Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)
A Republican-controlled state Senate panel voted Thursday to authorize subpoenas for documents related to a Wolf administration program that allowed 8,000 businesses to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move forces Gov. Tom Wolf to shed light on how his administration decided which businesses could open and which would remain closed to prevent the spread of the disease.
The subpoenas, a rarely used legislative power enshrined in the state’s constitution, came on the same day that the state’s elected, Democratic fiscal watchdog agreed to audit the waiver program as well.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale began the audit partially at the request of Senate Republicans. He did not offer a timeline, but said he expected the review to be quick.
Business owners have complained the process was cumbersome and unfair, lacking transparency and consistency — allowing one competitor to open, while another remained closed.
The Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee authorized the subpoenas in a 7-4 party line vote, with all Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no.
“If there is any truth to this public perception, legislative action may be necessary,” said Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, who chairs the committee.
The Wolf administration has until May 8 to comply, or risk a court fight.
In a press conference, Regan said he signed the subpoenas soon after the vote, and that they would be delivered to the administration electronically Thursday.
The state constitution gives both chambers the right to issue subpoenas.
‘Fair and commonsensical’
The subpoenas, which Senate Democrats derided as destructive and wasteful political theater, represent a ratcheting up of a weeks long campaign by Republicans to pressure Wolf into increasing the transparency of his pandemic response.
Wolf frequently speaks of a desire for transparency, both during the coronavirus outbreak and throughout his six years in office.
“We want to make sure that we’re transparent and open as we can possibly be,” Wolf said during a Thursday press call with journalists.
But the administration has also stopped processing open records requests during the pandemic, citing closed offices.
In an email, Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger pointed to testimony by Wolf officials in front of the Senate last week, where they promised to release information on business waivers last week. However, officials offered no timeline.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have also criticized the lack of details on the state’s reopening strategy.
The waivers were first offered in late March to any businesses that felt they should remain open despite Wolf’s March 19 order that all non-“life-sustaining” businesses close to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
To receive a waiver, businesses had to justify staying open and agree to follow CDC social distancing and cleanliness standards. About 40,000 applied in total, with almost 8,000 receiving a waiver.
In a press call Thursday, Wolf said that he created the waiver system to provide flexibility to businesses owners.
He also said matching the state’s business closures to a federal list seemed less “fair and commonsensical” than offering a system so individuals could “tell us, and instead of sort of doing it through political connections, do it in a way that actually has some, some objectivity to it.”
“We tried to do the right thing. Were some mistakes made? Maybe, and if they were, the folks in Pennsylvania have every right to know about that,” Wolf said.
Wolf also said Thursday that he welcomed DePasquale’s oversight to find those potential missteps.
“I think Pennsylvanians are going to be well-served by that audit,” Wolf said.
Senate Republicans requested DePasquale’s attention in a letter this week. They asked DePasquale to take his “proclaimed passion for protecting Pennsylvania taxpayers” and conduct an analysis of Wolf’s business waivers, as well as release the full list of approved businesses
“We hope that you prioritize accountability and transparency during this public health emergency, when Pennsylvanians need answers,” the letter, signed by all 28 Republican senators, said.
In a Thursday morning press conference, DePasquale said that he has already been considering auditing the waivers after the pandemic had run its course. The senator’s letter, as well as the blessings of Wolf, convinced him that now was the right time to conduct a review.
“This may not be the last time that Pennsylvania has to confront something like this,” DePasquale said. “We need to make sure that we, as a state, and as a country, are better prepared moving forward.”
He added that he would request all the same information the Senate had subpoenaed, but would not release the names of any businesses, as requested by the chamber.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said that Senate Republicans would release the information gleaned from the subpoenas to the public after it had been screened by attorneys for proprietary information.
With DePasquale’s audit in place, Senate Democrats asked why the chamber’s committee charged with veterans affairs was handling a duplicative assignment as dozens of veterans have died in a state veterans’ home.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, called it “a waste of taxpayer resources and takes our administration’s officials away from fighting COVID-19” in a statement.
Corman justified the subpoenas, saying that the auditor general and the legislature “have different brains to government, and clearly part of our mandate is oversight.”
“We cannot provide the proper oversight unless we have the information,” Corman continued. The chamber last issued a subpoena while investigating former Attorney General Kathleen Kane, according to a Senate GOP spokesperson.
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