HARRISBURG - Gov. Wolf's nominee to serve as secretary of state faced resistance Tuesday from Republican lawmakers who said he deserved blame for not stopping Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell.
After a hearing, the Senate State Government Committee declined to take a position on Pedro Cortes - an unusual step - and instead moved his nomination to the full Senate floor for consideration.
The committee chairman, Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon), said after the hearing that the panel was split on Cortes, but that he wanted to give all senators the chance "to make the decisions based on their own conscience."
He stopped short of saying Cortes' nomination would have failed had he brought it up for a committee vote. A full Senate vote has not been scheduled.
Critics fault Cortes, who served as secretary of state under Gov. Rendell between 2003 and 2010, for the department's failure to act against Gosnell despite allegations of illegal practices at his clinic. In 2013, Gosnell was convicted of murder in the deaths of three babies.
In a letter sent to Wolf last month, dozens of legislators cited the Gosnell case as proof the department under Cortes "failed miserably" to protect the public. The Department of State oversees professional licenses.
On Tuesday, Cortes told the committee that the Gosnell case is "a dark cloud that has hung over me."
He accepted responsibility for any failings of the agency - "one Gosnell is one Gosnell too many," he said - but stressed he did not know about what was happening at the Philadelphia clinic.
He noted that Gosnell was engaged in criminal activity that eluded many different agencies, including the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and the state Department of Health.
"Had I known what was happening in that clinic, I would have done something," he told the senators, saying he is "a man of faith, a family man."
Cortes said a Supreme Court case led to agency rules that prohibit him, as an agency head, from acting as a judge and jury. As a result, unless an investigation by the department results in a recommendation to act against someone it licenses, he is not informed of it.
He also said that the department has taken steps to prevent another case like Gosnell's, including requiring that licensing complaints are reviewed by a committee rather than having one person make a decision on its merits.
A Harrisburg resident, Cortes was the first confirmed Latino cabinet member and the longest serving secretary of state in Pennsylvania history.
He is the first Wolf cabinet nominee to face difficulty at the committee level, but will likely not be the last.
Wolf's choice to run the state police has also sparked controversy. Acting Commissioner Marcus Brown's nomination has been opposed by former troopers and their allies, in part because he has chosen to wear their uniform despite not graduating from the state police academy or climbing the ranks in Pennsylvania.
Brown's confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled.