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Uncovering Pa. lawmakers’ secretive legal bills

Plus, Pa. taxpayers backed legislator's cross-country trek to conservative conference.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

October 14, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Legal fees, risky vets, voter guides, expenses paid, front-runner, mail case, leaky wells, fatal gaps, 'egregious' conduct, reform pitch, and paper chase.
Pennsylvania lawmakers spend millions of taxpayer dollars each year on private lawyers, but rarely disclose who required representation or why, flouting case law that requires those details be made public.

Spotlight PA and The Caucus reviewed thousands of legal invoices and found the state legislature spent nearly $10 million in the past two years on private lawyers — while already employing attorneys for six-digit salaries.

Both Democrats and Republicans routinely shielded the reasons for the outside expenses, some arguing that failing to do so could jeopardize legal strategy. (Here's a list of reasons Spotlight PA and The Caucus were able to identify, from harassment claims to personnel issues and on.)

Experts, meanwhile, say the redactions fly in the face of a landmark state Supreme Court ruling and jeopardize the public's right to know.

Also this week, Spotlight PA and The Caucus reported that many of those same law firms and lawyers pour millions of dollars into the campaigns of Pennsylvania legislators — who in turn hire them for all types of taxpayer-funded legal work.

It's a mutually beneficial system — and a perfectly legal one — that has good-goverment advocates warning of a pay-to-play culture in which contracts are given to political allies.

And finally, Spotlight PA and Votebeat reported that with Republicans in the state Senate looking to vet millions of Pennsylvania voters as part of a contested election review, the state has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the same kind of analysis Republicans say they're seeking.

It's a reality the Republicans behind the probe have so far failed to acknowledge, despite the state spending $403,904 over the past six years to access a sophisticated — and more secure — voter list maintenance program that helps find and remove outdated registrations.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

"The judges in these positions really rule on every aspect of a person's or business' life."

—Deborah Gross, of advocacy organization Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, on the importance of judiciary races being decided this Election Day
COVID-19 UPDATES: Penn State will now require employees at its main campus to get a COVID-19 vaccine; deaths from COVID-19 in Pennsylvania have topped 30,000; a visualization condenses 20 months of COVID-19 spread into a single minute; an FDA panel is considering Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots; and vaccinations of state prison staff nearly doubled under a Pennsylvania mandate.
» THE JUDICIAL VOTE: Join us Thursday, Oct. 21 at noon EST via Zoom for a free breakdown and Q&A on who will be on the ballot this November and how voters will decide the future of Pennsylvania's courts. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org
» COVID-19 INFO: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

» A full guide to Pennsylvania’s 2021 Supreme Court election and other appellate judicial races

» A basic guide to vetting your local candidates in Pennsylvania’s 2021 school board elections

» Pennsylvania's 2022 race for governor: What we know so far

Pa. taxpayers backed legislator’s trip to conservative-leaning Utah conference

This past July, state Sen. Cris Dush, the Jefferson County Republican in charge of the Pennsylvania Senate's controversial review of the 2020 election, traveled to Salt Lake City for a three-day conference organized by the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC.

The cross-country trek to attend the conservative-leaning organization's annual gathering was not unusual for Dush: Financial disclosure statements show he's traveled to ALEC conferences nearly half a dozen times in as many years. Each time, he reported to state ethics officials that ALEC had picked up the tab for his travel, lodging, and registration fees.

This year, however, he charged taxpayers for a portion of his expenses.

According to expense records that the Senate began posting online for the first time this summer, Dush was reimbursed nearly $500 for what is described as a "full conference pass" for ALEC's annual gathering.

The expense raises questions about whether taxpayers should underwrite legislators' travel to events that have a partisan or ideological bent.

Over the years, Pennsylvania legislators have sought reimbursement for out-of-state travel, most commonly for conferences organized by nonpartisan groups such as the National Conference of State Legislatures, which brings together lawmakers and their staffers from both major parties from all 50 states for trainings, seminars, and other workshops on pressing policy issues.

Less common are reimbursements for events held by partisan groups, or organizations that push conservative or progressive agendas.

In an email, Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans, said the chamber's rules state that senators and their staff can seek reimbursement for out-of-state travel for conferences, seminars, or meetings that have a "legislative purpose."

