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Ex-state official says allegations against him are 100 percent false,

Gary Tennis - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

Allegations that lobbyists were influencing the hiring process within the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol are 100 percent false, according to its former leader.

The governor said Tuesday that Gary Tennis was no longer leading the department.  Tennis told reporters Wednesday that an article in the Reading Eagle this week that indicated he was allowing a lobbyist to interview prospective employees was not true.

A former employee of the department, Angela Episale, said that Tennis had asked her to meet with lobbyist Deb Beck to improve her chances of getting the job as director of the bureau of treatment, prevention and intervention, the Reading Eagle reported Tuesday.

Beck is president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania, a statewide coalition focused on addiction prevention, education and treatment.

Tennis claims that the decision to hire Episale was already made before she met with Beck, and that the meeting was arranged to prepare Episale for the job, the Associated Press reported.

Tennis also told reporters that there was conflict with the department prior to the accusations made against him. The bigger issue at stake is that Gov. Tom Wolf plans to dismantle the department and turn it into a bureau instead, Tennis said. Tennis opposed Wolf’s plan because of funding concerns, so there was already existing conflict.

Wolf did not provide an explanation for why Tennis was dismissed Tuesday, because the governor’s office “does not discuss personnel matters,” Wolf’s press secretary J.J. Abbott said.

“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,” Abbott said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol was formed in 2012, and up until Tuesday, Tennis has served as secretary. Now, Wolf has appointed the agency’s former deputy secretary, Jennifer Smith, as acting secretary.

Tennis is a key figure in the state’s fight against the opioid pain pill and heroin epidemic, and the department has played a vital role so far in the state’s efforts to combat the heroin and opioid pain pill epidemic – a public health crisis that has been a top priority of the governor.

While more than 3,500 Pennsylvanians died from a drug overdose in 2015, that number is expected to have exceeded 4,500 last year, Wolf said this week, noting that some coroners have not yet reported their totals for 2016.

Lenay Ruhl

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