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Pa. refuses to release coronavirus case details

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The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

March 12, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Nearly 70 years ago, in the heyday of syphilis, Pennsylvania lawmakers wrote the state's primary public health law. Today, that law — which hasn't been updated since — is being used to limit what information health officials are providing to the public about the coronavirus

Also, the state says it's making progress toward reforming the legal guardianship system, but a Spotlight PA review finds many critical protections for vulnerable seniors are incomplete or "stuck" in the legislature. Plus, the Tribune-Democrat has the latest on secret meetings of the Johnstown school board where members discussed “hiring friends" and "awarding contracts."

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


"It’s as simple as that. That it’s not that simple."

— Stewart Greenleaf, a former Republican lawmaker, on the challenges of getting legislation passed to reform the state's guardianship system


Senate lawyer to lawmakers: Don't talk to Spotlight PA

Last week, The Caucus and Spotlight PA told you how top officials in the Pennsylvania Senate scrubbed or shielded key spending details. Now, the top lawyer in the Republican-controlled chamber is trying to muzzle senators.

Crystal Clark, general counsel for Senate Republicans, emailed GOP senators on Tuesday with a directive: Don’t respond to any inquiries about the chamber’s decision to black out — or delete outright — information about its expenses in response to public records requests by the two news organizations.

“All: I understand that representatives of The Caucus/Spotlight are calling individual members seeking comment,” Clark wrote in the email, which was shared with the news organizations. She then added: “Any inquiries that you may receive from the media regarding these requests should be directed to my office for a response.”

Asked for comment, Clark said in an email Wednesday that the questions being posed to senators contained “inaccuracies," though she did not respond when asked to describe the errors. Senators, she said, “were not equipped to accurately and fully respond.” She also said the matter involved legal issues.

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, called it “a classic case of damage control.”

“Am I surprised? No,” Borick said. “This has been the standard operating procedure in Harrisburg and the legislature for years.”

A growing number of senators have begun openly questioning why the Senate is withholding detailed explanations about some expenses. That includes information about meetings senators or their staffers had, where they traveled, and for what purpose. 

The Caucus and Spotlight PA have sought the expense records as part of an ongoing effort to document how Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, the largest full-time legislature in the country and one of the highest paid, spends the more than $360 million it receives every year.

Not every senator is following the directive.

Though Sen. Ryan Aument, a Lancaster County Republican who serves in leadership, said he hadn’t yet seen Clark’s email, he said he’d take it as “advice.” His responsibility, he said, “is to the people.” 

“I always think that transparency, complete transparency, and openness is always the best policy,” said Aument, who revealed two redacted expenses associated with his own office.

Another Lancaster County Republican, Sen. Scott Martin, said he has “no problem with people knowing what my staff or myself are being reimbursed for.”

And Senate Judiciary Chair Lisa Baker, a Republican from Luzerne County, said she has authorized the release of any expenses from her office that had been blacked out. 

Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Brad Bumsted and Sam Janesch of The Caucus

We have postponed this event out of an abundance of caution and will reschedule with our partners in the future. Stay healthy out there.


Legislature weighs coronavirus concerns, 'an aggressively bad idea,' and more from the week

» The session must go on: The state House and Senate will be back in session next week, despite concerns over the coronavirus, PA Post reported. What happens beyond that is up for discussion, according to caucus spokespeople.

» "An incubator": At least two lawmakers — Reps. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia) and Summer Lee (D., Allegheny) — think next week's session is the wrong move. "Reconvening the #PAHouse for legislative session next week is an aggressively bad idea," Rabb said on Twitter

» Limits at SCI Phoenix: With most of the state's positive COVID-19 cases in Montgomery County, the corrections department is screening employees and visitors at a facility there.  “[I]t’s likely that COVID-19 will eventually be present at one of our facilities,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said Wednesday. 

» Spotlight on Spotlight PA: The editorial boards of the Post-Gazette, TribLiveThe Daily Item, and The Citizens' Voice all called for greater transparency after The Caucus and Spotlight PA reported on the legislature's attempts to shield spending details. 

Cynthia Fernandez, Spotlight PA

Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg.
Can't-miss reads from this week
» SPOTLIGHT PA: State House reverses course, will release spending details
» THE APPEAL: Firing of public defenders may have violated Sunshine Act
» CAPITAL-STAR: Pension fund will audit opaque travel funded by public dollars
» POST-GAZETTE: Complaints allege white judge had history of making racist comments
» POST-GAZETTE: AG's office investigating pipeline and fracking companies 
» PENNLIVE: Nearly 10,000 state employees make at least $100,000

Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.

Around the world (Case No. 29): An explorer goes to a remote location to stay in a cabin. All of the cabin's walls face south. A bear walks by the cabin. What color is the bear?
Stumped? Get a hint. Feeling smart? Challenge a friend

Last week's answer: A snowman melted, leaving the items behind.

Congrats to Ray L., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who correctly answered: Connie S., Dave S., Larry D., K. Toth, Bill C., Dave D., Frank E., Lisa M., Jon N., Annette I., Bonnie Z., Leo M., Melanie B., Jodi A., Lois P., Jim K., Claudia M., Jeff W., Kenneth J., Judy E., Deborah D., Mark C., Laura B., William H., Melinda C., Suzy C., George S., Kathy W., Lou R., and Drew C.
» This week's Riddler hint: Location, location, location.
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