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PSERS cracks down on leaks amid legal scandal

Plus, Pa. schools shunned free testing as COVID climbed.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

October 7, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Silent treatment, missed tests, environmental crimes, race tracker, redistricting report, election law, defiant DA, legal tests, school threats, and waiting to help.
Leaders of Pennsylvania's largest pension fund are taking unusual and, critics say, draconian steps to stop leaks to the media amid a growing legal scandal. 

Officials with the Public School Employees' Retirement System board have cut off other members from briefings about an ongoing law enforcement probe into the fund and considered the unusual, perhaps unprecedented step of requiring nondisclosure agreements before those briefings resume.

Spotlight PA and The Inquirer report the leaders have also discussed asking state law enforcement or a bipartisan legislative committee to track down whoever leaked information about the federal probe to the press. 

Also this week, Pennsylvania schools have been slow to embrace a state program offering free COVID-19 testing for students, even as child cases rise and outbreaks occur.

Jamie Martines reports just 396 schools signed up between mid-August and Sept. 30, according to the state Department of Health. That's out of more than 5,000 eligible public, private, and charter schools. 

Some school leaders have expressed concerns that if they start testing, they'll find more COVID-19 cases than expected and be forced to take additional mitigation steps such as closing schools.

And finally, dozens of criminal charges have been filed against the company behind Pennsylvania's Mariner East gas pipeline, which Attorney General Josh Shapiro says polluted lakes, rivers, water wells, and put public health and safety at risk.

Spotlight PA previously reported on deep-seated concerns around the infrastructure project, calling it "one of the most controversial in Pennsylvania's history."

"And of course, we've tried, ad nauseam, to make sure schools are aware of it."

—Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam on low rates of school participation in a free weekly COVID-19 testing program being offered by the state
COVID-19 UPDATES: Gov. Tom Wolf says the statewide school mask mandate is unlikely to lift this month; new data show higher vaccination rates in Pennsylvania's Democrat-led legislative districts; hundreds of Pennsylvania nursing homes may have missed the state's worker vaccination deadline; and the at-home testing supply is rising.
» CRISIS OF CARE: Join us Friday, Oct. 8 at noon ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on rising rates of Alzheimer's disease in Pennsylvania, the barriers to care, and the solutions urged by advocates. 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.

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

Meet Spotlight PA's new redistricting reporter

I'm Kate Huangpu, and I'm so excited to be reporting on redistricting at Spotlight PA!

Redistricting is a once-in-a-decade occurrence that affects the very foundation of our democracy and dictates whose voices are heard in our legislature. My coverage will explore how Pennsylvania's demographic changes shape our state politics as well as the government's approaches to climate change, education policy, and the economy. 

I hope to pull back the curtains on how redistricting works and document as much of the process as possible in order to keep citizens informed and elected officials accountable.

I've lived in Pennsylvania since I was a toddler. I spent my childhood dashing across Delaware County and the Philadelphia area. I cherish my memories of weekends in Chinese School classes in the Main Line, weekly life drawing classes at the Tyler School of Art, and annual fall trips to Haverford Township Day. 

After graduating from Haverford High School, I moved to New York to pursue my bachelor's and master's degrees. At Barnard College, I studied history and human rights and wrote for the Columbia Daily Spectator. During the summers I interned at MSNBC and News Deeply. I also worked as a production assistant and digital news associate for ABC's World News Tonight.

After graduating during the pandemic in 2020, I decided to continue my studies at Columbia Journalism School, where I got my master's in data journalism this past August. During the program, I learned to code and analyze data. I also honed my reporting skills by following police accountability efforts in New York City. I attended misconduct trials at One Police Plaza, talked with community affairs officers, and explored how Mayor Bill de Blasio's community policing policy affected residents.

For my senior thesis, I used my data skills and community reporting experience to analyze resources for survivors of domestic violence in New York. My analysis uncovered a dearth of service centers with foreign-language capabilities and disparities between where resources were needed and where they were available. According to crime data from the police, most centers were not located in the communities with high amounts of domestic violence, forcing victims to travel hours to find support.

Now that I'm back home in Pennsylvania, I plan to use my reporting to illustrate the richness of our state, especially in the often overlooked communities where I grew up.

I want to tell stories that will help Pennsylvanians understand the on-the-ground effects of an often nebulous redistricting process. 

NO-SHOW: A Tuesday hearing with Wolf administration officials on possible election law changes was cut short when those officials failed to show, per the AP. On Wednesday, The Inquirer reported talks have resumed between Wolf and Republicans around a separate election law overhaul push that fell apart this summer and culminated in a Wolf veto.

OPEN CASE: KDKA-TV reports Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office will prosecute the case against Somerset County District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas, who's charged with raping a Windber woman inside her home last month. The Tribune-Democrat reports Thomas is taking a leave of absence to address the charges but has no plans to resign.

BIG SUIT: Good government groups and eight voters want to join Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's lawsuit against a Republican bid to obtain personal voter information en masse for a partisan election review, per Capital-Star. Meanwhile, Republicans in the state Senate say they won't hire a contractor for the probe until a judge weighs in.

SCHOOL SAFETY: U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has ordered the FBI to meet with local law enforcement nationwide to address threats against school officials and staff — many involving pandemic protocols and critical race theory. In Pennsylvania, nearly half of school principals surveyed said they've been threatened over mask orders, PennLive reports.

IN LIMBO: Pennsylvania resettlement agencies are waiting as federal officials struggle to resettle thousands of Afghan refugees, LancasterOnline reports. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) criticized the U.S. withdrawal from the country, citing the story of a Lehigh Valley school worker who was stranded as the Taliban took over, per Morning Call.

» AP: GOP guv candidate Gerow was 'sideswiped' in fatal turnpike crash

» TRIBLIVE: Child custody dispute spills over into Parnell's Senate bid

» WHYY: 'Vicious cycle' for Pa.'s working parents feeds labor shortage

» WNEP: Former West Hazleton police chief sentenced to federal prison

» WPSU: Former Pa. prison becoming immigrant detention center
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.

STILL STANDING (Case No. 113)What has 3 feet but cannot walk?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Chicago. (Find last week's clue here.)

Congrats to Gene L., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Philip C., Kevin L., David T., Judy A., James D., Hagan H., George S., Sylvia N., Frank D., Annette I., Lou R., Edward F., Bill E., Lynda G., Michelle T., Jeff P., Barbara M., Ken S., Mary B., Michael H., Beth T., William D., Michael D., Kristin R., Heather B., Fred O., Eileen D., Jon N., and Joe S.
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