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Pa. town nearly collapsed after hiring Tamir Rice’s killer

Plus, the inside story of how we uncovered chaos in Tioga. 


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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.

December 22, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Troubled town, transition team, election dates, COVID-19 policies, diversity proposals, inside story, nasty scam, open tab, going rate, and orphan wells.

Tioga and its 700 residents were thrust into an intense but fleeting national limelight after the borough hired Timothy Loehmann — who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice — as its sole police officer.

A five-month investigation by Spotlight PA found Tioga’s hiring of Loehmann and the ensuing fallout was only the latest episode in long-simmering infighting — fueled by hearsay, half-truths, and accusations — among the borough’s elected officials. The event almost completely imploded the borough’s small government.

Read three key takeaways from our investigation here, and more about how the story came together below.

Also this week, the transition team helping Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro prepare for office is wide-ranging and, in some cases, controversial, offering a glimpse into the way he hopes to govern the commonwealth and court members of the GOP in the legislature.

Finally, Republican leaders in the state House want to push two special elections until May. Stephen Caruso reports that the delay would give the GOP a functional majority in the chamber and they’re considering using that advantage to pass a handful of far-reaching constitutional amendments.

» Spotlight PA's vital investigative journalism keeps Harrisburg honest, but it can't continue without your support. Don't miss your chance to make a tax-deductible end-of-year gift now and get 2X the impact with our dollar-for-dollar match.


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» Wolf on COVID policies: ‘I’m going to be second-guessing myself until the day I die’
» Penn State distances itself from past diversity proposals while launching similar efforts

How Spotlight PA uncovered chaos in Tioga

Tioga borough made national headlines in early July and became known as the small town in Pennsylvania that hired the police officer who in 2014 shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The attention on Tioga quickly faded, but my work at Spotlight PA was just getting started.

The news of Timothy Loehmann’s hiring was significant, and initial reporting presented a myriad of questions — including how a news article printed an incorrect spelling of Loehmann’s name the month prior, and whether background checks had been properly conducted. 

Tioga Mayor David Wilcox’s insistence that some council members had misled him about the officer’s identity signaled larger issues were in play. A letter to then-Council President Steve Hazlett from Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who will be the state’s next governor, made erroneous claims suggesting Tioga had broken the law in making the hire.

At the peak of the controversy, I arrived in Tioga — the first of six trips — to attend the Borough Council’s special meeting on July 12 looking for answers, but left more puzzled than before.

I went back to Tioga for more council meetings, filed four Right-to-Know requests, and had conversations with experts and government officials to gain a better sense of how municipal government should work, and how it had broken in Tioga.

A breakthrough came in September, when former Tioga Council Member Bob Wheeler agreed to speak on the record about details he said were missing from news reports.

Some sources who were originally reluctant to speak to me believed the bad reputation Tioga received was based on partial information and saw the need to set the record straight. They led me to more documents and helped make a perplexing picture clearer.

I slowly built up an understanding of how Tioga’s local government had been breaking down. I reviewed two years of Tioga Borough Council meeting minutes and Facebook posts by officials and residents. What I found was that the borough government was collapsing under the weight of personal vendettas, and the hiring of Loehmann exposed those long-simmering problems.

Spending the time it takes to get the full story and getting it right is what sets Spotlight PA’s journalism apart. Checking facts, acquiring documentation, and corroborating firsthand accounts beyond rumors were especially critical steps during the writing and editing processes. The investigation could not have been fair and comprehensive without the dedication of my impeccable team of editors.

With help from Wellsboro Gazette reporter Donna LeSchander, I was able to capture Tioga's character. My reporting benefited from her knowledge and kindness.

In the end, this Spotlight PA investigation reveals how quickly a small-town government can collapse under the weight of personal disputes, and raises the question of whether taxpayers are best served by Pennsylvania’s more than 2,500 cities, towns, townships, and boroughs that sorely lack critical oversight of their workings. Read the full investigation here. Min Xian, Local Accountability Reporter

Support Spotlight PA's vital investigative journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
This week's top news story in Pennsylvania'NASTY SCAM': One of Philadelphia's biggest real-estate companies, ABC Capital, is being called a "big fat nasty scam" by critics as investors declare it a Ponzi scheme and tenants find themselves stuck in homes where promised rehab work was done poorly or sometimes not at all, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. 

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaOPEN TAB: Chambersburg officials have shot down a request to forgive a $4,217 bill for police staffing at one of Republican Doug Mastriano's gubernatorial campaign events. WITF reports the request came from Mastriano's team and was rejected by the borough's council 9-1. The Inquirer reported that Mastriano still had more than $1 million in unspent campaign cash weeks after Election Day.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaGOING RATE: Former U.S. attorney and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill McSwain is earning $940 an hour to represent the Central Bucks School District in a federal LGBTQ discrimination complaint filed against the district by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Courier Times (paywall) reports. Central Bucks will pay a second former federal prosecutor, Michael Rinaldi, $640 an hour for related work.

ORPHAN WELLS: Ten decaying, long-abandoned oil and gas wells in Allegheny County will be sealed and cleaned beginning early next year. Pittsburgh Union Progress — the publication run by striking members of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — reports that this is one of the first well-plugging projects in Pennsylvania funded by a 2021 federal infrastructure law that promises landmark spending to clean up hazardous, polluting wells.

'BLEAK MILESTONE': Philadelphia has recorded 500 homicides for the second year in a row, a tally not seen since the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic in 1990. The total is slightly lower than last year's, but the number reflects the ongoing strains of the economic and social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Philly's communities of color have been especially affected — 84% of people killed or injured in shootings so far this year were Black, The Inquirer reports.

» AP: County vote moves Pennsylvania closer to certifying election

» ABC27: Questions remain about money in legislative accounts

» INQUIRER: Ex-AG Kathleen Kane acquitted in drunken driving case

» WESA: Fern Hollow Bridge reopens less than a year after its collapse

» WVIA: PA to see free drug testing kits in 2023

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

EGGCELLENT QUESTION (Case No. 180)A man drops an egg onto the cement. The egg doesn't break after falling 3 feet. How could this be?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: They all turned right. (Find last week's clue here.)
Congrats to Dom A., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jonathan N., Peter S., Jay G., Lois, George S., Ed N., James D., Kevin M., Annette I., Fred O., Joseph P., Michael H., Kirby, Annette M., Joe S., Tish M., Lynda G., Jeffrey F., Dennis F., Joseph M., Beth T., Ken S., Megan L., Ken H., Linda C., Lou R., Jack S., Bill G., Rebecca D., Kathy M., Mary B., John, Chris W., Pwweiden, Frederick H., Anthony E., Janet M., Bill B., and Johnny C.
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