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Trump-aligned group backs Pa. school mask lawsuit

Plus, legal victory compels Pa. to release guarded medical marijuana details.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

September 9, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Mad mask, with interest, audit 2.0, cannabis ruling, record settlement, stock buy, primary colors, drug deaths, solemn anniversary, and open records rules.

A lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania lawmakers and parents looking to overturn the Wolf administration's days-old school mask order has the backing of a Trump-aligned group that sought to overturn the 2020 election results.

The plaintiffs in the case are being represented by Thomas King, a partner at a small Western Pennsylvania law firm and general counsel for the Pennsylvania Republican Party.

But Angela Couloumbis and Jamie Martines report his services are being paid for by the Amistad Project of the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani once described as a "partner" in the Trump campaign's prolonged push to nullify President Joe Biden's victory. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre), who's helping to lead the mask rule challenge, did not respond to an interview request. A spokesperson said taxpayer dollars are not being used to pay his legal fees.

In other news, Pennsylvania's Department of Labor and Industry will pay out more than $19 million in refunds after it overcharged nearly 110,000 people for unemployment interest payments over a decade

Angela Couloumbis reports officials first learned about the issue in late 2016 but did not reveal it publicly until Spotlight PA learned of the problem.

The mistake impacted people who had received unemployment benefits for which they did not qualify, and who were required to repay the department for those benefits, plus interest.

And finally, the first hearing in a relaunched GOP probe into Pennsylvania's 2020 general election and 2021 primary is scheduled for today. Corman previously said subpoenas will be issued if the Wolf administration doesn't cooperate, the Capital-Star reports.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

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"To the extent that these organizations are engaged in an activity on the public's behalf ... I believe they should be disclosing more."

Philip Hackney, a former IRS lawyer, on private donors for politically involved groups like the one backing a lawsuit against Pa.'s school mask rule
COVID-19 UPDATES: Penn State Health says its sickest patients are unvaccinated and in their 20s and 30s; WHO says the virus will mutate like the flu and is likely here to stay; and the U.S. is facing its most serious pediatric surge yet as in-person classes resume.

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get the COVID-19 vaccine

» Pa. to refund $19 million to 109,000 people it overcharged in unemployment error

» Spotlight PA named a finalist for national investigative journalism award

Spotlight PA legal victory could make medical marijuana info publicly available for the first time 

The public could soon know for the first time how many patients use medical marijuana to treat opioid use disorder in Pennsylvania, one of the few states to specifically endorse that treatment option.

Spotlight PA sought that information while reporting on a Bucks County man who was wrongly denied addiction treatment funding because of his medical marijuana card and who died of an overdose soon after.

After the Department of Health refused to reveal the number — saying that the state's medical marijuana law "protects patient and caregiver information" — the news organization appealed to the independent agency that settles public records disputes involving the Wolf administration. 

The Office of Open Records this month ruled in favor of Spotlight PA and ordered the health department to disclose how many patients are certified for cannabis under each of the state's 23 qualifying conditions. 

In making the decision, the office rejected an argument from the Wolf administration that releasing the numbers would violate the confidentiality rules of the state's 2016 medical marijuana law. At one point, attorneys for the Department of Health suggested that disclosing the information could lead to a criminal charge against an employee. 

Yet, the director of the Office of Medical Marijuana had previously released similar information, including the number of people certified to use marijuana because of an anxiety diagnosis, and never faced any known consequences.

While Spotlight PA's appeal was pending, the Office of Open Records ruled in favor of another news organization, CNHI, that requested information on how many medical marijuana patients live in each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. 

"Finding the requested aggregated data to be confidential would lead to an absurd result," Kyle Applegate, chief counsel for the office, wrote in a July 15 final order. 

The data revealed that more than 50,000 people registered for medical marijuana live in one of 29 rural counties without a medical marijuana dispensary.

The Department of Health has until Oct. 4 to provide the data breakdown requested by Spotlight PA or appeal the decision to Commonwealth Court. If the agency doesn't do either, Spotlight PA could seek a court order to enforce the office's final determination. Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

A longer version of this article will appear at spotlightpa.org.
'I CAN'T BREATHE': Pennsylvania will pay $8.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit brought by the family of a Philadelphia man and asthmatic who died after being pepper-sprayed at a state prison. The Inquirer says the settlement is the largest ever paid for a state prison death in Pennsylvania.

ETHICS PROBE: The U.S. House Committee on Ethics has extended an investigation into U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly (R., Butler) that started after Kelly's wife bought stock in a local steel company days before the launch of a Kelly-ushered probe into foreign steel imports, per Erie Times-News. 

OPPO RESEARCH: Sean Parnell, the Trump-endorsed candidate for U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, had protective orders placed against him by his wife in 2017 and 2018. The AP reports the news was made public by one of Parnell's GOP primary opponents this week.

NO ACTION: Pennsylvania is facing a "record-breaking" year for drug overdose deaths, yet the legislature is taking no action on the state's troubled addiction treatment centers, the Morning Call reports. State Sen. Katie Muth (D., Chester) suspects corporate influence might be why.

TWENTY YEARS: President Joe Biden will visit Shanksville Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. WITF's Tim Lambert was one of several landowners with property at the crash site, where the Flight 93 Memorial now stands, and chronicled his return two decades later.

» LNP: Pa.'s new open records boss knows the laws need to change

» NBC NEWS: Pa.'s prison labor program pays little, still loses money

» TIMES LEADER: Wolf asks Biden to declare Pa. disaster after storms

» TRIBLIVE: Pa. jail contractor won't discuss own criminal history

» WESA: Pittsburgh schools head resigns after ethics violations reported
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.

DECK HANDS (Case No. 109)A small number of cards has been lost from a complete pack of 52. If I deal among four people, three cards remain. If I deal among three people, two cards remain, and if I deal among five people, two cards remain. How many cards are there?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: 24 eggs. (Find last week's clue here.)
Congrats to Michael S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Philip C., Michael H., Annette I., Jeffrey F., Rebecca D., Fred O., Robert K., Lynda G., and Joe S.
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