DePasquale: Efforts to sway business waivers might trigger 'law enforcement' review
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on Wednesday said some attempts to influence the state's business waiver process may be turned over to law enforcement.
DePasquale "didn't want to suggest anyone did anything criminal," he said during a meeting with The York Dispatch editorial board. But the Democratic congressional candidate said a bevy of emails and other communications — involving state lawmakers, lobbyists and other prominent political players — seeking to influence the approval of business wavers in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic could require further investigation.
"There are a whole bunch of emails from legislators, lobbyists and outside groups weighing in on all of the waiver requests," DePasquale said. "And we may not be able to have the ability to determine if every single one of those actually changes a waiver from a nay to yea, or vice versa."
A "substantive" audit update is slated to be released Oct. 6, he said.
"We are concerned that some of those need to be turned over to other law enforcement entities," DePasquale said.
At issue is the state's business waiver program that was meant to permit businesses shuttered by Gov. Tom Wolf's closure orders in March to open if they were deemed "essential."
Several state officials publicly lobbied for waivers for specific businesses. The amount of lobbying that occurred behind the scenes has been less obvious. And questions about potential impropriety triggered DePasquale's audit and a separate investigation in the state Legislature.
Jenn Kocher, spokesperson for the Senate Republican Caucus, said nothing is out of the ordinary about lawmakers trying to help local businesses, when asked about DePasquale mulling law enforcement involvement.
"Senators making passionate pleas on behalf of their constituents is nothing new," She said. Whether to PennDOT for a handicap placard or DCED to keep an employer in business, legislative outreach to various government agencies on behalf of local residents and employers is a normal part of constituent services."
Even Wolf's former business, Wolf Home Products, operated briefly with a waiver before it was rescinded. The company still, however, remained in operation.
Republicans have long criticized the waiver program for a lack of transparency. Wolf has admitted mistakes were made.
Most recently, on Sept. 14, U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman ruled that the waiver program was unfairly applied and left some businesses closed while their competitors could open their doors.
But the governor refused to comply with subpoenas issues by Republicans, which sought all notes, memos, emails and other correspondence having to do with the waiver program.
Wolf produced everything sought by DePasquale's office.
Both men are Democrats.
Republicans have alleged Wolf's financial contributions to DePasquale's bid to oust U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township, further taint the state audit.
“To me, it’s a nonstory,” DePasquale said. “To me, I’m doing my job during the day, and then we’re political allies in the evening.”
Wolf in recent weeks has also dismissed any allegations that the political donations were made with an expectation of special treatment.
Brittany Crampsie, spokesperson for the Senate Democratic Caucus, only said that "Senate Democrats support a transparent audit process."
Spokespeople for state House Democrats and Republicans did not respond to requests for comment.
Republican are now in the midst of an intense pressure campaign in an attempt to fast-track the full release of the audit. It is unclear when the audit would be released.
The business waiver program received more than 40,000 applications and granted more than 6,000 for businesses to open amid the state's shutdown orders, which have since been ruled unconstitutional by Stickman in his 66-page ruling.
— Logan Hullinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.