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

From the archives 2020

Gov. Tom Wolf rejects GOP subpoena for business waiver records, but releases some information online

by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA |

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all but “life-sustaining” businesses to close in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Commonwealth Media Services

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 — Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday rejected a subpoena by Republican lawmakers for records related to the administration’s coronavirus waiver process, potentially sparking a constitutional showdown in the courts, but did release a list of thousands of businesses that received approvals to reopen amid the shutdown.

“This information should be sufficient to address your committee’s concerns,” Wolf wrote in a letter to Sen. Mike Regan (R., York), who signed the subpoena.

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

In total, the disclosure fell well short of what has been demanded by legislative Republicans and requested by numerous news organizations.

In the letter to Regan, 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.

“Therefore, to preserve these constitutional boundaries, my office will not be substantively responding to your subpoena,” Wolf wrote.

The governor also fired back at Republicans, noting that, as part of a separate review of the process by the state Auditor General’s office, the 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.

Senate Republican leadership said Friday evening that the information posted online only partially responds to their request. They said they are reviewing “next steps,” including court action “to intervene and force the administration to comply with the subpoena.”

“As an equal branch of government, we are looking at our legal options to further getting the information out to the public,” Senate Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said. “The public has a right to understand the methods behind granting waivers to some employers and not others.”

For weeks, the Wolf administration has put off requests from news organizations for information related to the business waiver process, which has been cloaked in secrecy. The state has declined to say what criteria they used to make determinations. And many businesses complained bitterly that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to why some companies had received them, while others in the same industry were rejected.

In at least two instances, Wolf yanked waivers for companies after Spotlight PA questioned why they had received them. One of those businesses was the cabinet supply company once owned by Wolf’s family.

In releasing the information late Friday, the administration said it had granted just over 6,100 waivers — but that final tally was inconsistent with what officials have said in the past about how many exemptions were granted.

In a press release Friday from the Department of Community and Economic Development, which spearheaded the waiver process, officials said they had approved 6,066 waivers. On its website, it said it had approved 6,104 (within an hour, that number had been updated to 6,123).

But all are fewer than what was reported by the administration at the end of April. At that time, they said they had approved 6,171 exemptions.

The discrepancy immediately raised questions about the numbers. One Republican lawmaker, Sen. Scott Martin of Lancaster County, said he received information from a company that its waiver was abruptly revoked on Thursday.

“Was this a last minute attempt to clean up the list?” Martin wrote on Twitter.

An email obtained by Spotlight PA shows that one company, a Central Pennsylvania garden store, received an email at 9:30 Thursday night informing it that its waiver was being yanked.

“It’s really frustrating to know that this is happening at the last second,” said Martin, reached for comment Friday. “My first thought is, what are they trying to hide?”

Republicans in the state Senate last week authorized two subpoenas, asking for all notes, memos, emails, letters, and other documents related to the process. In addition to Wolf, a separate subpoena named Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin.

Wolf ordered all but “life-sustaining” businesses to close in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, while also creating the waiver process “in an attempt to actually make the process more open and transparent,” he told reporters in April.

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.