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Top Dems knew about harassment claim in 2019

Plus, five tips to win a Pa. open records fight.

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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.

March 16, 2023 |
Layoff plans, harassment knowledge, tax cuts, vital data, unequal elections, record tips, no appeal, off the job, high-earners, and deportation stop.

Layoff plans are in the works at Penn State, Pennsylvania's largest public university, amid a budget deficit and what the school's new president calls a "vulnerable" financial situation, Spotlight PA reports. 

President Neeli Bendapudi said budget cuts to some units will be steeper than expected, and department heads are eyeing layoffs in response. 

According to internal communications obtained by Spotlight PA's Wyatt Massey, department heads were asked to submit the number of employees they plan to lay off by the end of June.

Also this week, Pennsylvania House Democrats for the first time acknowledged that the caucus knew about a sexual harassment allegation against state Rep. Mike Zabel (D., Delaware) in 2019, several years before similar claims became public, leading the lawmaker to announce his resignation.

Two sources told Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso that lawmakers including then-state House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) were approached at the time by a lobbyist who said Zabel inappropriately caressed her. Zabel's previously announced resignation takes effect today. 

Finally, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has pitched a plan to fulfill one of his campaign trail promises: getting rid of some of Pennsylvania’s cell phone taxes.


"It wouldn’t be an ongoing problem four years later."

—State Rep. Abby Major (R., Armstrong) says she was harassed by a fellow lawmaker years after Democratic leadership learned of a similar incident

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VITAL DATA: Join us today from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free panel on health care reporting in Pennsylvania, how we fight for open records, and your rights under the Right-to-Know Law. Register here and submit your questions to

UNEQUAL ELECTIONS: Join us and a panel of election experts on Thursday, March 30 from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free discussion on unequal voting policies in the state, how they impact voters, and possible solutions. Register for the event here and submit your questions to

Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
» A Pa. hospital’s revoked property tax exemption is a ‘warning shot’ to other nonprofits, expert says
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» Key Pa. senator’s record has Democrats, voting advocates worried passing election reform will be difficult

5 tips to win a Pa. open records fight

You might find yourself in this situation: You ask a public agency for a record — maybe an email between school board members or details of how a township is spending money.

Then the agency refuses. But you think the agency is wrong! 

You have options.

Under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, all records from a host of state and local agencies are presumed to be public unless a specific exemption applies. 

So if you request a record under that law and the agency denies it, you might win access by appealing to the state’s Office of Open Records. The office handles appeals involving the governor’s administration, school boards, city councils, and many other public agencies. (Some agencies, such as the state House and Senate, have their own appeals officers.)

Success isn’t guaranteed. But in honor of Sunshine Week — an annual celebration of access to public information and open government — here are five tips that can improve your odds and make the process easier to navigate. 

1. Remember: You can win.

Nearly half of the appeals in 2021 were filed by “everyday citizens,” according to the office’s annual report. 

“Don’t be intimidated by fancy legal filings made by an agency,” Erik Arneson, a former executive director of the office, told Spotlight PA in an email. “The OOR was designed to work for non-attorneys who do not want to — or cannot afford to — hire an attorney.”

In 2021, people seeking records filed nearly 3,000 appeals with the state’s Office of Open Records. Some cases were withdrawn, dismissed for technical reasons, or processed in some other way. The office denied more than 700 appeals. But it granted or partially granted 557 appeals.

You don’t need an attorney and there’s no fee to appeal.

2. Get your appeal in on time!

You have 15 business days to appeal after a denial.

Meeting that deadline is crucial. The burden is on agencies to prove why records shouldn’t be released, so getting your foot in the door allows the office to analyze the law and potentially rule in your favor — even if you don’t submit additional evidence or legal arguments.

The office’s online appeal form helps ensure people’s cases aren’t dismissed on technicalities.

3. Consider mediation.

If you and the agency both agree to mediation, it could give the agency a chance to clarify what’s available or you a chance to clarify what you’ll accept. If mediation fails, the appeals process continues normally.

4. Check out the big index of open records cases.

The index, which is continually updated and totaled 138 pages earlier this month, describes the history of important Right-to-Know Law cases, the outcomes, and their significance for similar issues. Look for relevant cases you can cite.

5. Ask for more time — or a chance to respond.

After you file your appeal, the office is responsible for creating a schedule for the parties to submit evidence and legal arguments. 

If you want to submit additional information and need more time, ask for an extension. That can be especially useful if you have other commitments or you want to respond to a new argument from an agency. Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaNO APPEAL: Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro says GOP lawmakers have indicated they won't appeal February's landmark court ruling that labeled Pennsylvania's school funding system unconstitutional and ordered it fixed, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. That means it will fall to the governor and divided legislature to find a solution, something Spotlight PA reported will be an enormous and expensive challenge.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaOFF THE JOB: Lt. Gov. Austin Davis has fired two employees who were brought on by his predecessor, John Fetterman, and touted as success stories following their commutations for murder. PennLive (paywall) reports Davis isn't commenting on the firings of George Trudel, 56, and Naomi Blount Wilson, 72, but advocates are now questioning the Democrat's commitment to clemency. 

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaHIGH-EARNERS: This year marked a first for PennLive's annual round-up of six-figure earners in Pennsylvania government: There are now state employees who have cracked the half million-dollar mark. And because so many employees now make six figures, the outlet said it's upped the salary threshold from $100,000 to $200,000. The State System of Higher Education had the highest number of high-earners.

DEPORTATION STOP: Activists citing "productive conversations" with the Lehigh Valley Health Network say they believe they've stopped an Allentown hospital from carrying out the forced "medical deportation" of an undocumented, comatose patient, the Inquirer (paywall) reports. The 46-year-old woman experienced complications from surgery after a brain aneurysm in December and has been in a coma since.

FARM AID: The Biden administration is weighing a plan to vaccinate millions of chickens against the bird flu, which has decimated poultry flocks in Pennsylvania — the hardest hit U.S. state. Lancaster Farming says the virus is also racking wild bird populations here. And while the virus isn't expected to pose big risks to humans, UPenn researchers are working on a people vaccine.

» APOpaque AI tool may flag parents with disabilities 

» CAP-STARPa. gauges demand for decriminalized fentanyl test strips

» INQUIRERShapiro’s budget proposes a tax on adult-use marijuana

» LNPSurprise driver's license suspensions are disrupting lives

» WESAEnvironmental groups push for EPA to lead dioxin testing

Support Spotlight PA's vital investigative journalism and for a limited time, all gifts will be DOUBLED.
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SAY CHEESE (Case No. 192)What type of cheese is made backwards?
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Last week's answer: 977 animals. Also accepted due to the phrasing of the question: *I* have no animals. (Find last week's clue here.) 
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