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Contractor botched PA mortgage relief from start

Plus, the rise of female representation in the state legislature.


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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 23, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Management accusations, female representation, primary coverage, inside story, fraud case, turf trouble, root causes, mixed verdict, and policy pay. 

Thousands of Pennsylvania homeowners are stuck waiting for help from a state mortgage relief program as officials blame a private contractor for botched management of the $350 million pandemic aid effort, Spotlight PA's Charlotte Keith reports.

In a scathing March 1 letter, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency leveled a series of new criticisms at the company, Innovative Emergency Management, Inc., including that the vendor prematurely denied assistance to some homeowners in an effort to close applications quickly.

Homeowners looking to the federally bankrolled program for help with mortgage, utility, and other household debts are facing further delays as a result, putting them at risk of further financial harm.

Also this week, reporter Kate Huangpu looks at the rise of female representation in the state legislature. While a record number of women currently serve in the Pennsylvania House and Senate, they still represent less than one-third of the legislature. 

Finally, Spotlight PA launched its 2023 primary election coverage this week with a guide to the candidates for state Supreme Court. Look for more guides on the candidates and how to vote in the coming weeks. 


"The problem is that officers only had two tools — handcuffs and ambulances."

—Ed Cunningham, the police chief in Elizabethtown, Lancaster County, where local officials have given the OK to throw out minor charges to prevent people with mental illness from entering the criminal justice system

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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 events@spotlightpa.org

Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
» 5 tips to win a Pa. open records fight and overcome secrecy in government
» Police killed Osaze Osagie four years ago. Here’s what has and hasn’t happened since.
» How some police, attorneys, and jails are trying to help Pa.’s ailing system for mentally ill people

Interviewing a traumatized person for an investigation requires sensitivity, care 

After more than six months of reporting, Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism published an investigation into Pennsylvania’s broken system for determining whether someone is mentally fit to stand trial.

The investigation found the system often harms the very people it is intended to help, including Rachel Bridgeman, a woman from Georgia who spent 49 days waiting for a bed at a state hospital once a Pittsburgh court found her “incompetent” to stand trial.

In Allegheny County Jail, Rachel’s mental health deteriorated so rapidly that she began to bang her head into the floor and walls of her cell, believing that doing so would save humanity. In the time she spent in jail, her medical records indicate that she was tased, placed in a solitary padded room, and repeatedly injected with antipsychotic drugs.

To properly tell her story, Brittany Hailer of PINJ and I needed to interview Rachel about the difficult days she spent in jail and the events that brought her there.

Journalists often speak with people who, like Rachel, have experienced profound loss that has left them vulnerable. Their firsthand accounts are essential to investigative journalism. But equally as important is approaching these interviews with flexibility that in other settings might feel unethical.

For example, I would rarely let a high-ranking official retract something said on the record. But I’m not so rigid when interviewing people who’ve undergone a traumatic experience.

People who have experienced trauma sometimes remember things incorrectly. In a moment of bravery, they may initially want their name tied to an accusation — but later they may change their minds, fearing repercussions. They may need time to rest and recover after an emotional conversation, time that might not adhere to the usual demands of deadlines and fact checks.

And that's how it’s supposed to work, because even when someone trusts a journalist with the story of the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, it is still their story. My duty is not just to meet deadlines, but to treat sources with as much care and respect as I can.

So when we prepared to talk to Rachel, Brittany and I did the necessary work beforehand to ensure we didn’t need to ask her to relive the worst moments. We read through 400 pages of her jail medical records. We asked police for the reports from her arrests. We talked to the attorney who told us about her in the first place.

Even during the interview, we made choices to minimize any potential distress. 

Brittany talked to Rachel and her sister Sarah in person, from the lobby of the Pittsburgh hotel where the sisters were staying, while I listened over the phone from my living room in southeastern Pennsylvania.

I took notes and sent Brittany follow-up questions so she could focus on Rachel. I helped the photographer, who was sitting in his car in the parking lot, find a good moment to join the conversation without overwhelming the Bridgemans.

Over the next three months, I talked to Rachel and Sarah again, but always on their terms. While I might insist on a phone call with a government official, Rachel was staying with family in a noisy environment, so we chatted via text. 

The Bridgemans wanted someone to tell their story, but they also needed time to heal from what they’d been through. Often, being an investigative journalist means providing both. Danielle Ohl, Spotlight PA

This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaFRAUD CASE: DuBois City Manager John "Herm" Suplizio has been arrested for using $620,815 from city bank accounts and the United Way to pay his credit card bills, make political donations, and gamble, per the Pennsylvania AG's Office. Suplizio, who ran for former state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati's seat in 2020 with Scarnati's blessing, is also accused of benefiting from city contracts.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaTURF TROUBLE: A Danish artificial turf recycler was promised $1.85 million in state loans and grants to open its first U.S. processing center in Pennsylvania. More than a year later, the Bucks County Courier Times says the Schuylkill County center hasn't opened, the AstroTurf is piling up in fields and parking lots, and the company is getting notices that it’s violating the commonwealth’s environmental laws.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaROOT CAUSES: The U.S. had one of the worst rates of maternal mortality in its history in 2021, according to a new CDC report. In Pennsylvania, Capital-Star reports Gov. Josh Shapiro's budget proposal calls for the commonwealth to put "real resources" "for the first time" into studying the root causes of Pennsylvania's high maternal mortality rate, which is three times higher for Black women.

MIXED VERDICT: Suspended Somerset County District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas was found not guilty of sexual assault and aggravated indecent assault, the most serious charges against him, at the conclusion of his jury trial last week, WTAE reports. Thomas, accused of assaulting a woman inside her Windber home in 2021, was found guilty on six related counts. His sentencing is tentatively set for May 16.

POLICE PAY: An abused state program that allows injured cops to collect their full salaries, largely tax-free, could expand under police union-backed legislation being ushered by former U.S. Marshal — and current Republican state senator from York — Mike Regan. The Inquirer (paywall) reports he wants the program to cover more law enforcement branches, but Philadelphia remains a cautionary tale.

» APNorfolk Southern supports some new regs after Ohio disaster

» NJ MonitorWhat hazardous materials travel on trains? It’s a secret.

» PENNLIVEEx-lawmaker resigns from state post after taking another

» TRIBLIVEAllegheny Co. treasurer denies deals to stay on board

» WHYYSchool district spent $250K to defuse anti-LGBTQ criticism

Support Spotlight PA's vital investigative journalism and for a limited time, all gifts will be DOUBLED.
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

I PALINDROME I (Case No. 193)What seven letter word is spelled the same backwards and forwards? Hint: It's fast.
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: "Edam." (Find last week's clue here.) 
Congrats to Trish B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jon N., Eric F., Michael H., Michelle T., Kirby T., Geoff M., Judy A., Annette I., Roseanne D., Jeffrey F., Tish M., Terry P., Fred O., Lynda G., Jay G., Marcia R., Irene T., Christine B., Donna D., Matt C., Cliff A., Alberta V., Joe S., Don H., Robert K., Peter S., Sherri S., Fran B., Beth T., and Philip C.
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