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Weak oversight and a sweeping Pa. corruption case

Plus, why Pa.'s court system won't be part of this year's budget hearings. 

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

April 13, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Manager allegations, Supreme candidates, vetting guide, judicial hearings, 'tug of war,' breach pay, paper trail, at odds, and fatal holds.

City Manager Herm Suplizio's March arrest for the theft of more than $600,000 in public funds rocked DuBois, home to 7,400. 

Now the sweeping corruption case has residents questioning how such a large theft could occur in a place so small without anyone noticing.

Spotlight PA's Min Xian and Angela Couloumbis report the answer may lie in failed checks and balances and an optional form of government that gives city managers broad powers.

Also this week, Kate Huangpu and Stephen Caruso report on the fundraising hauls of the four candidates for state Supreme Court. They're getting campaign money from wealthy donors, their own bank accounts, construction trade unions, and in one case, from failed 2022 GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.

Finally, we've published a guide to vetting the candidates who will be on your May 16 ballot and another that tells you everything you need to know about voting


"The pie is too small."

—Matthew Kelly, an education professor at Penn State who studies funding policy, on the money issues facing some school districts

PRIMARY PRIMER: Join us TODAY from 6-7 p.m ET via Zoom for a free panel on Pa.’s Supreme Court candidates and why the 2023 election matters. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
» How Harrisburg Works: Pa. House majority, rules vs. bills, and taxpayer money for Twitter Blue
» Almost 40 elementary schools have closed in rural north-central Pa. in the past decade. Here’s why.

Why Pennsylvania courts won’t be a part of this year’s budget hearings

Pennsylvania’s courts have asked for a 12% budget increase, but for the fourth year in a row, judicial officials won’t have to explain their proposal or face questions from lawmakers during public hearings.

Earlier this year, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro pitched a $44.4 billion budget that includes specific proposals for each department under his jurisdiction, as well as the state judicial system.

Ahead of the June 30 deadline to pass a new budget, the Appropriations Committees in the state House and Senate are holding hearings to dig into the proposals and ask department heads about their policies.

These hearings give Pennsylvanians the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the state government they pay for, and grant lawmakers the chance to force officials to be transparent in a public venue. 

The state’s court system participated in budget hearings in 2017, 2018, and 2019, but will not do so this year. 

“There is no statute or rule that requires budget hearings, and hearings are only one part of the process of review,” Beth Rementer, a spokesperson for state House Democrats, told Spotlight PA in an email.

State agencies are brought in every year “to provide clarity on the governor’s budget proposal” while others, like the courts, attend budget hearings “on a rolling basis,” Jason Thompson, spokesperson for state Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Scott Martin (R., Lancaster), wrote in an email. 

“It is worth noting that the review of the governor’s budget plan is not restricted to the three weeks of budget hearings,” Thompson wrote. “If there are specific questions or concerns regarding the courts’ budget requests at any point in the budget process, those issues can typically be addressed through conversations and meetings that are always ongoing.”

Spotlight PA repeatedly asked the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, or AOPC, and the Appropriations Committees which agency decided to not hold budget hearings for the courts. 

Stacey Witalec, communications director for the AOPC, deferred the question to Rementer, who did not clarify who made the decision. 

Witalec did not answer questions about what budget items the judiciary branch prioritizes in the current proposed budget, or how it negotiates details with lawmakers or the governor’s office.

Witalec said the public can learn about the judicial budget by looking through its proposal — published nearly a month after Shapiro presented his — on the AOPC website and on social media. 

In its proposed budget for the next fiscal year, the judicial system asks for more than $406 million — the same amount of general funding suggested by Shapiro. That’s about 1% of the $44 billion budget for the commonwealth.

The judiciary’s proposed budget requested nearly half a million more from restricted revenues for the online portal that provides access to certain case information. The proposal said that money was originally earmarked for system maintenance but was diverted and paused in recent years, resulting in layoffs.

“Pennsylvania’s courts have been historically underfunded,” Jay Silberblatt, president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, said in a statement. “Therefore, the PBA fully supports the budget figure proposed by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.”

Silberblatt helped spearhead a PBA task force that looked into creating a statewide electronic filing system — the current system does not include civil case filings — as a 1987 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision mandated. But the effort has never been fully funded, and “the process to determine the budget needed to create a Pennsylvania e-filing system has yet begun,” Silberblatt said. Min Xian, local accountability reporter

This week's top news story in Pennsylvania'TUG OF WAR': Pennsylvania's 72nd Legislative District in Cambria County has more registered Republicans than Democrats but remains "a lone blue dot" in a sea of red, the Tribune-Democrat reports. With Democrats holding a one-seat majority in the state House, attention is being paid to the anomalous district and challenging its eight-term Democratic incumbent, state Rep. Frank Burns.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaBREACH PAY: A contractor hired by Pennsylvania to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing will pay up to $5,000 each to victims of a related data breach, Bloomberg News reports. Spotlight PA reported in 2021 that the exposed data included private medical and some personal information.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaPAPER TRAIL: The ethics of the Philadelphia sheriff's office are again in question. The Inquirer (paywall) reports Sheriff Rochelle Bilal tried to double her salary to $285,000 a year — the highest of any elected city official — using money meant for new hires. Bilal did so, the paper says, while describing her office as "consistently underfunded" and "severely" short-staffed. She asked council for more money just last week.

AT ODDS: Richard A. Carter, 63, died at Dauphin County Prison on Christmas Eve, but documents detailing what happened just before he died contradict each other. PennLive (paywall) reports a federal form indicates that jail staff immediately provided medical help when Carter said he was short of breath, but a coroner's report indicates no help was provided until he was unconscious and pulseless.

FATAL HOLDS: Mercedes Alaimo, 25, died by suicide two days after entering Luzerne County's prison. Her family believes distress due to opioid withdrawal and a lack of supervision led to her death, WVIA reports, citing a death there under similar circumstances in 2018. The Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project says the prison offers only one opioid treatment, naltrexone, which works after withdrawals.

» APChip component plant to get $300M expansion in Pennsylvania

» CNNSen. Bob Casey will run for reelection 

» LNPF&M poll finds voters are pessimistic about their finances

» PENNLIVECould lawmaker expulsions happen in Pa.? 

» WHYYChester’s finances so bad it could be disincorporated 

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

NAME DROP (Case No. 196): What disappears as soon as you say its name? 
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Turn the six upside down or drop the "s," leaving the roman numeral for the number nine. (Find last week's clue here.) 
Congrats to Dean S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jon N., Karen K., Roseanne D., Alberta V., Pam A., Susan N.-Z., Kirby D., Frederick H., Judy A., Lou R., Rebecca D., Fred O., Ellen S., Annette I., Sherri S., Donna D., Peter S., Robert K., Ken S., Philip C., Trish B., Michelle T., Bruce B., Tish M., Karen W., John H., Bill G., Jeffrey F., Beth T., Mary B., Johnny C., William H., and Dennis F.
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