HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday rejected a subpoena by Republican lawmakers for records related to the administration’s coronavirus business-closure waiver process, potentially sparking a constitutional showdown in the courts, but did release a list of thousands of businesses that received approvals to reopen amid the shutdown.
“This information should be sufficient to address your committee’s concerns,” Wolf wrote in a letter to State Sen. Mike Regan (R., York), who signed the subpoena.
But the information, published online, didn’t include the criteria by which applications for waivers were considered, or the reason a business was approved. The administration has not made any applications available, nor has it released a list of which companies were denied exemptions or those that were approved for a waiver and then had it revoked.
In total, the disclosure fell well short of what has been demanded by legislative Republicans and requested by numerous news organizations.
In the letter to Regan, Wolf cited a Commonwealth Court decision holding that former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, was not obligated to respond to a subpoena because it would have unconstitutionally interfered with the duties of the executive branch.
“Therefore, to preserve these constitutional boundaries, my office will not be substantively responding to your subpoena,” Wolf wrote.
The governor also fired back at Republicans, noting that as part of a separate review of the process by the state Auditor General’s Office, the administration would release “the plethora of communications from legislative members to the Governor’s Office about the exemption process.”
“We believe the auditor general should also review whether legislative members attempted to influence the exemption process in any way,” Wolf wrote.
Senate Republican leadership said Friday evening that the information posted online only partially responded to their request. They said they are reviewing next steps, including court action “to intervene and force the administration to comply with the subpoena.”
“As an equal branch of government, we are looking at our legal options to further getting the information out to the public,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said. “The public has a right to understand the methods behind granting waivers to some employers and not others.”
For weeks, the administration has put off requests from news organizations for information related to the business waiver process, which has been cloaked in secrecy. The state has declined to say what criteria it used to make determinations. And many businesses complained that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to why some companies had received them while others in the same industry were rejected.
In releasing the information late Friday, the administration said it had granted just over 6,100 waivers — but that was somewhat inconsistent with what officials had said in the past about how many exemptions were granted.
In a news release Friday from the Department of Community and Economic Development, which spearheaded the waiver process, officials said they had approved 6,066 waivers. On its website, the department said it had approved 6,104; then, within an hour, that number had been updated to 6,123.
But all are fewer than what was reported by the administration at the end of April. At that time, it said it had approved 6,171 exemptions.
The discrepancy immediately raised questions about the numbers. One Republican lawmaker, State Sen. Scott Martin of Lancaster County, said he received information from a company that its waiver was abruptly revoked on Thursday.
“Was this a last-minute attempt to clean up the list?” Martin wrote on Twitter.
An email obtained by Spotlight PA shows that a Central Pennsylvania garden store received an email at 9:30 Thursday night informing it that its waiver was being yanked.
“It’s really frustrating to know that this is happening at the last second,” said Martin, reached for comment Friday. “My first thought is, what are they trying to hide?”
Republicans in the state Senate last week authorized two subpoenas, asking for all notes, memos, emails, letters, and other documents related to the process. In addition to Wolf, a separate subpoena named Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin.
Wolf ordered all but “life-sustaining” businesses to close in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, while also creating the waiver process “in an attempt to actually make the process more open and transparent,” he told reporters in April.