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Spotlight PA's best investigations of 2023

Plus, what you need to know about state lawmakers' pay bump.

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 28, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Salary increase, Hall anniversary, vacant seats, best investigations, no sale, residence receipts, election response, and privilege revoked.
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Pennsylvania lawmakers’ base salary recently rose to more than $106,000, prompting a fresh round of criticism about the annual automatic pay bump. 

Stephen Caruso has what you need to know about state lawmakers’ salaries, the history of the increase, and why changes are unlikely.

Also this week, Pennsylvania state legislators have approved a study of how the 911 system can better assist people experiencing a mental health crisis, a measure championed by the family of Christian Hall ahead of the third anniversary of his death.

And finally, voters participate in local elections to pick who they want to represent them in government, but when a seat on a municipal governing board is vacant in Pennsylvania, the public has little to no say in who fills it, Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times report. 

That situation played out at least 28 times from 2020 to 2022 in Centre County, the news organizations found.

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"It’s people here. They work together to get things done in a way I haven’t seen in any other community."

—Melanie Clabaugh, member of the Kane Borough Council, on how locals have helped revitalize the Pennsylvania Wilds town.


» Despite ethics concerns, Shapiro will keep accepting tickets from a group that gets state money

» Inside the Pa. court case pitting a genealogist against Ancestry.com

» How public grant dollars and volunteers helped revitalize this Pennsylvania Wilds town

Spotlight PA's best investigations of 2023

>> The Waiting Game

In 2022, Pennsylvania launched a $350 million program to help people cover mortgage and utility debt, delinquent property taxes, and other housing costs.

But as Charlotte Keith found, the program struggled to get the information it needs from mortgage companies, causing delays and complaints from increasingly desperate applicants who say they cannot get updates from program workers.

The state fired the contractor in charge of running the program just days after Keith’s first story — accusing the company of failing to deliver on promises — but that didn’t end the problems. Keith found the state was still struggling to get money out the door months after firing the contractor, with serious consequences for homeowners in need of relief

>> A Criminal Solution

A decades-old Pennsylvania law is supposed to protect people with mental health issues from prosecution if they cannot understand the legal system and cannot aid in their own defense.

But an investigation by Spotlight PA’s Danielle Ohl with the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism found that, rather than help people with mental illness, the competency system is so broken it often extends incarceration — which can exacerbate mental health issues.

There is no one state agency overseeing the competency system and no standardized way for documenting competency assessments and hearings, making it difficult to identify people who may be languishing in jail.

>> High Anxiety

After a court battle, Spotlight PA’s Ed Mahon obtained records that showed anxiety disorders are now the leading reason Pennsylvanians get a medical marijuana card.

However medical evidence that cannabis or its compounds help treat anxiety is limited and mixed. Medical marijuana program leaders in at least three other states have rejected it as a qualifying condition, citing the lack of scientific evidence, the potential for some doses and types of cannabis to worsen anxiety symptoms, or other unintended consequences.

>> Richest Little City

In March, the Office of Attorney General announced that Herm Suplizio — the former city manager of DuBois — had been arrested for allegedly stealing more than $600,000 from public accounts over which he had signatory control.

Spotlight PA’s Angela Couloumbis and Min Xian dug through public records, attended meetings, and spoke with more than two dozen residents, elected officials, and others to get the inside story of Suplizio’s rise and alleged fall. 

They found that under Suplizio’s watch, DuBois received far more in state grants than other Pennsylvania cities of similar size. He also took care of city employees financially, giving out more than $561,000 in bonuses from city coffers to key staffers between 2014 and 2022.

Suplizio held multiple jobs that presented potential conflicts of interest while he worked as the city’s manager, including executive director of the DuBois Area United Way. However, no one in the city’s government publicly flagged it as a problem.

>> Missed Conduct

Penn State overhauled its ethics policies and misconduct reporting systems after the Sandusky scandal to protect students and employees. 

But an investigation by Spotlight PA’s Wyatt Massey with the Centre Daily Times found that years later distrust is rampant and many fear retaliation if they speak up.

Here are some of the year's other Spotlight PA highlights:

🏆 NEXT QUESTION: Did you stay on top of the news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Disputed genealogy records, flexible gift ban, and Pa.’s fave Christmas flick
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaNO SALE: The Philadelphia sheriff’s office hasn't held a tax sale for more than two years and the person in charge of the office won't say why, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. As a result, the city isn't collecting taxes on hundreds of properties and buildings are deteriorating. 

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaRESIDENCE RECEIPTS: The Shapiro administration spent more than $92,000 in public funds to update the decor at the Governor's Residence, part of $1.8 million in taxpayer money used this year to maintain the 28,600-square-foot mansion, LNP (paywall) reports. The updates included a reclining sofa from a Sunbury furniture store and big-screen TVs.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaELECTION RESPONSE: Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt tells LehighValleyNews.com that his department is ramping up training for county election officials to prevent a repeat of the voting machine issue that plagued Northampton County in the 2023 election. 

PRIVILEGE REVOKED: Under a proposal from state Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny), people who bring a loaded gun to an airport security checkpoint would have their concealed carry permits revoked, TribLIVE reports. At the Pittsburgh International Airport alone, officials confiscated 43 guns this year.

ONE OF A KIND: The state Senate has authorized a performance audit of Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone, a one-of-a-kind tax incentive program aimed at attracting developers to the city, the Morning Call (paywall) reports. No other municipality in Pennsylvania has a NIZ, which was created by former state Sen. Pat Browne, a Republican, more than a decade ago.

» APDuring pandemic, abuse, neglect deaths of older adults rose

» CENTER SQUARE: EV adoption slow in Pennsylvania

» GOERIE: How Endangered Species Act benefited Pennsylvania

» PENNLIVE: Pa. dog license fee hike takes a nip out of owners’ wallets

» STATEIMPACT: Lawmakers debate raising Pa.'s renewable energy goal

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5... 4... 3... (Case No. 236): I am a colorful cracker that cannot be eaten. I mark the arrival of the new year in many celebrations. What am I?
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