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Money, power, scandal: The PSERS saga, explained

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

June 17, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Election overhaul, data-breached, equal protection, abortion bans, PSERS saga, fentanyl deaths, lege hack, gambling losses, and venture vultures. 
THIS VITAL WORK DEPENDS ON YOU: Our investigations are holding the powerful to account and driving positive change across Pennsylvania. Contribute any amount now to support the effort »
Election overhaul legislation advanced by state House Republicans this week is being called an attack on voting rights by Democrats, with Gov. Tom. Wolf threatening to veto the package over voter ID rules and vote-by-mail restrictions.

Spotlight PA and The Inquirer report the measures are headed for a vote in the full House. And while Republicans have their own complicated internal dynamics to navigate — some party members want tougher restrictions than others — they'll also need to work with Democrats.

But a new strategy, inspired by the success of two GOP-backed ballot questions in May, could give voters the decision-making power, effectively bypassing Wolf's veto pen.

Also this week, Jamie Martines reports Pennsylvania's fired contact tracing company — paid $23 million in federal tax dollars via a contract awarded by the state — is struggling to plug a leak of the private data it collected.

In an email sent Friday to current and former employees, a copy of which was obtained by Spotlight PA, a lawyer for Insight Global asked them to contact the company’s information security team if they had any paper or electronic records, internet links and files, or Google Drive documents related to the program.

The request came two days after Spotlight PA revealed that one Google document identifying 66 people — many of them minors — was still accessible to anyone with a link more than a month after the company said all data had been secured.

And finally, Democrats are renewing the push for LGBTQ-specific protections under a state law that bars discrimination in housing, employment, education, and public accommodations discrimination.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
From our ongoing investigation into how the legislature spends tax dollars, to tracking every step of the proposed changes to our election system, Spotlight PA reporters are fighting every day for the facts to inform and empower you.

But none of this vital investigative journalism is possible without you. More than 2,200 people support our work. What is our journalism worth to you? Contribute any amount now and become a member for a year » 

"Whenever an anti-choice bill comes to my desk, I will veto it." 

—Gov. Tom Wolf reaffirming his opposition to a flurry of new abortion restrictions being pursued by state Republican lawmakers
» CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING: Join Spotlight PA for a live interview and reader Q&A with Sen. David Argall at 1 p.m. this Friday. RSVP for FREE »

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get the COVID-19 vaccine

» Wolf again vows to veto any bills that limit abortion access in Pa.

The PSERS saga, explained

Pennsylvania’s largest pension fund is at the center of an equally large scandal, complete with an FBI investigation, a lawsuit, boardroom rebellions, and tons of money.

The Public School Employees' Retirement System, or PSERS, saga is sprawling and complicated. Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know — and why you should care.

What is it? 

PSERS is a public school employee retirement fund with some 500,000 members, about half of them public school teachers, and some $64 billion in assets. 

Why does it exist?

Pensions and the promise of post-retirement income are intended to attract talented professionals to the state's public schools and retain them. Making sure the fund keeps that promise falls to PSERS investment managers and the fund’s 15-member board.

What’s the problem? 

In December, PSERS’ board learned that yearly investment returns had averaged 6.38% over the last nine years — just high enough to avoid a state-mandated hike in contributions paid by newer employees.

The bad news came three months later when the fund’s board admitted it endorsed an inflated number for those returns, a mistake it blamed on a data error.

Higher contribution rates for 94,000 public school employees, each hired in 2011 or after, were approved by the board in April and are set to take effect in July.

If the higher rates don’t take effect as planned, a possibility outlined by state Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) in April, taxpayers will be on the hook — or should I say more on the hook. 

That’s because a $40 billion gap between the money PSERS actually has on hand and what it actually needs to finance retirement promises is also being bankrolled by John Q. Public. 

If you want a deep dive on how the system went from well-funded in 2000 to extremely underfunded in 2021, read this. In short, state lawmakers approved higher pension benefits without more funding to prop up the system. That led the fund to pursue higher-paying, riskier investments via expensive consultants promising better odds.

Why is the FBI involved? 

The FBI probe was revealed soon after the faulty math mentioned above, but it’s unclear if the two are directly related. 

What is clear, thanks to reporting by Spotlight PA and The Inquirer, is that federal investigators are very much following the money, specifically looking for evidence of kickbacks or bribery with fund investments.

They’re also probing PSERS’ real estate purchases near its Harrisburg headquarters and that December vote in which the board approved those inflated returns.

The former focus comes after an official disclosure form to the IRS said PSERS’ top investment staff were also being paid by a firm hired to manage its real estate in Harrisburg. When Spotlight PA and The Inquirer began asking questions about the arrangement, PSERS said the disclosure was poorly worded and that replacements have been filed with the IRS.

Is that everything? 

Not by a longshot. 

Earlier this month, board members — led by State Treasurer Stacy Garrity — pushed to oust the fund’s two top leaders, citing the ongoing legal scandal and an avalanche of management mistakes. Board member and state Sen. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery) signed on and filed a lawsuit in a separate bid to get financial documents she says agency officials have refused to release. 

The push to oust the leaders failed, but scrutiny of the fund — one with a reputation for largesse, high-paid executives, and little transparency — continues.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

OVERDOSE SURGE: Fentanyl deaths are surging in Allegheny County, where 2020 brought a 31.5% increase in fatal overdoses involving the powerful opioid. The Post-Gazette reports the county's death rate is nearly three times higher than the national average — a decorated Air Force veteran, a grandfather, and a local tax accountant among the dead.

DISASTER ZONE: Tuesday's certification of May's election results brought a formal end to Gov. Tom Wolf's pandemic-era disaster declaration. That's because voters approved Republican-backed measures giving lawmakers new power over such edicts, which they promptly used. Meanwhile, the fight over to-go cocktails continues, per the Morning Call.

CASH BACK: State lawmakers are giving tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash back to the skills game industry amid a fight over its impact on regulated gambling and related profits, per USA Today's Capitol Bureau. "I became concerned about the amount of money spreading around and returned it," said Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre).

HOUSE HUNTERS: Chuck Vukotich bought his mother's modest Penn Hills home for $55,000 in 2016. Today, a topsy-turvy housing market has bargain-hunters bombarding him with offers, the Wall Street Journal reports, sometimes dozens of times a week. He said, "I don’t mind somebody trying to make a buck, but it's kind of a pain in the butt."

LETTER WRITER: A letter from Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) rife with false claims about Pennsylvania’s 2020 election has been entered into the record as part of a U.S. House investigation into the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, WITF reports. It's joined by correspondence from other Pennsylvania electeds echoing conspiracies that fueled the violence.

» AP: Penn State ex-president Graham Spanier reports to jail

» GRID: Pa. legalized delivery robots, choosing machine over man

» NPR: Brothers drive pro-gun movement in Pa. and beyond

» TRIBLIVE: Pa. social studies teacher charged in U.S. Capitol riot

» WESA: Advocates warn state plan for services could hurt seniors

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.

WISER, SHORTER (Case No. 97): What goes up but never comes down? 
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Fill up the three gallon container and pour the three gallons into the five gallon container. Then, fill the three gallon container back up, and pour it into the five gallon container. The three gallon container will have one gallon left. Empty the five gallon container. Pour the remaining one gallon into the five gallon container. Then fill the three gallon container back up and pour it into the four gallon container. Voila, you have 4 gallons. (*Alternatives accepted, but only those with two containers involved)
Congrats to Fred O., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Alberta V., Mary B., Jon N., Bruce B., George S., Johnny C., Lynda G., and Robert K.
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