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Pa. police killing sparks constitutional challenge

Plus, Pa.’s emergency spending soared in 2020, drawing new scrutiny.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

July 22, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Emergency spending, home rules, voter ID, no cover-up, use-of-force law, audit consequences, pipeline problems, pension changes, and political donors.
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Emergency spending soared in Pennsylvania during the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice protests of 2020, Jamie Martines found, with one troubled vendor, in particular, heaping scrutiny on the state's vetting of emergency contracts.

Two hearings were convened this week to probe why the state is rushing another emergency contact tracing program agreement after the state fired the last company for a data breach less than two months ago, a story first reported by Spotlight PA.

Also this week, a long-awaited update to Pennsylvania's decades-old nursing home regulations was released by the Wolf administration, which acknowledges the state must raise low quality-care requirements experts have called dangerous, Martines and Sarah Anne Hughes report.

The update, unveiled on Wednesday, would require staff to spend more time with patients — a move meant to improve care and decrease problems like bedsores, infections, and falls. It would also bring facilities statewide in line with a federal recommendation most have failed to meet, as a previous Spotlight PA investigation found.

But providers warn the goal is "unattainable" and "out of touch," in part because facilities were already struggling with staffing shortages. 

Finally, an election law overhaul bill is headed back to Gov. Tom Wolf, days after he signaled a new willingness to consider heightened voter ID rules and weeks after he vetoed the same bill because of voter ID provisions he thought too stringent.

State Rep. Seth Grove quickly announced his plan to reintroduce the bill, setting the stage for the issue to be front and center when the legislature returns to the Capitol this fall.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
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"While this revelation would have been more welcomed a month ago as the General Assembly was moving HB 1300 of 2021 through the legislative process, it is a productive development."

—State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) on Gov. Tom Wolf announcing he's open to new voter ID measures after vetoing an election bill that included them

>> THE HIDDEN TAB: Join us Wednesday, July 28 at 5 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A about Pennsylvania lawmakers spending millions of taxpayer dollars on personal accommodations, and how these expenses are obscured from the public. Register here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org


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

» Wolf admin sat on probe of unemployment error but denies 'cover-up'

Why Philly’s DA is challenging Pa.’s use-of-force law

Philadelphia’s district attorney is challenging Pennsylvania’s use-of-force law ahead of a former police officer’s landmark murder trial, and the outcome could change key instructions jurors hear right before rendering verdicts in such cases. 

Larry Krasner’s office is set to try ex-officer Ryan Pownall for fatally shooting an unarmed man, David Jones, during a traffic stop. But first, it’s asking the state Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania law that allows officers to use deadly force to prevent someone from escaping arrest.

A favorable ruling for Krasner wouldn’t change state law, but it could impact an ongoing conversation happening in Harrisburg. Here’s what you need to know. Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

» Under current Pennsylvania law, officers are justified in using deadly force to, among other things, prevent an escape. Krasner’s appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is focused on a 36-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held the opposite to be true.

In that ruling, Tennessee v. Garner, justices concluded: “The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable. … A police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead.”

» If Krasner prevails, jurors in cases like Pownall’s would be given instructions that explain the U.S. Supreme Court’s Tennessee v. Garner ruling — something experts say is unlikely to dramatically impact outcomes given the traditional volume and density of such instructions.

It’s unclear when a decision on Krasner’s appeal will be handed down.

» Democratic state lawmakers’ efforts to tighten Pennsylvania’s use-of-force law have largely gone nowhere, encountering resistance from state police, police unions, and Republican legislators.

Their push was sparked by the death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II, who was unarmed when he was fatally shot by ex-officer Michael Rosfeld while fleeing a traffic stop.

» Rosfeld was acquitted because of another section of Pennsylvania’s use-of-force law that allows officers to also use lethal force if they believe the fleeing person is a risk to the safety of the police or public.

That provision is not being challenged by Krasner, but lawmakers including Rep. Ed Gainey — a Pittsburgh Democrat who will likely be the city’s next mayor — want the law changed to require an “imminent threat” for the use of deadly force.

“Unfortunately, we weren't able to build the necessary consensus to move the bill forward last session, but we're continuing to work with our colleagues and experts to find a path forward for this critical reform,” Gainey said in a statement. 

A full version of this article will appear on spotlightpa.org.
AUDIT ISSUES: Pennsylvania's top election official said she had no choice but to decertify Fulton County's voting machines after they were involved in a third-party audit initiated by Trump ally and Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the AP reports, adding the county will almost certainly have to pay to replace them. A new Mastriano-driven audit is underway and drawing public objections from two of three counties targeted.

PIPELINE POWERS: Pennsylvania regulators are floating a bevy of new safeguards for energy pipeline projects here following years of appeals and a string of problems along the contested Mariner East route, the Post-Gazette reports. The Chester County Commissioners, meanwhile, are urging the state to shut down a portion of the Mariner East pipeline after at least seven sinkholes opened in one township during construction.

PENSION PLAN: A scandal has Pennsylvania lawmakers ready to reform the state's largest pension fund, The Inquirer reports. Pending bills would increase transparency around money manager fees paid by the embattled Public School Employees' Retirement System fund, empower the auditor general to conduct fraud audits, and, most radically, combine PSERS' investment arm with that of its state employee counterpart.

LEGAL AID: Two Philadelphia council members are fighting federal corruption indictments and taking cash donations to support the costs of their legal defenses — including funds from prominent political donors, parking magnates, lobbyists, and even a strip club owner, Billy Penn reports. Ethics watchdogs say the funds are problematic and emblematic of a statewide problem around gifts given to lawmakers.

TOXIC TRACK: Ten years ago, the U.S. government quietly approved the toxic "forever chemicals" known as PFAS for use in oil and gas drilling. WHYY reports confirming documents don't include direct evidence that PFAS were used for fracking in Pennsylvania, but it did find companies that drill for natural gas in Pennsylvania have used them elsewhere. Pennsylvania allows drillers to keep some chemicals secret.

» AP: New data reveals the extent of Pa.'s pandemic overdose surge

» ERIE TIMES-NEWS: Another legal setback for clergy abuse survivors

» MORNING CALL: Pa. court orders Amazon to pay workers for waiting

» THE CAUCUS: Pa.'s election 'distortions, half-truths, and outright lies'

» THE INQUIRER: Wolf won't endorse for U.S. Senate, including his LG

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CALENDAR CALL (Case No. 102): What is seen in the middle of March and April that can’t be seen at the beginning or end of either month?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: One thousand
Congrats to Beverly M., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Michele M., Michelle T., Michael H., George S., James B., Norman S., Jon N., Ron and Colleen B., Kevin H., Alberta V., Philip C., Dennis F., Mary B., Kathy M., Joe S., Susan C., Fred O., Kenneth J., Libby W., Edward F., Robert K., Dennis P., William D., Kate P., Geoff M., George S., Bruce B., Hagan H., Lynda G., James D., Lance L., Thomas D., and Elizabeth W.
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