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A new small biz grant program minus accountability

The Investigator

February 25, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Another try, Spotlight PA sues, losing power, no changes, the placeholder, care home crisis, no convictions, isolation impact, and backing cannabis.
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Applications open next month for $145 million in state grants for small hospitality businesses, with a significant change by lawmakers intended to ensure the money is more accessible to low-income and minority owners shut out from some relief last year.

But assessing whether it’s a success will be difficult, Spotlight PA's Charlotte Keith found, as the legislature failed to give the Wolf administration the authority to collect data on race or ethnicity from applicants.

Demanding transparency and access to information to benefit the public is at the heart of what Spotlight PA does, which is why — with The Philadelphia Inquirer and LNP|LancasterOnline — we're suing to unseal court records related to the embezzlement conviction of former state Rep. Leslie Acosta.

“These interests are particularly stark in cases of public corruption,” lawyers for the news organizations argued recently. “Without transparency in such cases, the public’s faith in the judicial system and government as a whole is jeopardized.”

One of our efforts to hold powerful entities to account was raised Thursday during the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing of former Health Secretary Rachel Levine, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as assistant health secretary. U.S. Sen Susan Collins cited reporting by Jamie Martines that found COVID-19 case and death data for nursing homes was still missing months after the state began releasing public reports.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


"Leave it in the hands of the voters."

—Sen. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery) on a proposed constitutional amendment that would give political parties final say over candidates for lieutenant governor

» 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

» Preguntas frecuentes sobre el frustrante despliegue de vacunas en Pensilvania

» Counties will again be unable to process mail ballots early during Pa.’s primary election

» Voters may never again get to choose Pa.’s lieutenant governor candidates

The placeholder: Meet the man Wolf taps to (temporarily) hold key appointments

On paper, Thomas Yablonski Jr. is a man of many talents.

In less than four months, the top staffer in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has been nominated to serve on 28 different state-appointed boards, overseeing everything from podiatry to cosmetology to workers compensation. And that doesn’t include his appointments in a dozen counties across the state to be a sheriff, treasurer, magisterial judge, and coroner — sometimes simultaneously.

In reality, however, he’s a well-traveled political placeholder.

In Pennsylvania, the governor has the power to appoint roughly 1,000 people to dozens of boards and positions across state government, including his own cabinet. That number also includes appointments a governor can make when there is a vacancy in county courts and other elected offices, Wolf’s office said.

The power is not intended to be absolute, as appointments must be approved by the state Senate. And there are strict timing requirements that any administration must follow when making nominations. All of that leads to placeholders like Yablonski. 

When a vacancy occurs, governors have 90 days to nominate someone. If that doesn’t happen, the seat remains vacant until the end of their term, according to administration officials. But governors are loath to give up that power, and instead turn to people to keep the seat warm — on paper only. 

Sometimes, particularly toward the end of a governor’s second term, it can take more than 90 days to find someone for a post. So they turn to people like Yablonski, who are just names on paper and are never intended to fill those positions, to fulfill the 90-day requirement.

Once a suitable candidate is found, the placeholder’s name is recalled.

Given his job, it is little surprise that Yablonski is a favorite for playing the placeholder.  As a deputy secretary in the administration, he helps oversee, among other things, the executive nomination and appointment process. He did not respond to a request for an interview.

His latest nominations — 45 in all — occurred just since October 2020.

Just this month, Wolf submitted Yablonski’s name for a dozen new positions, including the high-profile job of state victim advocate. The last person to hold that title, Jennifer Storm, was not reconfirmed by the Senate, and the administration is now interviewing candidates to replace her.

Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

NEW FRONT: COVID-19 cases at personal care homes have skyrocketed in Pennsylvania, increasing at triple the rate seen in the state's nursing facilities. Both are licensed by the state and serve older, vulnerable populations, but personal care homes are less-regulated and present "an entirely new set of challenges to public health officials," the Post-Gazette reports.

NO CONVICTIONS: A corruption and bribery case involving the controversial Mariner East pipeline project was touted as an accountability breakthrough. More than a year later and it's poised to end without a single criminal conviction, The Inquirer reports. Meanwhile, neighbors told Spotlight PA last year they had no idea what to do in the event of an accident.

POLLUTED: An unprecedented cleanup effort is underway at the site of a now-defunct South Philly refinery. Experts say it will take one decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to remedy 150 years of industrial pollution at the site, which was rocked by a massive explosion in 2019. Reuters reports the herculean effort is "a glimpse of what lies ahead if the United States hopes to wean itself off fossil fuels."

POWER SUPPLY: Looking for assurances that Pennsylvania's power grid can avoid the kind of devastating outages recently seen in Texas, state Rep. Stan Saylor (R., York) incorrectly blamed green energy for the Lone Star State's troubles, the Capital-Star reports. PolitiFact vetted such claims and found they exaggerate the role of renewable energy in the failure of the grid there.

ONGOING CRISIS: Pennsylvania overdose deaths are expected to tick upward for the first time in several years when 2020 reports are finalized, highlighting the impacts of a year in which isolation was rampant and vital services hampered or ground to a halt. The York Daily Record profiled Ashley Gaines-Cannon, a Pennsylvania mother of four who last September became one of 13 people killed daily by drug use in Pennsylvania.

» ERIE TIMES-NEWS: Republican state senator backs legalizing cannabis

» MORNING CALL: GOP calls ballot language 'clearly slanted'

» POST-GAZETTE: Bill would create central vaccination registry

» TRIBLIVE: U.S. Supreme Court rejects mail ballot challenge

» WESA: National Guard will assist with vaccine rollout under new law

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.

All the places you'll go (Case No. 81): I have cities, but no houses. I have mountains, but no trees. I have water, but no fish. What am I? 
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: The next three letters in the sequence OTTFFSS are E, N, T. Each is the first letter of the numbers 1-10.
Congrats to Beth T. who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Christopher R., Beverly M., William D., Stewart G., Lou R., Annette I., Rick S., Joe S., Mary B., Jon N., Philip C., Lynda G., Hagan H., Michael H., James D., George S., Joe S., Joseph A., Robert K., and Thomas D.
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