A cache of emails obtained by a Right-To-Know request and released to the public has provided new insight into the circumstances leading to Lebanon County’s “go-yellow” vote this past spring.
The emails were released by Pennsylvania Spotlight, a Philadelphia-based 501(c)(4) or “social welfare organization” which filed the Right-to-Know request to Lebanon County that resulted in the release of the emails.
Lebanon County Administrator Jamie Wolgemuth confirmed to LebTown that Sean Kitchen of PA Spotlight filed the records request on July 3 seeking email communications from Feb. 21 to that date between county personnel and recipients at the domains @PAHouseGOP.com, @PASen.gov, @TheCommonwealthPartners.com, and @CommonwealthFoundation.org. Wolgemuth said a total of 334 records were provided in response to the request. Wolgemuth said that as part of the RTK request some emails were withheld as they contained communications with constituents, which are privileged under state law.
PA Spotlight describes itself as an “investigative and accountability organization exposing extreme right-wing individuals and organizations throughout Pennsylvania,” according to organization head Eric Rosso.
The Commonwealth Foundation, which did not appear in the Lebanon County emails released by PA Spotlight, bills itself as “Pennsylvania free-market think tank” and is a frequent target of PA Spotlight’s RTK campaigns.
Rosso said that his organization filed RTK request with multiple counties that had sent reopen letters in response to Gov. Wolf.
“The impetus to this work was seeing the outsized role the Commonwealth Foundation and connected entities were playing in crafting a political response with legislators to counter the shutdown,” said Rosso in an email this week to LebTown.
It was not immediately clear if the emails posted to the organization’s website constituted the entire release, as some of the images contain multiple emails and some emails are represented more than once. On its website, PA Spotlight categorized the emails into themes of “silencing dissent,” “coordination with law enforcement officials,” “politicizing the coronavirus response,” and “lawsuit as a political response.”
Some in the public have confused Pennsylvania Spotlight and Spotlight PA, but the two have no relation. Although Pennsylvania Spotlight presents its articles in a way similar to that of a news website and also uses the term “newsroom” in its navigation, the organization is not a newsroom in the traditional sense and it tends to assume a progressive/antagonistic role with respect to its messaging. (Editor’s Note: To be absolutely clear on this point, LebTown has an editorial partnership with Spotlight PA, not PA Spotlight – Spotlight PA is jointly managed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Patriot-News, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and it has no ties whatsoever to PA Spotlight.)
The emails shed new light onto how Lebanon County’s self-made rebel status was realized as local Republican leaders sought to push back against perceived over-reach of Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 related business restrictions.
Primary participants on the emails include state Senator Dave Arnold; his chief of staff, Greg Moreland; County Commissioner Bill Ames; District Attorney Pier Hess Graf; state Representative Frank Ryan; and state Representative Russ Diamond. Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Yocum, County Commissioner Bob Phillips, and Sheriff Bruce Klingler are also copied, but do not appear to be active participants in the exchanges.
The emails date to May and June as the group was conceiving of and preparing for the commissioners’ go-yellow vote and the joint letter of support which preceded it.
As part of this letter, outreach to county police chiefs and municipal leaders as potential cosigners was discussed but not pursued, in part due to the threat of losing “unanimity.” At one point in the exchange District Attorney Hess Graf states that “we have near unanimous law enforcement backing.”
The emails include statements insulting those who disagreed with the go-yellow push. At an point in the emails, Rep. Diamond refers to an individual who reported a Myerstown business operating outside of state public health orders as a “snitch.” DA Hess Graf follows up in the thread to discourage the use of the word “snitch” because “there was no citation needed” and the word had negative connotations.
In a different thread, Arnold chief of staff Moreland offered a seemingly machoistic defense of the go-yellow move based on allowing the public to face their fears:
“If you don’t want to open your business, DON’T. If you are scared because you are a vulnerable population, DON’T leave the house. Nobody is forcing COVID in through these people’s vents in their homes… if you’re scurred (sic), stay at home and continue watching MSNBC 24/7. Lebanon County is for grownups that have found their sack and are demanding their constitutional freedoms be restored.”
Also included in the release is a document created by Moreland as a way to frame the go-yellow move and provide shared talking points.
The document includes a list of anticipated questions, such as whether the move could give Gov. Tom Wolf leeway to withhold funding from the county in retaliation for defiance of the order.
The emails include minimal discussion of a medical rationale behind a go-yellow move, and complicate LebTown’s timeline of how WellSpan’s Bob Reilly came to be cited by Lebanon County Commissioners Bill Ames and Bob Phillips as a medical expert endorsing the go-yellow move.
Reilly is a former GOP congressional staffer and current WellSpan government relations officer. During the May 15 go-yellow meeting, Commissioners Ames and Phillips said that someone from Senator Arnold’s office had been in touch with Reilly in response to a question about which medical experts had been consulted regarding the public health merit of the county’s resolution. Later on May 15, WellSpan and Senator Arnold’s both confirmed that a conversation had taken place between someone from Arnold’s office and Reilly, but both WellSpan and Arnold’s office said that the meeting did not directly address whether the county should be moved to the yellow phase.
