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Engineering firm allegedly defrauded Pa. towns for years

The Investigator

December 17, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Short-staffed institutions, restaurants defy Wolf, an eviction disaster looms, update on vaccines, a massive fraud scheme, and disputed insurance claims. 

It becomes more apparent every day that people in confined spaces and close proximity to others are the most vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus. And state institutions such as psychiatric hospitals and prisons, meant to maintain safe health standards for people in their care, are struggling to retain staff and protect residents, making for some perilous situations.

In western Pennsylvania, Spotlight PA's Ed Mahon found that a state psychiatric hospital said it was at risk of losing federal funding because of extreme staffing shortages. The hospital had closed one patient ward on weekends and some weekdays, and required employees to work extra hours. The situation was disclosed in an emergency request to hire a staffing agency.

And Spotlight PA's Joseph Darius Jaafari reported that at state prisons, where the number of coronavirus infections is now more than seven times what it was during the first seven months of the pandemic, officers are being told to return to work before their coronavirus symptoms subside

Meanwhile, Gov. Tom Wolf's administration is in a legal battle over its latest restrictions on schools and indoor dining. Many restaurants are choosing to defy the governor, though state officials have vowed a crackdown. At least one Erie hotel restaurant is getting creative.

Finally, Spotlight PA's Charlotte Keith has been on top of the looming eviction crisis since the start of the pandemic. In her latest report, she writes that as many as 240,000 tenants in the state could lose their homes if the current federal eviction ban (which has its own problems) is allowed to expire in January.

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"We continue to wonder why the famed Pennsylvania Dutch frugality hasn’t spurred sensible consolidation of the magisterial district court system."

— The editorial board of LancasterOnline, on how some local Pa. judges earn big salaries and benefits but spend relatively little time in court

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, and sign up for alerts for your county.

» Pa. presidential electors make it officially official for Joe Biden

» Counties want changes after tight mail ballot deadline caused a crunch

» As coronavirus hits home, GOP changes tone but still rejects mandates


Pennsylvania endured its first widespread snowstorm of the season Wednesday — with some areas getting as much as two feet overnight — but state officials said the weather would not delay the delivery of the coronavirus vaccine to the state’s hospitals. 

As of Wednesday, 16 hospitals across 13 counties had already received doses of the vaccine. What remains of the 97,500 doses allocated so far to the state by the federal government will be distributed to 71 more hospitals by Monday.

In the mix are facilities that are part of health systems like Allegheny Health Network, Geisinger, Penn State Health and UPMC, along with some smaller hospitals and health care networks serving suburban and rural areas, like the Butler Health System in Butler County; Monongahela Valley Hospital in Washington County; and Titusville Area Hospital in Crawford County.

Philadelphia County Health Department has its own vaccine plan and received 13,650 doses to distribute to its hospitals. 

Pennsylvania health care workers, who are the first priority group receiving the vaccine, started receiving vaccines Monday. 

But state officials have said the total number of doses Pennsylvania will receive and when they will arrive is in large part up to Operation Warp Speed, the federal program overseeing vaccine development and distribution. 

“I’ve been convinced that they’ve done a pretty good job of getting us to this point,” Gov. Tom Wolf said during a news conference Tuesday. “We don’t know exactly how much vaccine is going to get to us and how quickly.”

Hospitals selected for this first round of distribution do have one thing in common: the ability to store the vaccine. Produced by Pfizer, it must be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit — colder than Antarctica. The doses are delivered in expensive packages informally called pizza boxes and packed with dry ice. 

Other hospitals are waiting for a second vaccine, produced by Moderna, which can be stored at room temperature for up to 12 hours and only has to be kept at -4 degrees Fahrenheit. It is expected to receive emergency use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration this week. 

It’s not yet clear how long it will take for that vaccine to make its way to states and into the hands of Pennsylvania health care workers. There are more than 200 general acute care hospitals and specialty hospitals statewide. 

“Next week I think we will start to get the Moderna shipment,” Wolf said. “At this point, we don’t know how much of that Pennsylvania is supposed to get.”

The hope is that Pennsylvania has about 500,000 vaccines before the end of December, Wolf said. 

Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine is providing another update on vaccine distribution in the state this afternoon.

Jamie Martines, Spotlight PA 

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MASSIVE FRAUD: Boucher & James — a civil engineering firm with more than 100 clients throughout Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties — spent nearly a decade allegedly billing for work they never completed, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports. The affidavit claims the firm oversaw a plan between 2009 and 2018 to manipulate their employees’ time cards, artificially inflating the number of hours worked.

YOU BE THE JUDGE: A major investigation by PennLive and Spotlight PA last week highlighted how some local Pa. judges enjoy short workdays and easy weeks despite good pay and benefits. Now, you can look up the judges in your county to see how often they are in court compared to others.

DUBIOUS RANKING: Six out of the 10 long-term care facilities with the most COVID-19 related deaths nationwide are in Pennsylvania, according to an updated New York Times dashboard. The virus has exploited long-standing problems with the state government's oversight of facilities, though new rules are apparently coming soon, and that has some worried.

SERIOUS CLAIMS: A federal judicial panel has consolidated more than a dozen cases alleging Erie Insurance Group has wrongfully refused to cover businesses' lost income due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, according to Law360. Erie is the second insurer to face multidistrict litigation over its rejection of policyholders' claims for pandemic-related losses.

INSTILLING TRUST: As vaccines are distributed across the country, it has been well documented that the government is struggling to gain the trust of communities of color. That has provoked some to take action. The head of a Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium in the Philadelphia area changed course Wednesday and got her own vaccine, according to WHYY. And the Trump administration is turning to historically Black colleges and churches for help

» INQUIRER: Philly man shot by police, accused of rape exonerated 19 years later

» ERIE NEWS NOW: First came news of a vaccine. Now come the scams.

» LEHIGH VALLEY LIVE: Northampton County’s number of inmates with COVID-19 triples in 2 weeks

» CENTRE DAILY TIMES: State College: Community Oversight Board on police takes step forward

» WFMZ: Newly-formed Lehigh Valley Justice Institute hoping to be a model for criminal justice reform

» KEYSTONE CROSSROADS: As the gap between students and teachers of color widens in Pa., Black families demand change

Yaasmeen Piper of Spotlight PA

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

WINTER IS HERE (Case No. 71): The following letters and symbols represent a phrase in a popular holiday song. Can you decode the phrase?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Spell that without any 'R's: T-H-A-T
Congrats to Maureen G., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Michael H., Dennis P., David H., Lynda G., Rick S., Jaymes D., John D., George S., Hagan H., Mary H., Marvin S., Burnetta S., Judy A., Joseph S., Frank D., Beth T., Annette I., Jody L., Edward F., Ed N., Lou R., George S., Philip C., William D., Karen and Ken S., John H., Barbara W., Joel S., Bruce B., Lucy B., Eileen D., Jyotin S., Heather B., Roseanne D., Norman S.A., Barbara M., Kim H., Jonathan T., and Jonathan N.
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