Did you know Spotlight PA is a nonprofit? Learn more about our nonpartisan journalism »
Skip to main content
Main content

From the archives 2020

Pa. GOP takes Gov. Tom Wolf to court as it seeks records on controversial business waiver process

by Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA |

A man standing on the sidewalk on 52nd Street is surrounded by local business’s that are closed due to the coronavirus outbreak on Saturday, March, 28, 2020.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Philadelphia Inquirer

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.

HARRISBURG — Senate Republicans are taking Gov. Tom Wolf to court in an effort to force his administration to release more information about how it exempted certain businesses from a statewide coronavirus shutdown order.

The suit, filed Monday in Commonwealth Court, seeks to enforce subpoenas issued by a Senate committee in April for all notes, memos, emails, letters, and other documents related to the controversial waiver process. The Wolf administration rejected the request on Friday, though it did for the first time release a list of more than 5,000 businesses that were granted waivers.

But the information, published online, didn’t include the criteria by which applications for waivers were considered or the reason businesses were 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.

“Transparency is important in government, and we are in an obviously unprecedented time where the governor is wielding an unprecedented amount of power,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) told reporters Monday.

A spokesperson for Wolf said the administration is reviewing the filing.

In a Friday letter to lawmakers, 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.

But this “chief executive privilege” doesn’t extend to Dennis Davin, the cabinet secretary named in one of the subpoenas, Republicans argued in their Monday filing. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic should be considered an “extreme case” that warrants overriding the privilege.

In March, Wolf ordered large swaths of the economy to close in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients. His administration then launched a waiver process to allow companies to prove they were “life-sustaining” and should be permitted to reopen.

But from the beginning, the process was marred by questions about fairness and transparency, as some businesses claimed they were denied while others in the same industry were approved.

Media outlets including Spotlight PA and The Philadelphia Inquirer sought details about the waiver process through the Department of Community and Economic Development but were denied. The news organizations also filed a public records request, though Wolf froze that process in March as he closed state offices.

Democrats say the subpoenas are an example of politicking during a crisis and duplicative of a review being conducted by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. Wolf has said he welcomes the audit.

And in his letter Friday, the governor told GOP lawmakers that, as part of that review, his 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.

100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. If you value this reporting, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.

Get the top news from across Pennsylvania, plus some fun and a puzzle, all in one free daily email newsletter.