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FBI subpoenas Pa. teachers' pension fund officials

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The Investigator

April 8, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Big chair, vaccine waste, bad news, student safety, busted bank, civil suits, jail care, COVID-19 surge, Clearview AI, open window, use of force, PSERS perk.

Would you like to have the deciding vote in Pennsylvania's once-in-a-decade redrawing of its political maps? 

The General Assembly’s Democratic and Republican caucus leaders are accepting applications from members of the public to chair the powerful Legislative Reapportionment Commission. It’s only the second time in five decades that they've done so, Marie Albiges reports. 

Almost anyone can qualify, even those who are eyeing a run for public office, are related to politicians, or work as lobbyists or for campaigns. There is an attempt underway to change this, and precious time left to make it happen.

Applications are due no later than tomorrow.

Also this week, Pennsylvania's largest pension fund confirmed it's under investigation by the FBI, with executives' records being subpoenaed and a separate, internal inquiry underway after a $25-million error that may have come at taxpayers' expense. There's more. In reporting for The Inquirer, Craig R. McCoy details the lavish trips PSERS fund representatives took around the world, including thousand-dollar hotel rooms — those definitely funded by John Q. Public.

And finally: Thousands of people who live and work in Pennsylvania's prisons are expected to be offered coronavirus vaccines in the coming weeks, Spotlight PA reports. Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, called it a "turning point in the pandemic," with prisons some of the most outbreak-susceptible environments on Earth. 

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

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


“With increased visibility, you’re also more visible to the people who hate you."

—Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, of the National Center for Transgender Equality, on the push to ban Pa.’s transgender student athletes from women's sports
» FIGHTING MISINFORMATION: Join Spotlight PA at 5 p.m. April 20 for a conversation and reader Q&A about how partisan groups are masquerading as local news in Pennsylvania and undermining public trust. RSVP FOR FREE

» 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

» Processed Pa. unemployment claims in the past year? Tell us about it.

» Five GOP reps move to bar Pa.’s trans students from women's sports

Lawmaker wants to compel Wolf administration to release details of wasted COVID-19 vaccine doses

A state lawmaker wants to compel the Wolf administration to make public details on wasted COVID-19 vaccine doses, information it refused to release to Spotlight PA.

Although vaccine providers are required to report when and why a dose of vaccine is “compromised,” the Pennsylvania Department of Health last month denied a public records request from Spotlight PA seeking documentation, citing a decades-old law that it has frequently used to shield the public from scrutinizing its pandemic response. The request did not seek any patient information.

State Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill) plans to introduce the legislation this month, because “I just think people have the right to know this information.”

“I understand it’s a small percentage of the overall number of vaccinations, but I still think that that information should be released to the public, and if the governor and his appointed officials won’t do it voluntarily I’m prepared to move legislation forward as the chairman of the State Government Committee to do just that,” Argall said in an interview with Spotlight PA. 

The Health Department said just 1,589 of the more than 2.3 million doses administered as of Feb. 26 — or just .06% — were reported by providers as wasted, mostly due to vials broken in handling, syringe issues, such as bent or broken needles, or clients refusing after the vaccine dose was drawn. 

Officials declined to provide further information, like which providers are reporting waste or the most common reasons for discarded doses, because of the Disease Prevention and Control Law. The 1955 act gives the state broad authority to keep information on contagious diseases confidential, like details that could potentially identify individuals. 

Media lawyers, however, said the law also gives the state discretion over what records to make public in the interest of transparency. Experts told Spotlight PA that the law could also be amended to make it clear that important information in the public interest should be released.

“The law is so old we don’t really know what was meant,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, a media lawyer who is representing PublicSource, a Pittsburgh-based newsroom, in a lawsuit related to the health department’s use of the statute. “And so we have to try and parse it out and determine: Did the legislature back in 1955 really mean that in the midst of a pandemic we couldn’t know what was happening, especially when it comes to important public policy decisions?”

“I’m hoping that some clarity comes either from the courts or the legislature — or both,” Knudsen added.

Spotlight PA has appealed the health department’s decision to the state Office of Open Records.

Ese Olumhense, Spotlight PA

BROKEN NEWS: A raft of well-intentioned but misinformation-heavy Beaver County Facebook groups have vexed local police and revealed what happens when trusted news sources are gutted by commercial interests and DIY networks step in to fill the void, per NBC News.

DYSTOPIA NOW: The number of Pennsylvania law enforcement departments that have used a powerful and equally controversial facial recognition tool may be greater than anyone realized. Use BuzzFeed's searchable database to find out if your local force is one of them.

LETTER CAMPAIGN: The Black man accosted by an armed John Fetterman in 2013 says the LG lied about the incident but that it shouldn't impact his ongoing U.S. Senate bid. The case dogs Fetterman, but Christopher Miyares wrote The Inquirer to say maybe it shouldn't.

NEW DETAILS: Three men who say a former Warren County, N.J., sheriff sexually assaulted them as children in the county's custody argue there's so much evidence other officials knew about the abuse that a court can and should rule now in their related civil suits, Lehigh Valley Live reports.

TALK THERAPY: Most jails favor medications over therapy to treat people with mental illness. PublicSource examines what it takes to change that and the consequences of not having done so already. "You’re not rehabilitating, you’re just pacifying," a formerly incarcerated person said. 

» AP: Pa., four other states make up half of new COVID-19 cases in U.S.

» CAPITAL-STAR: Pa. House passes window for child sex abuse lawsuits

» CHALKBEAT: The legacy of anti-Asian attacks in a Philadelphia school

» NJ.COM: New Jersey launches groundbreaking use-of-force database

» POST-GAZETTE: Pittsburgh's land bank is losing its fight against blight

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.

ROOT WORD (Case No. 87)Which word doesn't belong and why: Seventy, Brawl, Clover, Proper, Carrot, Swing, Change, Travel, Sacred, Stone?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: 33 (double the previous number and subtract one)
Congrats to Mary B. who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Philip C., Kathy M., Barbara E., Hagan H., Lucy B., Kenneth J., Lynda G., William H., Michael H., George S., Judy A., Alberta V., Burnetta S., Fred O., Robyn K., Ed N., Irene T., Ann-Marie S., Cameron T., John C., Mary S., Elizabeth W., William D., James D., Lou R., Annette M., John H., Geoff M., Joseph H., Jyotin S., Joe S., Scott G., George R., Rick D., Beverly M., Bruce B., Beryl K., Joe G., Annette I., Norman S., Joe M., Dennis F., Dennis P., Michael S., David I., Joel S., Kevin H., Eileen D., Jon N., Marvin S., and George S.
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