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Probe suggests ex-official blurred ethical lines

Plus, Pa. counties warned against ‘sham’ election audit.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

July 8, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Audit fight, ethics probe, oversight concerns, security steps, dog laws, rising stars, PSERS picks, ballot checks, gun plea, pay scale, and ICE detention.
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A Trump-aligned Republican state senator is building a "forensic audit" of Pennsylvania's 2020 election and 2021 primary in the style of Arizona's highly partisan and widely discredited ballot review. 

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) is specifically targeting Philadelphia, York, and Tioga Counties. He's asked each for a long list of items necessary to "simulate" and "recreate the precise scenarios of Election Day in 2020," with a "plan to comply" expected by the end of the month.

State officials, meanwhile, are calling the audit a "sham" and urging the counties not to comply, per the Capital-Star.

Also this week, Pennsylvania's former chief advocate for crime victims did not trade on her high-profile public position to benefit her personal business ventures, according to a more than yearlong state ethics investigation. 

Angela Couloumbis reports that the investigation did yield two technical violations and a $3,000 fine for Jennifer Storm. It also produced a 59-page report indicating officials believe Storm blurred the lines between her public and private endeavors.

Storm, who long said the inquiry was instigated by political enemies as payback for her outspoken advocacy in prominent cases, called the outcome a vindication.

In other news, Ed Mahon reports two addiction treatment providers face criminal charges for allegedly bribing recovery homes for referrals and forcing patients into substandard care.

The allegations are prompting renewed calls from state lawmakers to strengthen the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs' oversight.

And finally, Jamie Martines examines the state's rush to replace a COVID-19 contact tracing company it fired after a massive data breach jeopardized the personal information of thousands earlier this year.

There are questions about whether enough is being done to heighten security this time and make sure recent history doesn't repeat.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
Huge issues are being debated in Harrisburg, from voting changes to redistricting, that could have ramifications on our state for years to come. Now more than ever, we need unflinching investigative journalism in Pennsylvania.

And Spotlight PA is answering the call in a bold new way.

We built Spotlight PA on the premise that you, our loyal readers, will step up and contribute to journalism that holds the powerful to account and gets results. Put another way, without your support, we cease to exist.

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"The fact that the Bureau of Dog Law is going to be less able to to stay on top of those [kennels] is a big concern for us."

—Humane Society's Kathleen Summers on a dire funding shortage facing Pa.'s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement and a lack of lawmaker action

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

» Why a funding boost for the office that exposes Pa. puppy mills stalled again

Q&A: Meet the next generation of political reporters

Spotlight PA's coverage has benefited greatly from two stellar Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association interns who are rotating between Capitol news outlets this summer: Shaniece Holmes Brown, a 22-year-old Lincoln University grad, and Lindsay Weber, a 22-year-old Macalester College grad.

We wanted to introduce them and let them explain why they decided to take up political journalism (especially now), how to handle mealy-mouthed answers, and whether journalism is as glamorous as the movies make it look. Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

Spotlight PA: So, why journalism and why political journalism? 

Holmes Brown: I have wanted to be a journalist since I was a kid because I love to write, meet people, and see new places. Journalism is the opportunity to do all three, and I have a passion for "being a voice for the unheard." Learning about the issues people face in different communities every day and getting to share them is very important. 

Weber: I'm interested in how policies affect people's real lives. I studied political science in college because I graduated high school right around when Trump was elected and felt my understanding of what politics can look like in the U.S. shift, and I felt like I had to find a way to make sense of it. I joined the student newspaper during my first semester of college and fell in love with writing and reporting, and stuck with it all four years.

Spotlight PA: What’s been the biggest surprise of your PLCA internship thus far?

Holmes Brown: Working during budget season was a wake-up call to the ups and downs of journalism I had never experienced before. I've learned to keep my eye out and pay close attention because when something happens, it is quick and coverage needs to occur quickly. Reporting is far more straightforward than trying to make things sound nice. Actually, it isn't about making things sound nice. It is telling the truth as authentic and unbiased as possible.

Weber: It's really different from the reporting I'm most used to, which is reporting on student issues for the student newspaper the Mac Weekly. Talking to politicians or spokespeople who are really accustomed to media attention and speaking with reporters is a whole different ball game than interviewing college students. I've learned to always be prepared before an interview and to keep asking more questions when I don't get a direct answer!

Spotlight PA: True or false: Journalism is as glamorous as the movies make it look. 

Holmes Brown: Honestly, it is not a "glamorous" profession. It is fun, exciting, and keeps you on your toes, but the work is not always at the most popular events or jaw-dropping coverage.

Weber: Definitely false.

A full version of this Q&A will appear on SpotlightPA.org.
LAND GRABS: The $1.6 million purchase of a long-vacant Harrisburg newspaper building put Pennsylvania's embattled Public School Employees' Retirement System fund firmly in the FBI's sights. As a sprawling federal probe continues, PennLive unpacks the fund's decades-long and increasingly diversified history of taxpayer-funded real estate buys. Reporter Wallace McKelvey provides the highlights here.

VOTER ID: Chances are the Pennsylvania GOP's stalled-by-veto push for tougher voter ID rules will be decided by voters like you in a future election. With that in mind, The Inquirer examines research, competing claims about security and suppression, impacts on voter turnout, and whether that's even the right metric for gauging voter ID's impact.

GUN PLEA: Gun violence marred the holiday weekend in Philadelphia, prompting renewed calls for reform from officials like state Sen. Sharif Street, whose 21-year-old nephew was murdered there on Sunday. WHYY notes the city is suing the state for the right to enact its own gun measures, something it can't do under Pennsylvania law currently.

PA PAYROLL: Nearly one-fifth of Pennsylvania's taxpayer-funded payroll went to the Department of Corrections in 2020, PublicSource reports. That's more than $1 billion of the $6.2 billion total the state spent on salaries last year. The Department of Corrections is the state’s second-largest agency and spent $226 million more than the first largest.

MIGRANT HOLD: York County Prison will no longer house ICE detainees following a breakdown in payment negotiations with the federal agency, the York Daily Record reports. The county said the number of detainees has decreased along with ICE funding, but the county's required costs stayed the same, at one point resulting in losses of $1.2 million a month

» AP: Pa. legalizes compensation for college athletes, with limits

» BILLY PENN: From Trump to CosbyWho is Attorney Bruce Castor?

» CNN: Toomey's Pa. Senate seat most likely to flip in the U.S.

» NBC 10: White supremacists march on Philadelphia's City Hall

» POST-GAZETTE: PASSHE updates merger plan one week before vote

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.

TRAINING COURSE (Case No. 100)A nonstop train leaves Moscow for Leningrad at 60 mph. Another nonstop train leaves Leningrad for Moscow at 40 mph. How far apart are the trains one hour before they pass each other? (Hint: This one is simpler than it looks. Try working backwards from the meeting point. Also discount variables like speed, hills, curves, etc.)
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: The anagram of the word trinket is "knitter."
Congrats to Johnny C., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Michael H., Joan B., Annette I., Michelle T., Elizabeth W., Jeffrey F., Stephanie L., George S., Debbie W., Jon N., Irene S., Doris T., Clayton L., Kevin M., Edward F., Barbara M., Joe S., Kevin H., Lynda G., Bruce G., Caitlin M., Mary B., George S., Steven B., Jyotin S., Beth T., Eileen D., Roseanne D., Philip C., Andrea H., and Robert K.
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