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Senator's wife quietly named to lucrative board seat

The Investigator

March 4, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Quiet nod, unemployment fraud, small business relief, eviction thaw, cancer clusters, blurred lines, redistricting army, and an economic snapshot.

The Pennsylvania Senate's top Republican has quietly appointed the spouse of a colleague to a coveted spot on the state’s Gaming Control Board, the same increasingly seen as a lucrative landing ground for the state's politically connected.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) told Spotlight PA's Angela Couloumbis he named the wife of Sen. Mike Regan (R., York) to the post, one carrying a $145,000 annual salary, because of her law enforcement background. This comes on the heels of an appointment of a longtime Democratic lawmaker who lost re-election.

Unlike with several previous appointments, however, there was no news release announcing Frances Regan's selection. When asked for her resume, board officials said they did not have one, and then later provided a biography that says she served with the federal probation office for more than 24 years conducting background and criminal investigations. For the past six years, however, Frances Regan has been a small business owner, holding public and private fitness classes to empower women and their personal safety.

Also this week, labor reporter Rebecca Moss dug into the wave of fraud that has beset Pennsylvania's unemployment system during the COVID-19 recession and talked to some of the victims who are now getting stuck with the bill. 

Relaxed filing rules — an effort to speed relief to those in need — were quickly exploited as scammers intent on routing money to themselves or intercepting paper checks began fraudulently filing for benefits en masse.

The consequences of that are now being felt by people like Annette Ravinsky, who immediately reported the error when she received $10,000 in unsolicited benefits and who now finds herself on the hook for federal taxes on that money. Others face tax bills for benefits they did request but never received in the throes of clerical chaos. 

“I am very, very, very angry right now because I did not ask for any of this,” Ravinsky told Spotlight PA. “The state had a responsibility to verify. Now, I am left holding the bag.”

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA


"You would expect a clear case to be made about why you are the person to add value to an important board. That is the missing link. You don’t see that anymore."

—Christopher Borick, a political science professor, on why the bar should be higher when public officials make political appointments

» 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

» Wolf begins easing COVID-19 rules as cases continue to decline

» Why Spotlight PA is spending a year investigating Pennsylvania’s redistricting process

A business owner's guide to Pa.'s next wave of COVID-19 relief grants

Help is on the way for Pennsylvania’s struggling bars, hotels, and restaurants, as $145 million in state grants becomes available this month. 

The aid is targeted at businesses with fewer than 300 employees that have lost at least 25% of their sales as a result of the pandemic. Priority will go to those that have not received relief from other state and federal programs, had to temporarily close as a result of Gov. Tom Wolf’s business shutdown orders, or lost more than half of their revenue in 2020. 

But the details of how and when to apply vary from county to county.  

First off, business owners need to find out which organization will be handling applications in their county. (A list of the groups eligible to help is available here and here.) 

These local groups must start taking applications by March 15, at the latest, although some plan to start sooner. Businesses in Lancaster County, for instance, will be able to apply on March 8. 

Some counties — Montgomery and Dauphin for instance – have already made the application forms available so that business owners can start to prepare their paperwork. Others, like York and Allegheny, are still developing them, but encourage business owners to sign up for email updates.  

As with previous business aid programs, a rush of applications is expected, with demand far exceeding the funding available. The Harrisburg Regional Chamber & Capital Region Economic Development Corporation, which is administering the program in Dauphin and Perry Counties, warns businesses that the program is expected to be “quickly oversubscribed” once applications open there and that the application window can be closed “at any time.” 

Business owners in those counties should look carefully at the information already available online, which includes eligibility criteria, sample application forms, and details on the supporting documents required, said David Black, the Harrisburg Regional Chamber’s president and CEO. The organization will also hold a training session March 11 at 9 a.m., walking business owners through the application process step by step. 

The grant program is rolling out as the U.S. Senate considers another stimulus package that includes $15 billion in grants for small businesses. The state funding will help small businesses survive until more federal relief becomes available, said John Longstreet, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. “We’re describing it as a downpayment on what it will take to help save the restaurant and hotel industry,” he said.

Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA

EVICTION EMERGENCY: More than 800 renters in Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties already lost their housing or face an imminent threat of eviction despite COVID-era moratoriums. The Citizens' Voice and Times-Tribune report many of those tenants missed requirements to enact the safety net or violated lease conditions, freeing landlords to take action against them. A Spotlight PA investigation found Pennsylvania failed to deliver millions in coronavirus rent relief in 2020, using the money to instead plug budget holes and cover state prison costs.

RADIOACTIVE WASTE: Bone cancer clusters in the most heavily fracked county in Pennsylvania prompted the state to commission a $3 million study into whether natural gas drilling played a role, The New Yorker reports. But as the scope of that study comes into focus, experts, lawmakers, advocates, and stricken families warn that failing to directly examine the dangers of radioactive fracking waste could be a costly mistake.

OWN GOAL: Generous financial incentives are now available for the Pittsburgh Penguins' controversial, $1 billion development project in the Lower Hill thanks to an adjusted census tract that moves the project into a federal tax-advantage zone. This is no coincidence. Bloomberg News explains how a federal program meant to benefit poor communities actually wound up benefiting wealthy developers instead.

REDISTRICTING ARMY: Gerrymandering opponents are recruiting "an army" of volunteers as Pennsylvania gears up for another round of redistricting, The Morning Call reports. Nearly 700 people tuned in for a recent Zoom meeting where fair district advocates spelled out the stakes as Pennsylvania prepares to redraw its political maps with new census data. Meanwhile, Spotlight PA found that data has been delayed, with implications for both transparency and next year's primary.

BROKEN ECONOMY: The economic impacts of the pandemic vary by race, ethnicity, and community. A new interactive project from the Post-Gazette looks at how businesses in four distinct and demographically different Pittsburgh neighborhoods are weathering the storm with redevelopment plans interrupted, urgent adjustments, closures, against-the-odds openings, and everyone waiting for the new normal to begin. 

» ERIE TIMES-NEWS: Microplastics founds in 53 Pennsylvania waterways

» INQUIRER: Leaked memo suggests stop-and-frisk trick

» CENTER SQUARE: Pa. GOP fails to censure Sen. Pat Toomey

» TRIBLIVE: Pa. educators moved to front of vaccine line

» WHYY: Families released, future of Pa. detention center unclear

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.

SAY YES TO THE CHESS (Case No. 82): Two people played chess. They played seven games but each won the same number of games. How? 
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: A map.
Congrats to Rick S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Philip C., Michael H., Annette I., Hagan H., Jeff W., Barbara M., Mary B., Ed N.. Alice O., William D., Dennis P., Thomas D., George S., Joseph S., Dennis F., Eileen D., Andrea H., Jane P., Jon N., Beth T., Judy A., Joseph A., Ray T., Heather B., Beryl K., and Roseanne D.

Honorable mentions: Eileen D. and Ed N. who were left off last week's winner list.

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