Wolf donated to DePasquale’s congressional bid amid a key audit. Is that a problem?

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale took political donations from Gov. Tom Wolf and allowed the Democratic governor to host an online fundraiser for his congressional campaign even as the state’s elected fiscal watchdog worked on an audit of Wolf’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Those donations went to DePasquale’s challenge to Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Perry in central Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District, a race viewed as among the most competitive in the country

It is unclear how much DePasquale’s campaign netted from from the June 25 digital fundraiser. But Wolf and his wife, First Lady Frances Wolf, have already donated $11,200 to DePasquale’s congressional run, the most they can under federal campaign finance laws. That includes $2,800 from each of them in fall 2019 for the primary, and another $2,800 each in June for the general election. 

Politicians endorsing and donating their allies in and out of office is normal and legal, pointed out Suzanne Almeida, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a good government group.

“However, in cases like this, there could certainly be a public appearance of impropriety,” Almeida said in an email. “Pennsylvanians deserve to have confidence that the Auditor General is an independent, elected official who is able to do their job without undue influence from campaign contributions.”

The contributions come as DePasquale, through his state office, is looking into a controversial action by Wolf to allow some businesses to reopen during the early months of the pandemic. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board also raised concerns about the audit and Wolf’s fundraising earlier this week.

Wolf has also long been a top Democratic fundraiser. He’s used his own money and prodigious fundraising chops to finance his own election, and to support his fellow Democrats.

Wolf gave DePasquale $48,000 as a candidate for state House between 2006 and 2011, according to Department of State records. 

DePasquale, of York County, left the House in 2012 after winning election as auditor general in 2012. In that position, he’s tasked with digging up government malfeasance and financial mismanagement. He’s now serving the constitutional maximum of two terms after winning reelection in 2016. He announced his congressional challenge against Perry last year.

But Republicans have seized on the June donation and fundraiser as a crack in DePasquale’s image as a problem-solving legislator and a fearless watchdog who’s criticized Republicans and Democrats.

In a statement, Perry’s campaign said the donations and fundraiser showed DePasquale was “either brazenly corrupt or completely incompetent.”

“There is no other excuse for inviting the subject of one of your most high-profile investigations to headline a $2,800 per person fundraiser for your campaign,” Matt Beynon, Perry’s campaign spokesperson, said. 

On April 30, DePasquale announced he would look into Wolf’s business waiver program. He did not provide a timeline for the audit’s release, but said it would be a quick look.

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Wolf set up the program in March to allow individual businesses, forced to close in the early days of the pandemic, to reopen if they could prove they were “life-sustaining” and could keep workers and customers safe.

All told, the state allowed 6,000 businesses to reopen, out of about 42,000 applicants. Business leaders and Republicans called the program inconsistent and opaque because Wolf, at first, did not release a list of businesses that applied and were allowed to open.

In a news conference Wednesday, DePasquale said the audit could be split into multiple reports. 

The first look, which would be out the week of Oct. 6, would focus on how the administration answered waiver inquiries by phone and by email, and if there was any political influence on the program.

“There’s a part of me that wishes this could have been done a little quicker,” DePasquale said. “But there was a lot of data to collect, and also during COVID, with, you know, people being all over the place, it’s been a bit of a challenge.”

But over the summer, as the audit continued, and campaign season heated up, Wolf headlined a June 25 digital fundraiser for DePasquale, according to a post on the Democratic fundraising website ActBlue. The suggested donations ranged from $25 to $2,800.

According to Federal Election Commission records, DePasquale’s campaign reported about $25,400 in donations on June 25 and on June 26. DePasquale’s campaign declined to comment on its fundraising haul. Wolf and his wife made their second round of donations to DePasquale a week before the fundraiser, on June 16.

DePasquale brushed aside concerns this week that the donations limited his ability to hold Wolf accountable.

“You can do your job and support someone politically at the same time,” DePasquale said.

He added that he’s conducted audits critical of Wolf in the past. 

DePasquale pointed to reports on the state’s delayed unemployment compensation system update, lax nursing home oversight, unanswered calls on a child abuse hotline and issues with voter roll maintenance that were all conducted during Wolf’s tenure. 

In a statement, DePasquale’s campaign spokesman Kunal Atit, called the critiques “baseless” and “just the latest effort by desperate political opponents to smear Eugene as they find themselves on the verge of losing this seat.”

While Wolf donated to DePasquale’s congressional race and his past legislative races, the Capital-Star could not locate any donations to DePasquale’s two campaigns for auditor general in 2012 and 2016.

But Wolf has donated to the state row office candidates serving around him. He’s donated $51,000 to Attorney General Josh Shapiro and $30,000 to state Treasurer Joe Torsella since 2016, according to Department of State records.

Jeff Sheridan, a senior political adviser to Wolf, said the donations to DePasquale’s race were just a small part of Wolf’s $1.5 million worth of donations to elect Democrats across the commonwealth in 2020.

“Any implication from anyone that there’s a conflict is plain stupid,” Sheridan said in an email.

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