HARRISBURG — Republicans in the state legislature have subpoenaed the Wolf administration for documents related to its controversial coronavirus waiver process for businesses, a rarely used maneuver that could spark a legal battle with the Democratic governor.
The subpoena — authorized Thursday by a Senate committee and signed by Sen. Mike Regan (R., York) — directs Gov. Tom Wolf and Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin to produce the documents by May 8.
The Wolf administration has said it will release information on the process, but Davin last week declined to provide a time frame.
"This allowed the public perception to conclude that decisions made as part of the waiver review process were inconsistent, with competing businesses receiving differing waiver decisions, creating inequities within a single industry,” Regan said during a hearing Thursday.
The waivers, which allowed select businesses to reopen despite the statewide shutdown, have been one of the most contentious aspects of Wolf’s response to the pandemic because of perceived inconsistencies and a lack of transparency about how and why they were issued.
Democrats on the committee opposed the subpoena, pointing to an announcement earlier in the day by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale that he would audit the waiver process without releasing any records. The Democrats argued that investigation would be sufficient.
“This audit is warranted,” said Sen. Pam Iovino (D., Allegheny), minority chair of the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, which voted 7-4 to approve the subpoena.
“Finding deficiencies merely to find fault does not serve the people of Pennsylvania," she said during the hearing. "Having the auditor general do his job and find deficiencies in the waiver program to improve it must be the goal here.”
But Republicans in the General Assembly have grown increasingly frustrated by the Wolf administration’s refusal to make public the waiver applications as well as a list of which were approved, which were denied, and which were approved and then revoked.
The administration has also ignored a slew of formal requests for the documents from media organizations across the state, including Spotlight PA and The Inquirer, saying it is too busy addressing the pandemic.
Regan and Sen. Tom Killion (R., Delaware) sent a letter to Wolf last week requesting a trove of records related to the waivers, which were administered in secret by the Department of Community and Economic Development.
Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), a member of the committee, said Wolf’s administration “cannot reasonably expect to set the rules for shutting down the state and for secretly handing out exceptions to those rules, and then dictating the rules for reopening, without a serious level of consultation and accountability."
DePasquale said he had intended to review the waiver process, but sped up his timing in response to a letter last week from the Senate’s 28 Republican and independent members requesting an investigation.
The audit began Thursday morning, DePasquale said. His office will request documents from the Department of Community and Economic Development and look at how employers reached out to the agency, who responded to the request, and if the decisions were consistent. DePasquale also said his office will determine if the waiver process needs to reopen out of fairness
“This is a bipartisan effort,” he said, noting the audit would not be complicated and he expected it to conclude quickly. “The administration pledged their cooperation. ... I think everyone can tone down the rhetoric.”
Wolf on Thursday told reporters he thinks the audit is “a great thing.”
“I think the auditor general’s office is in a great position to look at this and make sure that the process is fair and open, as it should be,” he said.
But according to Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger, the administration does not support a subpoena.
“It’s unfortunate this Senate committee took the counterproductive step of voting to issue a subpoena. The Wolf administration will review it and determine next steps,” she said. “The administration has committed to disclosing information about the business closure and exemption process, and recently provided testimony to the Senate regarding that forthcoming disclosure.”
Wolf told reporters last week that his administration was working to “wrap up” the waiver process, which closed to new applications April 3.
“I think before it's finished … anything that brings that out into the open would give a distorted view of what actually happened in the waiver process,” he said.
As of April 29, the Department of Community and Economic Development had approved 6,171 exemptions and denied 13,197, according to a spokesperson. An additional 11,624 were “submitted for activities as to which no exemption was required,” the spokesperson said.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, of Allegheny County, in a statement called the subpoena a “waste of taxpayer resources” that “takes our administration’s officials away from fighting COVID-19.”
Sen. Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny) painted Thursday’s hearing as “grandstanding for clips that will be used in future campaign advertisements” and an “opportunity to score political points during the pandemic.”
“And I want absolutely nothing to do with it,” she said. "I’m a no vote.”