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Wolf warns requests for business waivers could reveal proprietary details as GOP presses court case

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Gov. Tom Wolf's administration went on the offensive this week against legislative Republicans.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — The legal battle surrounding Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown order intensified Thursday, with Republicans pushing for an expedited court decision that could force the Democratic governor to disclose records about waivers his administration granted businesses to operate during the pandemic.

Republicans who control the state Senate filed papers in Commonwealth Court seeking a quick resolution to the dispute, which centers around a legislative subpoena for thousands of records related to the waiver process.

For his part, Wolf went on the offensive this week. His administration sent emails — several of which were obtained by Spotlight PA — bearing his signature and warning business owners who had applied for waivers that several “entities” were seeking records related to their requests.

“In many cases, these requests include information that appear to be proprietary or even personal,” Wolf wrote in the emails. “Nevertheless, various entities … continue to press the administration to disclose this information.”

The governor made a similar argument in refusing to comply with the Senate subpoena.

Aside from Republicans, waiver records also have been sought by numerous news organizations — including Spotlight PA and The Inquirer — under the state public records act, which allows personal or proprietary information to be redacted. The state has largely stopped responding to such requests, citing the pandemic.

The email signed by Wolf directed businesses to consent to or challenge the disclosure of their information. In an unusual move, however, the administration did not ask for the responses to be sent to state officials overseeing the waiver process, but rather to Republican Sen. Mike Regan of York County, whose legislative committee approved the subpoena. The message included Regan’s email address.

In a statement, Regan called the Wolf administration’s email “wholly inappropriate.” His chief of staff also said the office had received “quite a few” emails from business owners.

“It seems a little on the snarky side,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, “and a little more personal than it would have been … if they had directed people to the institution of the Senate or the individual committee. It shows that there might be a little sensitivity.”

All of the nearly 43,000 businesses that applied for a waiver received the email, according to an administration spokesperson. About 6,100 were approved.

Casey Smith, spokesperson for the Department of Community and Economic Development, which oversaw the waiver process, said the administration sent the emails “to ensure that the interests of these businesses remain protected as the administration makes available information relating to the exemption process.”

“A reckless release of data, released without the knowledge of businesses, could be disastrous for many members of the business community, and a number of these businesses have already reached out to express their concerns about release of their proprietary information,” Smith said.

Smith did not respond when asked why the letter directed responses to Regan.

The developments ratcheted up the already fierce debate over whether the administration’s waiver program was fair and transparent. Businesses and elected officials have complained for weeks about the process, which they claim was unevenly applied to businesses in the same industry.

Some companies were issued waivers but had them revoked without explanation just hours before the administration late last Friday made public a list of those that had received the exemptions.

On Thursday, the administration added to that list, publishing names of businesses denied waivers, as well as those that had applied but did not need them to operate. Still, officials have not said what specific criteria were used in considering applications, the arguments applicants made in seeking waivers, and the reasons for why waivers were granted or denied.

The waiver process is now the subject of an inquiry by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. On Thursday, DePasquale told reporters that his team will review everything from the criteria state officials used to evaluate waiver applications, to any emails or letters from legislators or lobbyists seeking to influence the process.

He said his office has received more than 100 complaints from businesses, many small or midsize, that believe the waiver process was unfair. It is the largest number of complaints he has ever received at the start of an audit, he said.

Justine Cosley, whose waiver application for her cat grooming business near Pittsburgh was denied, received the email from Wolf’s administration on Tuesday.

“I have no problem releasing my information,” she told Spotlight PA.

Cosley’s business supplies cat hair to a company that makes the raw materials for allergy shots, which she says should have worked in her favor. “I know this seems like a joke, but it is not,” she wrote in her waiver application.

“I wouldn’t submit anything I was concerned about keeping a secret,” she said, adding that she still wanted to understand more about the decision-making process. “What did it take to get approved?”

In its court filing Thursday, Regan’s committee cited reporting by Spotlight PA that found the Wolf administration had made last-minute changes to the waiver program, revoking some businesses’ exemptions without explanation just hours before the list of recipients was made public.

“Such inconsistencies raise concerns that [the administration] may be changing, altering, or otherwise manipulating the records that are the subject to this enforcement action while the action is pending adjudication,” wrote Matt Haverstick, the lawyer representing Regan’s committee.

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