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Broken program, local corruption, and cannabis data: Spotlight PA’s best investigations of 2023

by Spotlight PA Staff |

The interior of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — In 2023, Spotlight PA reporters uncovered serious issues with Pennsylvania’s mortgage relief program, probed deep-seated problems with the competency system, won a court battle to reveal secret details about the state’s medical marijuana program, and more.

Below, read more about some of our best investigations of the year.

The Waiting Game

In 2022, Pennsylvania launched a $350 million program to help people cover mortgage and utility debt, delinquent property taxes, and other housing costs.

But as Charlotte Keith found, the program struggled to get the information it needs from mortgage companies, causing delays and complaints from increasingly desperate applicants who say they cannot get updates from program workers.

The state fired the contractor in charge of running the program just days after Keith’s first story — accusing the company of failing to deliver on promises — but that didn’t end the problems. Keith found the state was still struggling to get money out the door months after firing the contractor with serious consequences for homeowners in need of relief.

A Criminal Solution

A decades-old Pennsylvania law is supposed to protect people with mental health issues from prosecution if they cannot understand the legal system and cannot aid in their own defense.

But an investigation by Spotlight PA’s Danielle Ohl with the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism found that, rather than help people with mental illness, the competency system is so broken it often extends incarceration which can exacerbate mental health issues.

There is no one state agency overseeing the competency system and no standardized way for documenting competency assessments and hearings, making it difficult to identify people who may be languishing in jail.

High Anxiety

After a court battle, Spotlight PA’s Ed Mahon obtained records that showed anxiety disorders are now the leading reason Pennsylvanians get a medical marijuana card.

However medical evidence that cannabis or its compounds help treat anxiety is limited and mixed. Medical marijuana program leaders in at least three other states have rejected it as a qualifying condition, citing the lack of scientific evidence, the potential for some doses and types of cannabis to worsen anxiety symptoms, or other unintended consequences.

Richest Little City

In March, the Office of Attorney General announced that Herm Suplizio — the city manager of DuBois — had been arrested for stealing more than $600,000 from public accounts over which he had signatory control.

Spotlight PA’s Angela Couloumbis and Min Xian dug through public records, attended meetings, and spoke with more than two dozen residents, elected officials, and others to get the inside story of Suplizio’s rise and alleged fall.

They found that under Suplizio’s watch, DuBois received far more in state grants than other Pennsylvania cities of similar size. He also took care of city employees financially, giving out more than $561,000 in bonuses from city coffers to key staffers between 2014 and 2022.

Suplizio held multiple jobs that presented potential conflicts of interest while he worked as the city’s manager, including executive director of the DuBois Area United Way. However, no one in the city’s government publicly flagged it as a problem.

Missed Conduct

Penn State overhauled its ethics policies and misconduct reporting systems after the Sandusky scandal to protect students and employees.

But an investigation by Spotlight PA’s Wyatt Massey with the Centre Daily Times found that, years later, distrust is rampant and many fear retaliation if they speak up.

Here are some of the year's other Spotlight PA highlights:

>> Lobbyist says she was sexually harassed by Pa. lawmaker Mike Zabel, calls on him to resign

>> Shapiro admin contends taking Super Bowl tickets from group that gets state money didn’t violate governor’s own gift ban

>> Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office quietly settled sexual harassment allegation against top aide

>> An older Pa. woman was placed under guardianship. Her family says the system betrayed her.

>> Pennsylvania’s Election Code is badly outdated. That could have serious consequences in 2024.

>> Thousands miss out on low-income tax forgiveness program due to outdated income limits

>> Bad tech, staffing shortages hinder Pa. as it reassesses health care coverage for 1000s

>> A dying man won release from prison after Spotlight PA highlighted his case. It shouldn’t be that hard, advocates say.

>> Opioid settlement money is supposed to expand syringe services. Pa.’s drug laws stand in the way.

BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

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