Memorandum: Tom Wolf’s Lack of Transparency

Tom Wolf is a fan of talking up his transparency bona fides and attempts to restore public trust in Pennsylvania’s Executive Branch.

Take some of his statements made about “day one” action on these issues:

“Since day one of my administration, I have done things differently and worked to rebuild public trust in the executive branch.” — Tom Wolf, press release, March 12, 2018.

“Since day one of my administration, I have been committed to making state government more open and transparent.” — Tom Wolf, press release, August 22, 2016.

These statements could not be further from the truth.

In fact, since day one, Tom Wolf’s administration has proven itself as one of the least transparent and most untrustworthy in recent memory and people are taking notice.

An editorial in the Butler Eagle from last week spells out the exact problem with some tough words on the real transparency record of the Wolf administration:

This administration talks a big game about transparency and accountability. In reality, its first tendency is to secrecy. When it is called on that conduct, it shows no qualms about using public money to fund legal appeals that serve as delay tactics.” — May 29, 2018

Unfortunately, the facts mete out nothing but support for those who rightly question the Wolf administration’s success on living up to its transparency values.

The Wolf administration’s action in moving away from promised transparency and trust-in-government started just two days after being sworn in when the Governor fired Office of Open Records Director Erik Arneson.

Arneson, appointed at the tail-end of Gov. Tom Corbett’s term, was fired by Wolf. While the Governor questioned the timing and “transparency” of the Corbett appointment, the move was clearly seen as a power-play to appoint his own Director who would—at least in theory—be beholden to the Governor’s office rather than an independent body only beholden to the right of the people to have access to public information.

At the time, the Allentown Morning Call noted the problem with this:

“By removing the director so he can seat one of his own choosing, our new governor is creating at least the appearance that the person in that chair is beholden to him. That’s a problem because from 2009 to 2014, the Office of Open Records ruled on 56 appeals involving disputes about access to records from the governor’s office.” — Paul Muschick, February 4, 2015

Given how the the administration has used Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law to shield critical information, it’s no wonder why Tom Wolf wanted a less-than-independent Office of Open Records director.

Just in the last year, the Wolf administration has used Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law to withhold public information related to Pennsylvania’s Amazon enticement deal, Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program, and communications related to the development of the new Congressional map.

As it relates to the Amazon incentive deal, Tom Wolf took cues from his ultra-liberal cronies Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney in continuing to block public access to the full scope of the incentive package offered, despite being ordered to do so by the Office of Open Records after the administration sought to use the Right to Know Law to keep the offered deal secret.

Reaction has been harsh as exemplified by these comments from an editorial in PennLive/Harrisburg Patriot-News earlier this past May:

“But when it comes to public access to information, Wolf and his administration have shown a disturbing proclivity for old-school government secrecy. Despite promising more than $1 billion of your money to bring Amazon’s HQ2 Pennsylvania, the administration is fighting tooth-and-nail to keep taxpayers from seeing what’s inside the state’s pitch to the online retailing behemoth.”

More troubling to taxpayers is the push to keep this deal secret despite recent reports that the deal will include a massive new government program.

Now pending for over a year are Right to Know Law requests by the news media for information related to growers and processors in Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program.

Additionally, the Wolf administration’s Department of Health crafted regulations to try and nullify the Right to Know Law to keep the sought-after information secret while they continue to appeal the Office of Open Records’ order that the information be made public.

Another PennLive/Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial from May lambastes the administration’s secrecy.

“Worse, there’s every indication that the department was trying to pull a fast one on the taxpayers….It’s another sign of the Wolf administration’s disturbing penchant for secrecy, despite its public pose of defending and championing government transparency and accountability.”

Recently, the Office of the Governor has used the Right to Know Law to stymie the Republican Party of Pennsylvania’s open records request for communications between the administration and their privately-retained map-making expert in the lead up to the process that unconstitutionally created the current Congressional map.

While the Party continues to appeal the administration’s refusal to deny access to the communications, another editorial took the Wolf administration to task fo refusing to make the records public.

If there was no communication among the governor’s office, the justices, the experts and the Democratic redistricting committee, why was a request for official communications records denied?” — Altoona Mirror, May 4, 2018.

Tom Wolf’s lack of transparency has also been very troubling when it comes to personnel-related matters and his failure to give voters and taxpayers insight into why decisions were made and the truth about public officials serving under him.

While a number of the accusations leveled against Lt. Gov. Mike Stack are known, the Governor stifled transparency by not releasing the report compiled by Pennsylvania Inspector General Bruce Beemer into the full nature of Lt. Gov. Stack’s conduct.

Instead of letting the public see the report—even a redacted copy that withheld sensitive or personal information—the Governor chose to keep the report secret, forcing taxpayer dollars to be spent not only on the development of the report, but also defending its secrecy in Open Records and potential court appeals.

An editorial from earlier this year from the Pottstown Mercury notes how troubling the report’s secrecy is given that Lt. Gov. Stack was running for reelection at the time and that the Wolf administration released a similar report related to the Pennsylvania State Police.

We’re disappointed it has come to this, considering governmental transparency was a key plank of Wolf’s 2014 campaign for governor.”—January 5, 2018.

Additionally, the mysterious resignation of former Department of State Secretary Pedro Cortes has been a black spot on Tom Wolf’s transparency record.

While the circumstances behind Cortes’s departure were never revealed, news outlets reported that he was forced out of his position.

That begs the question of why. The answer from a Governor who has touted transparency values is silence.

Don’t taxpayers and voters deserve to know what happened that caused the resignation of one of the country’s most seasoned secretaries of state?

Apparently, Gov. Wolf does not think so.

Then again, secrecy is nothing new for this Governor.

Jason Gottesman, Director of Communications