When asked if that includes conferences organized by groups with specific ideological leanings, he referred Spotlight PA's questions to the chamber's chief clerk, Donetta D'Innocenzo, whose office approves Senate expense reimbursements. D'Innocenzo did not respond to questions.

Though ALEC describes itself as nonpartisan, its website states the group advocates for "limited government, free markets, and federalism." Its membership is largely a mix of Republican legislators and private businesses (the former pay small fees to join and the latter sometimes pay tens of thousands of dollars). And the organization touts a library of model bills espousing conservative policies that lawmakers can take back to their home states.

Though much of ALEC’s work has focused on advancing conservative economic policies, it has also pursued social policies. The group has pushed controversial "stand-your-ground" laws — which allow the use of deadly force in self-defense, without a duty to retreat — in states around the country. Those laws came under intense scrutiny after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer who used that law in his defense.

A spokesperson for ALEC did not respond to emailed requests for information about the organization. Dush also did not respond to requests for comment.

Last year, Dush was named ALEC's "legislator of the year," according to a press release on his Senate webpage. Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA
RUN OUT: With a video touching on election denialism, hyper-partisanship, and more, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro became the first Democrat to declare a bid for governor this week, TribLIVE reports — and he may be the last. WHYY explains how Shapiro avoided a hard primary fight or, as one political consultant put it, got a "free ride."

LEGAL FIGHT: Pennsylvania's expanded mail-in voting law is facing its most serious legal challenge yet, prompting Democratic National Committee involvement and plenty of state-level concerns. The Inquirer reports the Democrat-led state Supreme Court could uphold the law on appeal, but some worry the damage would already be done.

'LIABILITY BOMB': Researchers found up to 8% of Pennsylvania's man-made methane emissions come from inactive oil and gas wells, a lurking "climate menace," according to Bloomberg Green. But the largest owner of such wells in the state cut a deal allowing it to slow-walk the plugging process, creating what one expert calls a "liability bomb waiting to explode."

UNSAFE HOMES: Fatal cases of child abuse in Pennsylvania rose 43% in 2020, and near deaths increased by 24%, according to a newly released state report. Per York Daily Record, the report lists "violent acts" and drug ingestions as primary causes. It also cites increases in prolonged and repeated supervision gaps seen during the pandemic.

CASE REVIEW: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says Schuylkill County officials failed to stop "egregious sexual harassment" by County Commissioner George Halcovage, WFMZ reports. The case has prompted investigations, lawsuits, impeachment threats, and, Halcovage's accusers say, ongoing acts of retaliation.

» CAPITAL-STAR: Gift ban missing from Pa. GOP's lobbying reform pitch

» LNP: Pa. newspaper publisher hit with 'significant ransomware attack'

» PENNLIVE: Enrollment in Pa.'s state universities hits two-decade low

» POLITICO: 'Mild-mannered' Sen. Casey heated over social spending

» WESA: Foiled Navy spy plot ran through Pennsylvania, officials say
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

ANIMAL FARM (Case No. 114): A farmer says: "I only keep sheep, goats, and horses. At the moment they are all sheep bar three, all goats bar four, and all horses bar five." How many of each animal does the farmer have?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: A yard, yardstick, or stool. (Find last week's clue here.)

Congrats to Marisa B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Elizabeth W., Hagan H., Ryan S., Philip C., Michele M., Joe S., Michael H., Lois P., George S., Linda C., Judy A., William D., Lisa M., Marisa B., Deborah D., John H., Edward F., Laura S., Jeff W., Joseph A., Catherine J., Annette I., Rebecca D., Nancy M., Irene T., James A., Doris T., David T., Joel S., Dennis F., Beth T., Connie K., Nancy S., Ken S., Burnetta S., Geoffrey M., George F., Ed N., Anthony E., Heather B., Barbara M., Robert K., Eileen D., Jon N., Cris F., Fred O., Norman S., Mary B., Daniel D., Bruce B., Kevin H., Ann E., Beverly M., Skip B., Jonathan T., Johnny C., Marvin S., Mark C., Michelle T., Mark R., and Karen K.
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