Wolf axes cabinet secretary after report on lobbyist tie
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Gov. Tom Wolf dismissed his cabinet secretary in charge of drug and alcohol programs on Tuesday, hours after a newspaper reported the secretary directed a job applicant to do a pre-hiring interview with a lobbyist for addiction treatment contractors.
Wolf’s press secretary, J.J. Abbott, said Gary Tennis was “separated” from the administration and that Tennis did not resign. But Abbott would not say whether the Reading Eagle report prompted the move or whether the Wolf administration was investigating it.
Wolf would not discuss the matter either, Abbott said.
Tennis, 63, had held the $137,000-a-year job under two governors since the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs was created in 2012. The former Philadelphia prosecutor did not appear to have a listed home telephone number where he could be reached for comment.
The lobbyist, Deb Beck of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
The Reading Eagle reported a former agency bureau director, Angela Episale, said Tennis told her in 2015 to meet with Beck because it “would give me my best chance” of getting hired.
They met for about an hour or more on March 11, 2015, and Tennis emailed Episale less than a week later to say Beck “thinks you’re a good fit,” according to an email Episale provided to the Eagle.
Episale started working at the department several months later as director of the bureau of treatment, prevention and intervention, giving her influence over treatment policy across the state, according to the Reading Eagle.
Last June, Episale was demoted over a supervisor’s accusations that she failed to follow instruction and conducted herself inappropriately, among other things, the newspaper reported. She left the agency about a month ago, the newspaper reported.
The 70-employee Department of Drug and Alcohol programs is one of the state’s smallest cabinet agencies, and Tennis’ dismissal was so quick that he still was listed as the agency’s secretary on Tuesday evening. The department’s budget is under $48 million, much of which goes to counties to fund addiction treatment programs. It also distributes about $80 million more in federal addiction treatment funds.
The department approves county plans to use the money and develops a statewide strategy for addiction treatment.