and addiction treatment, among other things.
Sources: State documents, Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, Michael Harle.