Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
Tennis held a press conference to explain his side of the story, telling reporters he felt he needed a chance to preserve his good name. (Photo by Katie Meyer/WITF)
(Harrisburg) -- After being suddenly fired Tuesday, Pennsylvania's now-former Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs said he wants to set the record straight.
Gary Tennis's termination was widely assumed to be related to a damning article alleging he gave a lobbyist power over his agency.
But Tennis said that's not true--he was fired because he doesn't want to cooperate with the governor's plan to consolidate the Drug and Alcohol Department into the Department of Human Services.
Tennis's firing came less than a day after a Reading Eagle report that he sought the approval of a treatment industry lobbyist before making a state hire.
He categorically denies the report. Tennis--who produced a stack of emails to back up his claim--said while lobbyist Deb Beck sat with the new hire, she wasn't the one making the decision.
"It is absolutely, 100 percent false," he said.
Tennis said his firing was merely timed perfectly to coincide with the article. While he would not say whether that was deliberate on the part of the state, he implied that he believes it was.
He said the real reason he's out of the job is his opposition to the state's future strategy for the department.
The plan is still unofficial, and is technically confidential. But because Tennis is no longer a state employee, he explained that the administration is looking to save money by downgrading the department from a state agency to a bureau, and incorporating it into the Department of Human Services.
The commonwealth is currently facing a multi-billion-dollar structural deficit. This year's state budget is unlikely to contain much new revenue because GOP lawmakers have taken a firm stance against levying new taxes.
The incorporation into Human Services is a similar setup to the one the state had before the Drug and Alcohol agency was formed. Tennis--who has run the department since its inception in 2012--said that backpedaling would be disastrous in the face of Pennsylvania's opioid crisis.
"We have been able to do--and I have a list--many, many things [as a state agency]," Tennis said. "I had meetings with the Pittsburgh police chief urging them to carry naloxone [an overdose-resuscitation drug]. I'm not going to get, as a bureau director, a meeting with the police chief. I'm not going to get 75 percent of Pennsylvanians having their police carrying naloxone if I'm a bureau director."
He said Wolf gave him the option to either resign or be fired.
"He said well, you aren't willing to support what I want to do here. I think we do have to have a parting of ways," Tennis recalled.
The Wolf administration wouldn't confirm why Tennis was fired, saying it does not comment on personnel matters.
It also didn't confirm whether the administration is shrinking the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.
A spokesman said only that "the governor has worked tirelessly to fight this public health crisis, and I want to be very clear--he would never consider any proposal that would hinder our progress or ability to tackle this challenge."
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