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Request for lobbyist emails to legislators? Denied.

Plus, Shapiro won't step in on a police data dispute.

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.

August 31, 2023 |
In session, football academics, police data, lobbyist emails, open records, political perks, toxic waters, gas leaks, tire fires, and opioid spending. 


One of the biggest-ever classes of new lawmakers joined the Pennsylvania legislature this year, just in time for one of the most chaotic and turbulent legislative sessions in decades. 

Spotlight PA followed three of them — state Reps. Justin Fleming (D., Dauphin), Tarik Khan (D., Philadelphia), and Dallas Kephart (R., Clearfield) — as they navigated a first term full of power struggle and scandal.

Kate Huangpu and Angela Couloumbis break down the policy and political disputes that marked the reps' wild first session.

Also this week, Huangpu and Katie Meyer report that budget work with the state Senate continues, the chamber returning for a rare August session to work on bills that are needed to free up some $1.1 billion in state spending.

The stalled initiatives cover everything from hospitals to public defense to home repair grants, and while progress was made, the Pennsylvania House and Senate remain at odds over education and other key costs.

Elsewhere, Wyatt Massey reports the academic rating for Penn State's football team dropped to its lowest level in more than a decade last year. In February, the NCAA announced it would resume penalizing teams with a four-year average academic progress rate below 930. Penn State's average was 958 for the 2021-22 school year.

And finally, Danielle Ohl has the latest on an effort by a coalition of newsrooms to make data on licensed police officers publicly available. In March, Pennsylvania State Police denied a records request from the coalition. The news outlets then sent a letter to Gov. Josh Shapiro, hoping he'd intervene and make the data available to the public. He declined.

"This type of information is the bedrock of what Americans expect to access from their public bodies."

—A coalition of newsrooms in a letter asking Gov. Shapiro to intervene and release a database of licensed police officers

» MISSED CONDUCT: Join us today, Aug. 31 from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free panel discussion on Penn State’s post-Sandusky misconduct policies, transparency in higher education, and how universities can keep students and employees safe. Register here. Submit questions to

» CRIMINAL SOLUTION: Join Spotlight PA, the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and experts on Thursday, Sept. 14, 6-7:30 p.m. ET at Point Park University for a live discussion on how a Pennsylvania law traps those with mental health issues in jail. RSVP now; seating is limited. 

» STORY FEST: Spotlight PA is participating in Philly Story Fest, a first-of-its-kind festival that brings together storytellers from across the city on one stage. Join us Thursday, Oct. 5 from 7-10 p.m. at the Bok building in South Philadelphia (1901 South 9th St.). Tickets are $25 and available here.
» 5 hurdles to Pa.’s $1.1B broadband windfall

Lobbyist emails to lawmakers aren't public, says legislature

Deep within Pennsylvania’s 36-page Right-to-Know Law, a clause says that correspondence between a state lawmaker and a person seeking their help is off-limits to the public — unless that person is a lobbyist. 

For years, the legislature has seemingly treated the language as if it doesn’t exist, summarily rejecting all requests for its emails, letters, or other forms of communications regardless of who was on the sending or receiving end.

This past summer, Spotlight PA decided to put the law’s lobbyist clause to the test by requesting from both the state House and Senate copies of communications between legislators and a narrow group of well-known lobbyists.

Both chambers swiftly denied the request. Spotlight PA appealed — and lost again.

In many ways, the outcome was not surprising. 

When the General Assembly approved the state’s Right-to-Know Law 15 years ago, it effectively exempted itself from providing access to records that it required the executive branch, for instance, to make public.

It also did not allow the Office of Open Records, an independent state agency, to handle disputes over access to its public records. The agency decides conflicts involving most other state and local government offices, disputes that often arise after access to a record has been denied or a record is heavily redacted.

Instead, the legislature effectively gave itself self-policing powers. In the state Senate, the appeals officer is the chamber’s secretary, a position appointed by Senate leaders. In the state House, the appeals officer is a lawyer who answers to the ranking Republican (despite the chamber being controlled by Democrats currently). And if one of those appeals officers has a conflict, the matter is referred to the Legislative Reference Bureau, whose director is also appointed by legislative leaders.

