As budget season approaches, Harrisburg finds a way to investigate and legislate

Gov. Tom Wolf wears a mask during a briefing at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management headquarters in Harrisburg. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

Pennsylvania is posed to rewrite its election laws. There’s $7.3 billion in federal stimulus aid that can be spent. And the June 30 deadline to hammer out a new state budget creeps ever closer.

Yet the last few months in Harrisburg instead have been dominated by a nesting doll-esque set of controversies, many stemming from administrative errors under the purview of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

From a failure to advertise a long-sought amendment to aid childhood survivors of sexual abuse and how COVID-19 was handled in nursing homes, to a health data breach at a state contractor, the Republican Legislature has started at least three investigations into the Wolf administration. And they’re calling for more.

But even as Republicans and Wolf — in the latter half of his second and final term — come out of the pandemic and prepare for a tough gubernatorial election in 2022, these dives into oversight haven’t so far entirely ruined the  goodwill between the two sides.

“I think there’s some performative stuff, because that’s just the nature of politics. You want to score some points,” Wolf told the Capital-Star. “But in terms of the conversation on substantive things, like budget … people are really working hard to try to make this work.”

Two of the investigations are overseen by the House Government Oversight Committee. They are looking at business closures and nursing home policies implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic,

A relatively new nine-member panel, the committee was formed in 2019. It was envisioned as a way to make sure bills signed into law meet their stated goals. 

They’ve looked at holes in the state’s lobbying laws, but have also looked into executive mismanagement, such as a recent report on handguns purchased by a state agency whose employees cannot legally carry firearms.

The latter are the focus of these two current inquiries. Since the first month of the pandemic, Republicans have questioned the rhyme and reason of Wolf’s business shutdown orders, as well as an accompanying waiver program that let select companies reopen after review by the administration.

The Office of Auditor General, which is independently elected, has spent the last year compiling its own report on the waiver program. It was started under former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, and has been taken up by his successor, Tim DeFoor, a Republican.

DeFoor, who’s branded himself a nonpartisan watchdog, has said the business audit is a top priority, with a planned release in early summer. Preliminary findings released last year by DePasquale found that the waivers were “not a level playing field.”

As for taking on any additional oversight, DeFoor’s spokesperson Gary Miller said that deep budget cuts to the auditor general’s office have made it difficult to take on new inquiries.

“Because audits are labor intensive and time consuming, they do not always provide a path to quick answers,” Miller said. “Auditor General DeFoor wants to prioritize issues that have a direct fiscal impact on taxpayers but remains open to hearing suggestions from the General Assembly.”

Another House investigation, announced in early March, is looking at the state’s policies on nursing homes. A total of 13,000 people died of COVID-19 in long term care facilities.

The investigation was announced as details of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s own managerial blunders in such facilities — along with a subsequent attempt to hide those errors — were coming to light. 

The Wolf administration adopted similar policies. But it is unclear so far if they had the same effect in Pennsylvania.

The third inquiry, looking into an administrative error that blocked a constitutional referendum to allow childhood sex abuse victims to sue their perpetrators beyond the statute of limitations, was approved by the House Wednesday on a party-line vote. It’ll be conducted by a special select committee, tilted to Republicans.

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose office had oversight of the matter, stepped down in February after the department failed to advertise the amendment. The mistake has delayed the amendment until at least 2023, to the horror of advocates.

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An internal report on the error, prepared by the Office of Inspector General — a Wolf appointee — is due out by the end of this month, the administration said this week. But that didn’t stop the House from forging ahead with its own investigation.

“We deserve to have answers, and we don’t want to repeat things if mistakes are made,” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, told the Capital-Star.

According to all sides, these inquiries aren’t interfering with the dealmaking that must occur over the coming weeks. Wolf has so far cooperated with the investigations as well.

That still could be tested. Republicans’ investigative instincts were once again inflamed late last week, when news reports revealed that employees of a state contractor had placed Pennsylvanian’s private data, including their COVID-19 status, in public spreadsheets.

Further reporting revealed that Wolf administration was tipped off to the insecure data as early as February by a former employee. 

But the contractor, Insight Global, argued at the time that it had already addressed the matter. The company did not confirm the data issues and fix them until the end of April.

Joined by House leadership, State Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Washington, called for an independent investigation of the claims at a press conference Monday.

“There’s over 70,000 people that we know of that had their information breached. There might be more of this than we know. I don’t know. It seems there may be more information coming,” Ortitay said at a press conference Monday. “That is why we need an investigation. We need to hash this out. We need to get to the bottom of this and figure out what has been out there for how long, and what else is going on.”

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The administration has pushed back that Ortitay is misrepresenting its responses. 

“There was no mention or indication of a data breach in the representative’s email in April nor in the February contact from the vendor’s former employee,” state Health Department spokesperson Barry Ciccocioppo said in an email.

But Wolf acknowledged the error — and its severity — in an interview this week.

“I don’t think [private data] was actually shared with anybody, but it was in jeopardy and [the] representative is absolutely right — that shouldn’t happen,” Wolf told Pittsburgh radio station KDKA-AM this week.

It’s still unclear what agency or official will be charged with looking into this newest error.

In a statement, the Attorney General’s office said that Insight Global’s failure to “safeguard people’s personal data [is] concerning.”

“Our office is aware of these allegations and cannot comment further at this time,” the office added.

Regardless of the motivation for these ongoing inquiries, the legislative oversight in Harrisburg has seen in the last few months may be here to stay.

“I think there’s been a lot more interest in doing oversight,” Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, told the Capital-Star. “Hopefully it’s a culture shift. It’s important — we should do it.”

Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed reporting.