Governor Tom Wolf’s decision to withhold nearly $13 million in CARES Act money from Lebanon County has sparked criticism from local and state members of both the Republican and Democratic parties. The funds are intended to compensate county residents, businesses, and nonprofits harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The governor’s refusal led Lebanon County to file a “mandamus” lawsuit against the governor on July 22, asking the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court to order him to release the funds.
Mandamus (rhymes with “famous”) is a type of lawsuit that asks a court to order a public official to carry out a mandatory duty under the law – one which the official has no discretion, leeway, or authority to ignore.
As part of its lawsuit, the county has also filed an “Emergency Application for Relief and Expedited Hearing,” asking the court to decide the case quickly, instead of letting the lawsuit proceed in the usual, but slower, manner.
The county maintains that “[e]very day that Governor Wolf fails to release the Federal CARES act provided funding . . . results in irreparable harm to the County of Lebanon, its economy, residents, businesses, and non-profit entities.”
The Pennsylvania Attorney General has filed an answer on behalf of the governor, arguing that the county cannot be irreparably harmed, since the court can simply order the governor to release the money later, undoing any harm that withholding the funds has done up to that point.
A video hearing on the county’s emergency application will be held before the Commonwealth Court on Monday, August 10, at 2:30 p.m.
If the court grants the county’s emergency request on August 10, the funds could be turned over within days, unless the governor appeals to a higher state appeals court. If the court denies the county’s emergency request, the lawsuit could take months to resolve, and either side could eventually emerge victorious.
Many local and state groups have spoken out about the lawsuit and the governor’s decision, including several Republicans in the state legislature and the Lebanon County Democratic Party. Find a recap of the situation, plus what to expect next, below.
The CARES Act, or Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, is a $2 trillion federal economic relief package in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. $150 billion of this money is dedicated to the Coronavirus Relief Fund, which provides payments to state, local and tribal governments.
The state of Pennsylvania received $625 million of these funds to distribute to 60 counties in the state, but Gov. Wolf decided to withhold the $12.8 million allocated for Lebanon County.
This decision comes after several Lebanon County elected officials made the decision to prematurely move the county to the “yellow” phase of reopening, in opposition to the governor’s shutdown order.
Other counties, including Berks, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin and Schuylkill, made similar declarations but Lebanon County was the only one to follow through with early reopening. Lebanon County is also the only county Wolf has withheld CARES Act funds from.
Republicans in state legislature speak out against Wolf
Two separate statements were issued by members of the Republican Party in both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.
The first of these statements (PDF), released July 17, was signed by state Senator Dave Arnold of the 48th Senatorial District and state Representatives Frank Ryan, Russ Diamond, and Sue Helm of the 101st, 102nd and 104th legislative districts, respectively.
These legislators criticized Wolf’s withholding of CARES funding, describing it as “the epitome of political retribution” and “a discretionary act with improper motive”
They claimed that Wolf was wrong in his interpretation of the Lebanon County Commissioners’ resolution (and thus his motive for withholding funds) because the resolution “only applied to county-run facilities.”
The resolution did declare that the county’s movement to the yellow phase would include both the public and private sectors, but the resolution had no legal force outside of county operations and did not direct or require businesses to open. It also acknowledged that “limitations on businesses [would] still exist at the civil and state level.”
In their statement, the legislators cited Act 24 of 2020, which outlined the requirements and method for distributing the CARES Act money to PA counties, as an argument against Wolf withholding those funds. They said that this Act “does not authorize the executive branch to add additional requirements,” which would prevent the governor from withholding those funds from a county that meets the requirements.
Furthermore, they claimed that the governor may have violated the law.
“The governor is wrong, his motive is improper, and he may be in violation of provisions of the CARES Act and other federal or state laws,” said the legislators in their statement. “This is an incredible insult to the 140,000 people who have chosen to live in Lebanon County, and we are considering every available avenue of recourse to protect our constituents from his petty tyranny.”
Another Republican statement, this time a press release (PDF) from the office of House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, was released July 22 in response to Lebanon County’s lawsuit against Wolf. This statement was written by Benninghoff’s press secretary and Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus Spokesperson Jason Gottesman.
In the statement, Gottesman explained that the money Wolf is withholding is intended to help local communities, volunteer organizations and first responders “address the devastating impacts they are facing as a result of COVID-19.”
He claimed that releasing the funding would protect the taxpayers of Lebanon County from the legal expenses involved in compelling the governor to do so.
“Enough is enough,” said Gottesman in the press release. “It’s time to remove emotion and politics from the equation.
“It’s time for Governor Wolf to avoid costing Lebanon County and Pennsylvania taxpayers more money in an unnecessary court battle by releasing the money appropriated by the General Assembly—and signed by the governor—to Lebanon County.”
Lebanon County Democrats urge Wolf to release funds
The Lebanon County Democratic Party released a response to the Republican legislators’ statements on July 20. In this statement (PDF), the Democrats urge citizens who are upset about Wolf’s withholding of federal funds to “direct their anger to where it truly belongs — at county commissioners Bob Phillips and Bill Ames and the elected officials who urged them to ignore the governor’s executive orders to combat the COVID-19 virus in Pennsylvania.”
