Pennsylvania’s Auditor General has launched an investigation into the state Department of Community and Economic Development’s handling of business shutdowns COVID-19.
“Some business owners complained that the department’s waiver process was too slow and not transparent enough,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said during a Thursday morning press conference. “My audit is intended to help make sure that the waiver process is managed more smoothly should it be necessary to use it again in the future.”
See a video of the press conference and ensuing Q&A below.
The audit comes in response to a letter sent Tuesday by the state’s 28 Republican senators, with DePasquale noting that although he had already been considering taking such an action, the letter served as a signal that the moment was right to begin the process.
“At a time when trust in government is low, we can’t continue down that same path,” State Sen. David J. Arnold (R-48) said Thursday in an email to LebTown. “The people must trust that their leaders will protect and serve them. We don’t get to pick winners and losers with just a flick of a pen. The people demand answers to why their businesses were shut while big-box competitors were allowed to continue to operate.”
The letter, dated April 28 and signed by all 28 Republican senators in Pennsylvania, asked DePasquale to begin an immediate investigation into the department’s decisions regarding business closures during the statewide shutdown.
“We ask that this audit be expedited to shine a light on the process that they used to determine what deemed a business ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’ as well as providing a complete listing of all businesses that were granted waivers,” the letter states. “The lack of predictability and accountability that Pennsylvania employers and employees have experienced has caused unnecessary anguish during an already uncertain and unnerving time.”
Gov. Tom Wolf began closing certain businesses on March 13 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. All businesses not categorized as “life-sustaining” were ordered to close their physical locations as of March 19.
According to the state Department of Health website, as of noon on April 30, Pennsylvania has confirmed 45,763 cases of the virus. COVID-19 to date has killed 2,292 people in the state, the department reported.
Last week, Wolf outlined general guidelines for reopening businesses beginning in early May, while limits would still remain on large gatherings.
However, some people have criticized Wolf’s administration for not being open about the process by which some companies were ordered to close and others were allowed to remain open for business. (Editor’s note: LebTown has editorialized on this issue, as has Spotlight PA editor in chief Chris Baxter on Twitter.)
Sen. Arnold said the audit will help shine a light on the Wolf administration’s handling of the waiver process for businesses that wished to stay open during the shutdown of businesses not deemed life-sustaining. The waiver process has been criticized, he said in a statement issued in conjunction with the letter to DePasquale, for “lacking clarity, consistency, common sense and transparency.”
Arnold, representing Lebanon County and parts of York and Dauphin counties, said Thursday it’s time that information was made available to the public.
“Right-to-Know requests have been filed by media outlets and the Administration has not honored them. The Senate has requested information and the requests have been ignored or denied,” Arnold said in an email Thursday. “There has been so much hidden from the public eye over the last two months concerning the governor’s declaration, and it is information the public deserves to know, specifically the metrics of picking which businesses may remain open and which may not, even within the same industry.”
The audit results will not include any specific business names, or the names of any DCED employees, abiding by general auditing principles with the hopes of improving the process. “If there is a concern that someone did something criminally, we certainly forward that information to the appropriate law enforcement agencies so they can handle it on that individual basis,” said DePasquale during the Thursday press conference, “but the goal of an audit is to make sure the process is fair and that, if there is a problem, we’re fixing it, not to name names.”
The senators’ letter to DePasquale noted that the Auditor General said, in an address to bankers on April 3, “These extraordinary times call for immediate action. I hope financial institutions across Pennsylvania will do whatever is necessary to help preserve millions of jobs – their customers are counting on them.”
Senators said they applaud DePasquale’s “advocacy and sense of urgency. Given recent developments, we formally request you take this proclaimed passion for protecting Pennsylvania taxpayers during COVID-19 and your constitutional obligation as Pennsylvania’s fiscal watchdog, to immediately begin an audit of the Department of Community and Economic Development.”
Further, the senators wrote that DePasquale, throughout his tenure as Auditor General, has said “it is crucial to prioritize bringing transparency and accountability to policies and procedures at every level of government and every type of industry. All Pennsylvanians should understand the process and determining factors that allowed some businesses to open and forced others to close.”
In October 2016, the letter noted, DePasquale addressed financial executives and legislators at a national summit on financial leadership and said “transparency means accountability.”
DePasquale said then that, while he understands it is human nature to want to keep some information private, at the end of the day, there is no excuse for not being fully transparent.
Arnold, in a statement, noted that Pennsylvania’s shutdown was not always consistent with other states or with federal guidelines, so industries that remained open elsewhere were forced to close here.
That, Arnold said, pushed more than 1.6 million Pennsylvanians into the Unemployment Compensation system – more than any other state in the nation except California.
In an email Thursday to LebTown, Arnold said he hopes the request for an audit will lead to more transparency.
“Why have lawmakers been met with silence?” he asked. “Why are subpoenas having to be issued to obtain answers to basic questions? This is not political, this is a check on the executive by a coequal branch of government. Communication is fundamental to effective and efficient leadership. Here, Wolf has woefully failed.”
Arnold said he hopes the audit “will commence immediately, and not drag out beyond November.”
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