HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – The now-dismissed state secretary in charge of drug and alcohol programs in Pennsylvania on Wednesday challenged the contention that he had directed a job applicant to undergo a pre-hiring interview with a lobbyist for addiction treatment contractors.
Gary Tennis said the applicant’s meeting with a representative of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania was not an interview. Rather, he said, the decision to hire the applicant was made well before the meeting and the meeting was in preparation for the job.
Tennis said it is “flat-out, 100 percent categorically false” that he allowed the lobbyist, Deb Beck, to screen the applicant.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf abruptly dismissed Tennis as secretary for the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs on Tuesday. Wolf’s office has not explained why it dismissed Tennis. But the move followed a report by the Reading Eagle that a former agency bureau director, Angela Episale, had said Tennis told her in 2015 to meet with Beck because it “would give me my best chance” of getting hired.
They met for about an hour or more on March 11, 2015, and Tennis emailed Episale less than a week later to say Beck “thinks you’re a good fit,” according to an email Episale provided to the Eagle.
Episale started working at the department several months later as director of the bureau of treatment, prevention and intervention, giving her influence over treatment policy across the state, according to the Reading Eagle.
It is not the first time questions have been raised about the influence of Beck’s organization on the department. In June, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, wrote to Wolf to complain that Beck’s organization wielded “unbridled control” over Tennis’ department and that the department had refused to allow funding for alternatives to long-term residential treatment centers while continually pressing for more money to pay for more treatment center capacity.
On Wednesday, Scarnati said the allegations against Tennis should prompt a thorough review of referrals to long-term residential treatment centers and whether other treatment options were available or used.
The 70-employee Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs is one of the state’s smallest Cabinet agencies. It is budgeted to distribute about $115 million this year in state and federal funding to county-based addiction treatment programs, and counties must receive department approval for plans to use the money.
Tennis, 63, a former Philadelphia prosecutor, had held the $137,000-a-year job under two governors since the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs was created in 2012.