Did you know Spotlight PA is a nonprofit? Learn more about our nonpartisan journalism »
Skip to main content
Main content

News editor outed as white supremacist, site folds

The Investigator

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

Oct. 1, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Since 2017, Pennsylvania State Police has seized $608,000 in cash from drivers in the south-central region of the state, much of which was taken from people who were never charged with a crime, according to a new Spotlight PA investigation produced in conjunction with The Appeal.

Legal experts say the practice is a form of “highway robbery,” in which police take money — largely from people of color — to pad their yearly budgets and those of prosecutors. Law enforcement officials counter that forfeiture is an important tool in the battle against the drug trade.

As we found in a previous investigation, justifications that state police use to stop vehicles and then conduct a search can be questionable or outright illegal. In one case, troopers seized $50,282 after a traffic stop and charged the owner of the vehicle, who was not present at the time. A judge ultimately dismissed the charge — finding the search was illegal — but the state still kept $20,000.

We published another in-depth collaboration this week — this one with Pittsburgh City Paper — focused on how the Pennsylvania State Police's changing story on a shooting in rural Bedford County helped fuel white vigilantes and misinformation.

» These two investigative reports are examples of essential journalism that otherwise would not have happened without Spotlight PA. Your support provides our reporters the time and resources necessary to dig in and tell the stories no one else is telling. If you value them, please donate today.

We're also continuing to cover how the state legislature is preparing for the Nov. 3 election. This week, House Republicans pushed forward an effort to create an “election integrity” committee that Democrats characterized as a “stealth attack” on voting. The move came a day after President Donald Trump fanned manufactured claims of widespread fraud in Pennsylvania.

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA


"In my job, I’ve had to shine a light on really bad acts — and in doing that, it sheds light on bad actors."

— Jennifer Storm, Pennsylvania's victim advocate, on whether she believes she is being targeted by GOP leaders in the state Senate

Latest on COVID-19

ABOVE 1,000:
Pennsylvania closed out September with some concerning COVID-19 trends. After a decline in daily cases in August, we ended September with the state reporting daily cases above 1,000 on five separate occasions. Health officials continue to point to colleges and universities as the source of the increasing numbers. Also, here's a good primer on the good and bad of rapid tests, which are becoming increasingly common.

» Follow the latest state data with our coronavirus tracker, and sign up for weekly alerts with the latest data localized for your county

More from Spotlight PA

» How Pa.'s victim advocate found herself in the crosshairs of the Senate
» Hershey School proposes $350 million network of early childhood centers
» Could the Pa. GOP bypass the popular vote regardless of who wins?

State prisons in Pa. have kept their COVID-19 numbers low, but advocates say there are still issues 

Across the nation, state prisons have emerged as hotspots for coronavirus infections and deaths. 

Despite a lockdown, 155 inmates have died inside Texas prisons, which have a current infection rate of 1,744 people per 10,000 prisoners. Our neighbor to the east, New Jersey, hasn’t fared much better, with 49 deaths and an infection rate of 1,903 per 10,000 prisoners. 

Pennsylvania, though, has some of the lowest death and infection rates in the nation, according to data compiled by the Marshall Project and Associated Press. Currently, 11 inmates have died inside state prisons, and the state is reporting 92 infections per 10,000 inmates. 

Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society — the state’s unofficial ombudsman for inmates, staff, and their families — said that while the numbers may show signs of success, there are still issues inside prisons regarding safety, cleanliness, and communication. Those allegations are outlined in the organization’s recent survey of 345 inmates across the state. 

Most inmates who responded to the survey said they were able to regularly wash their hands (91%) and that the prisons were disinfecting communal areas (78%). But almost half (45%) responded that they weren’t able to clean their cells regularly, and only 44% said they felt safe inside the facility. More than 120 inmates specifically raised concerns that staff members are not consistently wearing masks. 

Among its recommendations, the Pennsylvania Prison Society urged the department to give inmates cleaning supplies and foster regular communication. Still, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel dismissed the survey’s results. 

“We have weekly virtual town halls (aka fireside chats) at each prison and are pleased with the mitigation efforts of our staff and the incarcerated population,” he said in a statement. “We currently have a lower infection rate than the community as well as a significantly lower rate of deaths with COVID.”

But epidemiologists have long argued the state’s official numbers aren’t an accurate reflection of the virus’ spread in corrections facilities. The Department of Corrections has only conducted 15,000 tests and it’s unclear how many of those were repeated on the same person. Currently, there are nearly 40,000 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s state prisons.

Joseph Darius Jaafari of Spotlight PA

From across the state

» Days after LNP | LancasterOnline revealed that a white nationalist was behind a conservative news site in Lancaster, the project has folded. The Lancaster Patriot’s publishers and investors — who have not identified themselves publicly — characterized Norman Asa Garrison III’s views as “politically incorrect and offensive.”

» As expected, state Senate Republican leaders are taking Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Capital-Star reports that the lawmakers are asking the high court to overturn a state Supreme Court ruling that gave counties an additional three days to receive and count ballots postmarked by Election Day, arguing that it will cause electoral chaos. Meanwhile, the legislature has not yet given counties more time to process mail-in ballots, which could also cause delays.

» A state appeals court has ruled that a federal law that protects firearm manufacturers from lawsuits is unconstitutional, PennLive reports. The ruling is a temporary victory for Mark and Leah Gustafson, who are suing Springfield Inc. over the 2016 shooting death of their son James in Westmoreland County.

More good reads

» THE APPEAL: Philly housing advocates declare victory after months-long battle
» WASHINGTON POST: The story behind the discarded Trump ballots in Pa. 
» MORNING CALL: Records shed light on why Lebanon wasn’t able to reopen earlier 
» MORNING CALL: How each part of Pa. will determine the next president
» TRIBLIVE: UPMC doctors: COVID-19 vaccine is ‘not going to happen’ this year
» WHYY: Pa. federal judge temporarily blocks USPS cost-cutting measures
» POST-GAZETTE: Newspaper union leader resigns after misconduct allegations
» BILLY PENN: Philly’s largest bank flip-flops on mortgage assistance  

Yaasmeen Piper of Spotlight PA


Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

TREE TRIVIA (Case No. 58): When Marley was 3 years old, she put a nail in a tree to mark her height. If the tree grows by 6 centimeters each year, how much higher would the nail be when Marley returned 7 years later?
Stumped? Get a hintFeeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Pumpkin "Pi"
Congrats to Drew C., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who have answered correctly: Nathan B., Michael H., Claudia M., Karen K., Hagan H., David T., Deb W., Alice O., Jaymes D., Lynda G., Kenneth J., Mary B., Maria Z., Jason C., Paul H., Karen and Ken S., Ed N., Melanie B., Bruce G., John H., Lindsey S., Lou R., Steven B., John D., Georgina R., Jeff B., Michael-Rachel L., Joseph S., Norman S.A., Thomas S., Mary S., Marlin E., John L., Joan C., Dennis F., Robert K., Jon N., Beth T., Jeff W., Annette I., Eileen D., and Joel S.
» This week's Riddler hint: "Started from the bottom, now we're here."

Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media.

Copyright © Spotlight PA / The Philadelphia Inquirer, All rights reserved.

Spotlight PA
225 Market St., Suite 502A
Harrisburg, PA 17101

You're receiving this email because you signed up for updates about Spotlight PA's journalism. 
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.