According to the emails, state Representative Frank Ryan also spoke to Reilly one week prior to the go-yellow meeting, although this conversation was not publicly disclosed and did not become publicly known until last week.
Emails from Ryan on May 8 indicate that he spoke to both WellSpan and Cornwall Manor asking them to “remain silent” regarding the go-yellow move.
5/8, 11:27 a.m. – “I just talked to Bob Riley (sic) from WellSpan and they have agreed to remain silent.”
5/8, 11:49 a.m. – “I just got off the phone with Lee Stickler of Cornwall Manor and he has agreed to remain silent. However, he did indicate that he is very supportive of the efforts we are undertaking. He said over 80% of his residence (sic) would like us back in the yellow status now”
Asked to clarify the nature of the conversation that Reilly had with Ryan, WellSpan spokesperson Ryan Coyle said Monday, Oct. 5., that Reilly was asked on May 8 if WellSpan Health planned to publicly comment on Lebanon County’s decision to oppose Gov. Wolf’s mitigation orders. Coyle said that WellSpan has never publicly commented on political disputes and that the organization’s focus is on the health and safety of the communities WellSpan serves.
Coyle said that neither Reilly nor any other WellSpan executive was questioned regarding potential public health implications of opposing the mitigation orders, and that neither Reilly nor any other WellSpan executive provided responses or insights on such topics.
In response to questions sent to Arnold’s office on Monday Oct. 5 regarding who from his office had met with WellSpan, on what dates, and regarding which topics, Moreland said that he had spoken with Reilly to “simply better understand their capacity percentages, available equipment, available PPE, among others.”
Moreland said he was not certain which date this discussion occurred on.
“At NO point, did I ask for their silence, or discuss their position on a move to yellow, as they are not policymakers,” said Moreland. “This conversation was only to better understand their capabilities.”
Moreland noted that in his view the cache of emails was useless without any context.
In an interview with LebTown on Monday Oct. 5, Cornwall Manor President & CEO Lee Stickler said he recalled the phone call with Ryan, which he viewed as an informal heads up. Stickler said he did not recall sharing an opinion on the potential move to yellow in advance of the state’s timeline, and that he said Cornwall Manor wouldn’t be supporting or opposing what the county commissioners did because it was a political decision that would not affect how the facility operates. Stickler said that DOH and other agency regulations did not change between yellow or red.
Stickler said that he thought the 80% figure referenced might have been an allusion to the 80% of Cornwall Manor residents in independent living. These residents, like everyone else in Lebanon County, were restricted by the governor’s stay at home orders.
Stickler said he did not feel that Ryan was seeking an opinion or endorsement, and that this was never a board issue as Cornwall Manor had no intention of taking a position on the subject.
Asked about the conversations, Ryan said in an email to LebTown this week that he did not ask or suggest that WellSpan or Cornwall Manor “remain silent” on anything. Ryan said that his conversation with Reilly centered around ensuring they had sufficient resources and capacity at the time to handle the outbreak. Ryan said that Reilly assured him that they were meeting demand at the time. “WellSpan has always had the same concern about providing for our health care as we do in the legislature,” said Ryan.
Ryan said that he conveyed the group’s concerns about the dispute between the legislature and the executive branch and that Reilly indicated WellSpan does not and would not get in the middle of such a dispute. “Not getting involved in the dispute is the basis of my comment about WellSpan on the issue,” said Ryan.
“In a similar vein, I have worked with Cornwall Manor for several years and, like WellSpan and other care facilities, I know they would never involve themselves in a dispute between the Legislature and the executive branch, nor would we ask them to,” he added.
The emails also indicate that Ryan asked Lebanon attorney Tony Fitzgibbons to lobby the Pennsylvania Department of Health on behalf of Palmyra restaurant Taste of Sicily, which faced fines for openly violating public health orders related to indoor dining.
In regards to asking for Fitzgibbon’s input on the Taste of Sicily issue, Ryan said that “many folks asked about how they could help the other businesses and employees so horribly harmed after the then (seven) weeks or so of the shutdown.”
“Unemployment processing was lagging and PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) funding was scant,” said Ryan. “Our community has always been willing to provide input on their concerns about the impact the pandemic was having and Tony was no exception.”
Fitzgibbons did not reply to a LebTown request for comment.
Asked what his biggest takeaway from the emails was, Rosso of PA Spotlight said that it was “how Republicans in Harrisburg let those most extreme elements of their caucus define their public response to the shutdowns.”
“What was truly stunning though was the lengths they went to achieve this – silencing a hospital and retirement system, the abuse of county resources to craft a political response, and the total disregard for the health and safety of people living in Central Pennsylvania,” said Rosso. “Not once in the emails we received did this group of individuals have any concern for the welfare of the general public and, in fact, actually sought out data to fit their political narrative.”
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Tom Knapp contributed reporting to this article.
Full Disclosure: The campaign of Frank Ryan, WellSpan Health, and Ames Home Services are current advertisers on LebTown. The campaign of Dave Arnold, the campaign of Bill Ames, and the campaign of Bob Phillips were previously 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.