Fired Pennsylvania drug-prevention czar Gary Tennis broke his silence Wednesday, denying that he sought a lobbyist's approval in the hiring of an aide and saying he was ousted because the Wolf administration is about to consolidate his agency -- a move he told the governor he would firmly oppose.
In a lengthy and wide-ranging news conference with reporters, Tennis said he had never directed a prospective employee to interview for a job in his department with a longtime advocate in Harrisburg who also lobbies him on behalf of treatment centers.
He distributed copies of internal emails that he said document his decision to hire Angela Episale of Camp Hill at the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs long before she met with the advocate.
Tennis said the real reason he was fired this week from his $139,178-a-year job is because Gov. Wolf has been working behind the scenes on a proposal to merge his department with another state agency in the coming budget, which faces a daunting $1.7 billion deficit.
He said he told the governor in a private meeting this week that he would not back the recommendation. The legislation several years ago establishing his agency as a stand-alone department dedicated to drug and alcohol abuse prevention was "like the civil rights act of drugs and alcohol," he said.
"I'm not going to be a part of the repeal of the drug and alcohol civil rights act," he said. "The parents that have been fighting on this issue, the parents who've lost their kids ... the people that labor in the field, the very poorly paid treatment counselors, our recovery community -- they fought and fought and fought to get this done, and I'm going to stand with them. Even though it means I've lost my job."
The governor, he said, asked him whether he wanted to resign or be fired. He opted for the latter, he said, because "I haven't done anything wrong here."
Tennis' public airing of the circumstances behind his firing was a rare occurrence in Harrisburg.
It also provided an unexpected look into Wolf's budget plans, which have largely been kept under tight seal. It raised the question of why Wolf would consolidate a department that oversees programs for addiction and treatment that have become a major policy priority for his administration.
The governor has spent the last year crisscrossing the state to highlight the urgency of tackling what he has called an epidemic of opioid addiction and deaths in Pennsylvania.
Wolf administration officials have not publicly discussed the reasons for Tennis' abrupt dismissal.
J.J. Abbott, the governor's spokesman, in an email Wednesday reiterated that the administration does not discuss personnel issues.
Abbott would not confirm plans to merge the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, saying only: "The governor has worked tirelessly to fight this public health crisis, and would never consider any proposal that would hinder our progress or ability to tackle this challenge."
Tennis' firing followed a story in the Reading Eagle this week questioning whether Tennis was too close to a well-known advocate and lobbyist for treatment centers.
The advocate, Deb Beck, has been a fixture in the Capitol for more than two decades, testifying at committee hearings and pushing for more funding for treatment centers.
The newspaper reported that in 2015, Tennis allegedly directed Episale to meet with Beck first.
Shortly after that meeting, Tennis reportedly emailed her to tell her that Beck approved of her. "A good fit," Tennis said Beck had said of Episale, according to a copy of the message cited by the newspaper. Episale was then hired as a bureau director.
On Wednesday, Tennis passed around copies of email exchanges showing that he had been interested in hiring Episale dating back to 2013.
He said administration officials would not allow him to discuss the emails with the Eagle prior to its story.
Episale has since voluntarily left the department but has disclosed that she was disciplined before leaving for acting in what was called an unprofessional manner.
In an email, Episale said her ethics were never in question during her time at the department.