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A sweet gig lets ex-lawmakers pad their pensions

The Investigator

February 4, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Unemployment woes, official apology, 2020 analysis, Wolf's budget, justice delayed, padding pensions, failing the Chesapeake, and a new war chest 
More than ever, we need independent journalists keeping an eye on Harrisburg. From redistricting to judicial districts, the vaccine rollout to election fallout, we're ready to cover it all. Become a member of Spotlight PA today and support this essential journalism.

Sandra Huffman sold her vehicle and her mother's gold jewelry, then started collecting cans to make ends meet. That's before she learned about the state's pandemic unemployment benefits via the federal government.

For Huffman and hundreds of thousands like her, the money was a critical lifeline. But those payments stalled around Christmas and didn't return until late last month. Claimants are still facing numerous bureaucratic hurdles, and many have still not received payment for all of the weeks they missed, investigative reporter Rebecca Moss found.

Months of reporting by Spotlight PA's Joseph Darius Jaafari resulted in an official apology from the state Department of Corrections. Jaafari revealed that the state was reporting flawed data to keep inmates, families, and public officials informed about COVID-19 in its prisons. Secretary John Wetzel said the data collection was "unacceptable" and vowed to make improvements. 

Also this week, Capitol reporters Angela Couloumbis and Cynthia Fernandez analyzed the legislature's performance in 2020 and found that very few bills signed by Gov. Tom Wolf addressed the coronavirus pandemic.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


"To now have to say, again, you’re going to have to wait. I would believe that my emotions mirrored the emotions of other victims."

Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, on learning that a proposed constitutional amendment will be delayed by years because of "human error"

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, find where to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and sign up for alerts for your county

» Wolf asks for tax increase on Pa.’s top earners amid pandemic

» There’s another path for survivors of clergy sex abuse to get justice. It faces an uphill climb.

» Top Pa. election official to resign after agency bungled requirement for constitutional amendment

» RSVP FOR FREE: Join us next week for our latest Capitol Live event to answer your questions about the vaccine rollout and the latest variants. Submit questions in advance to ypiper@spotlightpa.org.

How some Pa. lawmakers score a ‘golden parachute’ to pad their pensions

Members of Pennsylvania’s Gaming Control Board, whose responsibilities include meeting once or twice a month — three times in busier months — have among the highest-paid positions in state government, with annual salaries topping $145,000.

It’s one of the best jobs in town — if you can get it. That is because ex-state legislators are frequently on the short list when there’s an opening.

Last week, Frank Dermody, the top House Democrat who lost reelection in 2020 after 30 years in the legislature, was appointed to a two-year term on the seven-member board.

Dermody, a onetime prosecutor and magisterial district judge from Allegheny County, is the fourth ex-House Democrat to snag a coveted spot since the board, which regulates casino gambling and sports betting in the state, was established in 2004.

And when he joins this month, there will be some other familiar faces. The panel now includes two other onetime lawmakers from Western Pennsylvania: Sean Logan, a former Democratic senator, and Mark Mustio, a onetime Republican representative.

In Harrisburg circles, a spot on the Gaming Control Board of Commissioners is sometimes referred to as a golden parachute for lawmakers, because it pays more, which in turn can help to significantly boost future pension earnings.

In Pennsylvania, pensions for longtime state employees and elected officials are calculated using a formula that relies on years of service and the highest three years of pay. By joining the board, Dermody, who earned $130,884 as the House’s Democratic leader, could boost his base pay for the entire three years used to calculate his pension.

“I don’t know of any other board where you can increase your compensation and payout time all at once like that,” said Harrisburg-based good-government activist Eric Epstein. “I guess all ex-legislators are experts in gambling."

Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

FAILING THE BAY: Pennsylvania is failing badly in its obligation to clean up the Susquehanna watershed, seriously harming the Chesapeake Bay, the York Daily Record reports. The state is part of a regional compact, but hasn't dedicated the money needed to actually follow through with its goals.

UNDER INVESTIGATION: A federal grand jury is investigating a Beaver County nursing home where more than 70 residents died of COVID-19, TribLIVE reports. The FBI previously served searched warrants at Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center.

WAR CHEST: Joe Scarnati, a Republican who previously held the top spot in the state Senate, is now a partner in a new lobbying firm that controls a sizable campaign slush fund, The Caucus reports. Much of the PAC's money came from other accounts controlled by Scarnati, a prolific fundraiser.

HARD LESSONS: Teachers in central Pennsylvania told PennLive their complaints about unsafe COVID-19 conditions have been ignored by local and state officials. School nurses and other officials, meanwhile, have been tasked with contact tracing, rather than employees hired by the state health department. 

OFFICIAL RESIGNS: Philadelphia's deputy health commissioner resigned after emails obtained by The Inquirer showed she had given an unfair advantage to Philly Fighting COVID, the start-up that until recently ran the city's largest vaccination site. Billy Penn and WHYY News, meanwhile, found the controversial group had made an unusual at-home visit to provide testing to family members of Councilmember Bobby Henon, a major supporter.

» AP: Bradford County DA accused of sex assaults on clients

» CENTRE DAILY TIMES: Racists target PSU Black Caucus on Zoom

» COURIER TIMES: Primary care doctors wait for COVID-19 vaccines

» INQUIRER: Pa. lifer died of COVID-19 awaiting governor’s approval

» STAT: Trump official from Pa. fought to deny states aid for rollout

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VERY, VERY FEBRUARY (Case No. 78): Decode the sequence below to reveal the winning phrase.
L O I M V E + U
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: A(pril), M(ay), J(une), with 12 in the sequence (months)
Congrats to Lizzie S.,  who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: George S., Lynda G., Philip C., Lou R., Lois P., Rick S., Michael H., William D., Irene T., Hagan H., John H., Joseph S., Jim K., Tom D., Jody L., Bill K., Steven B., Eileen D., Edward F., Roseanne D., Bruce B., Michael S., and Jon N.  
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