Pennsylvania auditor general probing ‘undue’ outside influence on business waivers

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale speaks Nov. 13, 2019, during a news conference on climate change.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s auditor general said Thursday his office will investigate whether outside influence – from lobbyists or legislators – played a role in which businesses received waivers to stay open during the pandemic shutdown.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he’s heard from confused business owners frustrated by the apparent inconsistencies in the state’s waiver decisions. The Department of Community and Economic Development received more than 42,000 applications between March 19 and April 3 for businesses petitioning for life-sustaining status during the coronavirus pandemic. A little over half received approval or clarification that an exemption was unnecessary.

Now, DePasquale said, his staff will focus on what impact communications with legislators and lobbyists had on the decisions DCED ultimately made. The question remains part of a larger probe into the overall process that DePasquale announced last month.

“Maybe it happened, maybe it did not,” he said. “But we are going to be examining that. If you are the same type of the business and one got a waiver and one didn’t … then one business is losing their livelihood because they didn’t hire a lobbyist.”

Gov. Tom Wolf rolled out the waiver process after imposing a statewide economic shutdown for businesses deemed nonessential effective March 23. His administration’s closures went far beyond the guidance set in place by the Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) regarding which industries could continue operating through the pandemic, a decision that’s sparked harsh criticism and a wave of GOP-backed legislation seeking to overturn it.

The DCED has also been slow to release details about which businesses received waivers and those that were denied. Senate Republicans subpoenaed the administration last week demanding documentation about the process to no avail. Instead, the governor dropped a partial list of waiver recipients on Friday, though it fell short of satisfying the subpoena, Republicans said.

DePasquale refrained from providing specifics on which business categories experienced the most inconsistencies or whether the decisions were justifiable.

“What raises the initial alarm is when one business that seems similar was closed and the other that seems very similar was granted a waiver,” he said. “That seems like something, that at first blush, is very alarming.”