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The inside story of Pa.'s failed rent relief program

The Investigator

February 18, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Doomed effort, hold harmless, escaping scrutiny, data delay, vaccine questions, no comment, nursing home rewards, and no training.

Pennsylvania’s first effort to help renters harmed by the coronavirus was doomed from the start.

A review of thousands of emails obtained under the state Right-To-Know Law by Spotlight PA's Charlotte Keith shows housing officials were not consulted on the details and warned of serious problems before it launched, but their pleas for help never resulted in the changes they said were needed.

As a result, Pennsylvania tenants in dire need of assistance, some of whom have been living day to day in fear of losing their homes, missed out on roughly $96 million of $150 million in federal coronavirus relief that instead went primarily to pay for the payroll of the state prison system.

Now, the state is preparing to spend $848 million in federal funding on a second round — and thousands of tenants and landlords are hoping the state does a better job than last year.

Also this week, Capitol reporter Cynthia Fernandez went deep on Gov. Tom Wolf's proposal to push a record amount of state education dollars through a "fair funding" formula. The plan requires officials to raise the personal income tax, a nearly impossible sell to many in the legislature. 

» If you learned something from today's edition, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can tomorrow.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


The program "continues to reveal new levels of dysfunction ... like that long, lost, alcoholic uncle."

Bryce Maretzki, a senior official at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, on a troubled rental relief program launched in summer 2020

» 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

» State Police will escape legislative scrutiny in 2021 budget process

» Census data delay could put redistricting process transparency at risk

» The most frequently asked questions about Pa.’s vaccine rollout

Pa.'s new auditor general says his election was fair, but he won’t talk about the rest

The state's new auditor general — charged with serving as an independent and impartial fiscal watchdog on behalf of taxpayers — has refused to affirm that the 2020 election was fair and accurate, despite his own victory.

Timothy DeFoor became the first Republican in more than two decades to win the row office, a major victory for the party. And he was clear, when he recently appeared before a state House committee, that he believes his race was fair and that he is the rightful victor.

As for the other races on the same ballots in the same election? He has nothing to say.

“I believe my election was fair,” DeFoor said in response to a question from Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia). “As far as anybody else’s election, that’s a conversation that you would have to have with them, but I haven't heard any complaints with regards to my specific election.” 

When pressed this week about the comment, a spokesperson from DeFoor’s office called it a “personal view” and declined to elaborate.

Although Pennsylvania Republicans fell short in their efforts to re-elect President Donald Trump, the GOP performed extremely well in down-ballot races, maintaining their majority in the state Senate, growing their control in the state House, and flipping two statewide row offices.  

Despite those gains, party leadership has repeatedly questioned the integrity of the election, while a handful of Republicans have fueled false claims of voter fraud.

The hearing DeFoor attended was one of 14 scheduled by Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) to investigate the 2020 election and evaluate Pennsylvania’s Election Code more broadly.

DeFoor said he was only there to testify about a 2019 audit of the state’s aging voter record system, which was overseen by his predecessor, Democrat Eugene DePasquale. He spent much of the meeting deferring questions to two staffers who helped with the audit.

Before Kenyatta could press DeFoor further, Rep. Paul Schemel (R., Franklin) interrupted him. “I think that’s outside of the boundaries of the discussion we’re hearing today,” Schemel said.

Asked if DeFoor stood by his comments and would elaborate, his office declined Wednesday.

“Auditor General DeFoor was asked an off-topic question by a committee member and expressed his personal view,” a spokesperson for DeFoor’s office said in an email. “Because the department may yet be asked to become involved in an official capacity, he must maintain his independence and has no further comment.” 

Marie Albiges, Spotlight PA

MAJOR DELAY: Time-sensitive COVID-19 vaccines could be delayed for up to 100,000 Pennsylvanians after some providers inadvertently gave dedicated second-round shots to first-timers. Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam called it a “perfect storm of circumstances," per The Morning Call, though officials are still trying to figure out how many providers made the mistake.

UNPREPARED: The citizen-led Elections Task Force found Allegheny County did not properly train poll watchers and lacks a workable management system, according to PublicSource. The report confirms previous reporting by Spotlight PA and Votebeat.

UNJUST REWARD: A federal program designed to reward nursing homes that protected their residents from COVID-19 benefited some of the most dangerous in Pennsylvania, the Post-Gazette reports. One of those facilities, Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Beaver County, was fined $65,300 after dozens of residents died but then given $145,000 in reward money. 

 RESURFACED: The procedural blunder that further delayed a decades-long push for greater legal recourse in clergy sex abuse cases has victims feeling traumatized anew. “[It] was a real dark wave that came over,” Jay Sefton, who was abused by a Havertown priest in 1985, told WHYY. Spotlight PA first reported on the fallout from the bungled rollout of a ballot question that could have seen litigation restrictions loosened in such cases. 

NO COMMENTS: Of the dozens of Republican state lawmakers who wanted to overturn Pennsylvania's electoral votes, just two agreed to speak to WITF about their thinking. “In my own introspection, I think, ‘What were my own sort of words and comments that I used from the day of the election forward, and when is speech insightful and when is speech inciting?'” one lawmaker told the outlet.  

» AP: Amid growing backlash, Pennsylvania GOP may censure Toomey

» CENTER SQUARE: Officials worry 2020 deadliest year for overdoses

» LNP: Local governments look to D.C. Democrats for needed aid

» POST-GAZETTE: Tax Day comes with surprise expense for unemployed

» WHYY: A crisis of anti-Asian speech surfaces at suburban district

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.

GOOD OF THE ORDER (Case No. 80): What are the next three letters in the sequence OTTFFSS?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: They are the same person, Grover Cleveland. 
Congrats to John D.,  who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Roseanne D., Jon N., Norman S., Joe, R G., Mary S., Robert K., Eileen D., Lucy B., Mark A., Steve B., Annette I., Jaymes D., Dan D., John H., Thomas D., Mary B., Jane P., Dennis P., Christopher R., Joseph S., Ed N., Dave T., William D., Rick S., Jyotin S., Michael H., Lynda G., Beth T., Michele M., George S., Kenneth J., Lois P., Judy A., Karen K., Barry A., Phil C., and Kathleen P.
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