Since the public records law went into full effect in 2009, the state Senate has mediated 32 appeals by requesters, and the state House has mediated 34. All but three were either denied, dismissed, or resolved before a decision was made, according to data from both chambers. The Office of Open Records hears several thousand appeals annually, and according to its yearly reports, has partially or wholly granted between 20% and 30% of appeals in recent years.  

Over the years, some good-government groups have urged changes to the law so that disagreements over legislative records are decided by the Office of Open Records. They argue this shift could give the public more confidence that decisions aren’t influenced by political or other considerations.

The section of the public records law at the center of Spotlight PA’s dispute over lobbyist communications deals with records that are exempt from disclosure. According to that section, “correspondence” between lawmakers and constituents that would identify the person or the reason they are writing is exempt — but the exemption explicitly does not apply to correspondence between lawmakers and lobbyists.

Both the state Senate and House hired a private law firm, Stevens & Lee, to defend their position that the records should remain unavailable. The chambers argued, among other things, that in crafting the law, the General Assembly created 19 specific categories of records it must make public. 

Communications, they said, do not fall under any of those 19 categories, which largely cover financial records. Those categories, they argued, take precedence, because lawmakers made clear their intent to limit the scope of records they are required to make public. 

— Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

Support vital Pennsylvania journalism. Donate to Spotlight PA now.
🏆 HIGH SCORE? Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Election day conflict, troubled waters, and broadband blitz.
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaPOLITICAL PERKS: LNP (paywall) tallied up some of the all-expenses-paid luxury trips accepted by Pennsylvania state lawmakers (often under the guise of policy-making research or regional boosterism). The outlet found more than $175,000 in gifts disclosed by 45 lawmakers in 2022 (on top of their lofty base salaries) but says the details in such disclosures vary by person and often "leave much to the imagination."

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaCHEMICAL STREAMS: More than three-quarters of Pennsylvania streams contain the toxic "forever chemicals" known as PFAS. The Inquirer (paywall) reports: The United States Geological Survey
sampled streams across Pennsylvania and found that 76% of them contained the presence of at least one compound from the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) family.

This week's third top news story in Pennsylvania'ROOT CAUSE': A massive gas leak at a storage facility in Cambria County last year followed water and oxygen-induced corrosion that caused a well casing to fail, the owner reports. The leak lasted for weeks and released huge volumes of natural gas and planet-warming methane, topping a list of the worst U.S. climate disasters in 2022. A settlement with Pennsylvania state regulators was announced in April. 

TIRE FIRES: A cryptocurrency mine in Carbon County wants to burn tires to fuel its energy-intensive operations, prompting an outcry from residents and environmental activists concerned about pollution. StateImpact reports the waste coal-fired facility in Nesquehoning wants state regulators to sign off on the plan in an area advocates say has high poverty and deep-seated environmental justice concerns.
OPIOID SPENDING: Lancaster County commissioners this week approved a contested plan to spend $193,000 of the county's opioid settlement money on drug police and a "community prosecutor," LNP (paywall) reports. As Spotlight PA previously reported, advocates for drug treatment plans are opposed to spending the opioid settlement cash on law enforcement or criminal justice efforts

» AP: Cities say court ruling on stormwater fees could drain budgets

» CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY: Pa. schools refuse homeless kids

» LEHIGH VALLEY LIVE: Parents claim false diagnoses of child abuse

» WHYY: Pa. colleges make millions on alumni credit card deals

» WNEP: State police remove college requirement for new recruits

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APPLE RECORDS (Case No. 215)Five people were eating apples: A finished before B, but behind C. D finished before E, but behind B. What was the finishing order?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: The two people are on opposite sides of the body of water. (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to Bruce B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Jeffrey F., Don H., Alberta V., James D., Lois P., Dana D., Mary B., Phil C., Bill E., Fred O., Terry E., Jay G., Michelle T., Beth T., Ed M., and Johnny C.
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