UPDATE: DePasquale launching audit of Wolf's business waiver program

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Thursday his office will audit Gov. Tom Wolf's business closure waiver program to ensure the process was fair. 

In a virtual news conference, DePasquale said the governor pledged that his office would cooperate fully with the investigation.

"This is going to be critical, in my mind, if this pandemic continues further, to make sure that the process, if it has to be extended, is done so in a fair way," DePasquale said.

The news came as the state Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee prepared to hold a hearing Thursday afternoon about issuing subpoenas to the governor's office for documents such as the list of business waiver applications, approvals and denials.

Sen. Mike Regan, R-Dillsburg, and Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware County, sent a letter to Wolf last week asking him to send all documents, including correspondence and notes, related to the waiver process.

The governor's office did not send the documents, setting up a potential legal battle if the Senate votes to issue subpoenas.

For his part, Wolf said Thursday he welcomes the auditor general's review and said DePasquale is in a great position to make sure the process is fair and open.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale talks with the media during his visit at York Hospital Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Bill Kalina photo

Wolf noted that the initial goal of the waiver process was to be more “open and transparent,” adding that Pennsylvania was one of the only states to use such a process.

“Were some mistakes made? Maybe,” Wolf said. “If there were, then the folks here in Pennsylvania have every right to know about them.”

Some business owners and state lawmakers have criticized the way Wolf's administration rolled out the business closures and waivers, claiming the standards weren't applied evenly to all businesses and that those with political clout were more likely to receive a waiver than others.

Early in the process, the kitchen cabinet company formerly owned by the Democratic governor received a waiver as a life-sustaining business, as did a candy company owned by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican.

Both businesses closed their doors after the public scrutinized why they were open while their competitors were forced to close.

"I think there were a lot of people who were really upset about the lack of clarity, the lack of transparency," said state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township.

Looking into the waiver process will help clear up a lot of confusion about who was approved, who was denied and why, she said.

Phillips-Hill said she's heard from car dealership owners in her district who are losing customers to dealerships in Maryland because those customers needed to buy a vehicle and weren't allowed to do it in Pennsylvania.

Phillips-Hill said the information about the waiver process should be in the public domain for all residents to examine.

"I always believe that government needs to be transparent and accountable to the people, and I think this would go a long way in accomplishing that," she said.

DePasquale, a Democrat, said there's bipartisan support for the audit among state lawmakers, and that in the same way he was tough on Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, he'll be tough on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

"This is not about even, quite frankly, even caring about partisan politics at this point," the auditor general said. "Hopefully, everyone can tone down the rhetoric."

DePasquale is running for Congress in the state's 10th Congressional District. He'll face fellow Democrat Tom Brier in the June 2 primary, the winner of which will run against Rep. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township, in the general election.

Reporter Logan Hullinger contributed to this story.

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