The statement hints at the fact that with the resolution having had limited legal weight, it’s possible that Wolf was further spurred into the action over local Republican support of businesses like Taste of Sicily, which operated in open defiance of state orders. Democrats criticized the elected officials who disobeyed Wolf’s orders in their statement, describing their actions as “ill-advised defiance” and claiming they were “turn(ing) a health crisis into a political war for their own personal gain and benefit.”
Despite their disagreement with the actions that caused the withholding of funds, the Democrats urged the governor to overlook them and release the funds to Lebanon County.
“The citizens of Lebanon county are hard-working, honest, and caring people,” stated the press release. “This is why we ask that, despite the open defiance, vengeful attacks and attempts to undermine our state government’s constitution by our county leaders, that Gov. Wolf will overlook the acts of our officials and release the $13 million so that our small businesses and organizations can receive the funding that they need with an assurance that it will go to the business and individuals that most truly need the help.”
Litz not on board with county suit; had started talks with governor
Democratic County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, who was the only commissioner to vote against the “go yellow” resolution, shares a similar sentiment to the Lebanon County Democratic Party.
In an email, Litz claims that she had started negotiations with Wolf to separate the issues of the elected officials’ defiance to the governor and the release of the CARES Act funds. This approach “was not given a chance to play out” before the county filed the lawsuit against Wolf, which she was not in favor of doing.
Commissioner Litz said a request that fellow commissioners hold off for 48 hours before suing Wolf to release federal coronavirus relief money was not honored.
The county’s lawsuit does not mention any commissioners by name, and the “verification” attached to it is signed only by county attorney David Warner, not by any of the three county commissioners. However, majority Republican commissioners Ames and Phillips voted in favor of the May 15 “go yellow” resolution.
Responding to an email from LebTown that asked whether she supported the lawsuit, Litz replied “No, sir. I asked for two more days. I had started negotiations to ask Governor Wolf to separate the two issues—reprimand of my colleagues who admit they defied the Governor’s Executive order, and release of CARES Funds to the people of Lebanon County who are suffering from the effects of the Pandemic just like all of the other people throughout Pennsylvania. My strategy was not given a chance to play out.”
Asked for comment on Litz’s email statement, fellow Commissioner Ames replied “She has no honor!” He said nothing else and did not refute Litz’s claim that she’d asked for an extra two days to try to reach an agreement on the release of the funds.
Commissioner Phillips had not responded to the same request for comment by publication time.
Community organizations send letters to Wolf requesting him to reconsider withholding CARES funds
On July 16, the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce published a public letter to Wolf urging him to reconsider the decision.
“Sixty-six of 67 counties have received their funding and are working quickly to infuse it into their local economies, helping thousands of businesses, non-profits, municipalities, and more. Lebanon County is the only one left in Pennsylvania that has not received the money as promised by the Federal Government,” wrote Chamber president Karen Groh.
“This is an unacceptable exclusion of just one county,” her letter continues. “This money, close to $13 million, is desperately needed to help our business community continue to recover and survive the ongoing restrictions and added costs to follow CDC guidelines. Tourism, small business, non-profits, and more have been patiently waiting to apply for this grant money as announced by the state. To take that away is an unfair punishment.”
“It is very sad for our business community,” Groh had said previously to LebTown of the situation. “They should not be the pawns in this game.”
The United Way of Lebanon County also spoke out about Wolf’s withholding of CARES funds from the county.
On behalf of the organization, CEO Brooke Smith sent a letter (PDF) to the governor on July 20, requesting that he reconsider his decision. This letter was also co-signed by 16 members of the United Way of Lebanon County’s Board of Directors, which happens to include Warner, as well as other community figures such as Cornwall-Lebanon Superintendent Philip Domencic and architect Bob Hoffman.
In the letter, Smith described the United Way’s efforts to help the community of Lebanon during the pandemic, which include organizing stakeholders, raising money, distributing information, and assisting local non-profit organizations.
She also mentioned her role as the Human and Social Services Action Team Chair in Lebanon County’s economic recovery initiative, Forward Together Lebanon.
“This group of community leaders has been collaborating for weeks, working hard to create and implement a plan that will allow us to rebuild Lebanon County stronger than before,” said Smith in the letter. “I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to request you consider possible solutions to disseminating these essential funds.
“This support could bring relief to various sectors who are struggling, all of which support our community at large.”
The letter also explained how the pandemic has negatively impacted many non-profit organizations because many of the businesses and individuals these organizations rely on for funding are financially struggling due to the pandemic.
“The weight is heavy as we stand witness to the health and economic impacts on our once strong corporate partners, small businesses, and community members with consistent income,” wrote Smith. “The realization slowly surfaces as the pieces fall into place that if our supporters are not on steady footing, our obstacles become all the greater.”
In order for the United Way to help these struggling organizations and rebuild the community at large, they need “all available resources to make this a reality,” including the funds from the CARES Act.
The letter does not discuss the mandamus lawsuit or Wolf’s motive for withholding these funds.
Smith said that sending this letter was not meant to be political but rather a “human response to the series of events that have brought us to this very point in time.”
Alexis Steele, Chris Coyle, Tom Knapp, and Davis Shaver contributed reporting to this article.
Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during previous election cycles. Ames Home Services and the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce are current advertisers on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here. Additionally, David Warner has a financial interest in the ownership of LebTown’s parent company Lebanon Publishing Company. He has no involvement in editorial operations, including this article.
This article was updated to include information about a letter sent by the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce to Gov. Wolf.
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