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Case against ex-lawmaker still shrouded in secrecy


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
February 23, 2021
Court motion, troubled homes, SCOTUS denial, legal weed, Torsella talks, family visits, and freight train fanatics. Hello, and welcome to Tuesday.

Spotlight PA is suing to unseal court documents in an embezzlement case involving former state Rep. Leslie Acosta, documents that remain shrouded in secrecy five years after the Democrat's guilty plea.

Spotlight PA is joined by The Philadelphia Inquirer and LNP | LancasterOnline. All three outlets are asking a federal court to unseal the records, highlighting the public’s right to view judicial proceedings and records in criminal cases, and arguing that there is a high burden for restricting such access.

“These interests are particularly stark in cases of public corruption,” lawyers for the news organizations argue. “Without transparency in such cases, the public’s faith in the judicial system and government as a whole is jeopardized.”

THE CONTEXT: Acosta, a Philadelphia Democrat, was charged with helping her onetime boss embezzle thousands of dollars from a mental health clinic serving low-income residents. The offenses predated her time in office. 

But when the public finally learned about the case in 2016, it was too late for a challenger to get on the ballot to oppose her reelection, and Acosta easily won a second term before ultimately resigning.

“Because most of the proceedings and documents in this case were sealed, Acosta was able to keep her involvement in a criminal scheme to defraud a mental health clinic in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods hidden from her constituents until her reelection was all but guaranteed,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, a Pennsylvania-based lawyer who is representing Spotlight PA and the other media outlets in their bid to unseal case documents.

» If you learned something from today's edition, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can tomorrow.


"We shouldn’t be surprised that people ended up taking action that maybe they wouldn’t have taken otherwise."

—Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh history professor, on the forces behind Pennsylvania's record number of U.S. Capitol siege arrests
VACCINE UPDATE: A federally operated mass vacation site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia could be up and running by next month, officials say, with shots administered to as many as 6,000 people a day. Meanwhile, the U.S. coronavirus death toll reached half-a-million people Sunday. For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.
POST IT: Thanks, Bill M., for this sunny shot of the Appalachian Trail in South Middleton Township. Send us your hidden gems (or snow pictures!), use the hashtag #PAGems, or tag us on Instagram at @spotlightpennsylvania.

NEW FRONT: COVID-19 cases at personal care homes have skyrocketed in Pennsylvania, increasing at triple the rate seen in the state's nursing facilities. Both are licensed by the state and both server older, vulnerable populations, but personal care homes are less-regulated and present "an entirely new set of challenges to public health officials," the Post-Gazette reports.

DENIED: The U.S. Supreme Court has denied Republican Rep. Mike Kelly's challenge of Pennsylvania's 2020 election results, effectively ending a quixotic effort to overturn President Joe Biden's victory here. Legal experts predicted as much, but the Erie Times-News reports Kelly was astounded by the decision and called for the state's no-excuse mail-in voting law to be repealed.

LEGAL POT: Recreational, adult-use cannabis is officially legal in New Jersey. Months after voters approved the option by a 2-to-1 margin, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the proposal into law yesterday, greatly loosening possession rules and paving the way for sales to begin at licensed dispensaries, the Asbury Park Press reports. That means millions of Pennsylvanians will soon be within a short drive of those shops, giving Gov. Tom Wolf's legal pot push new fiscal urgency.

SPEAKING OUT: Before losing re-election in November, Treasurer Joe Torsella was targeting waste and corruption in Pennsylvania's multibillion-dollar pension fund system, The Inquirer reports. No longer the state's fiscal watchdog, Torsella is speaking candidly about a “corrupt system” that too often helps financiers and hedge funds instead of retirees and taxpayers.

BREAKING UP: Family visitations in state prisons have gone virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a change in software by the Department of Corrections is making it harder to connect, families and inmates say. Philadelphia Neighborhoods found video-call visits plagued by bad connections since the agency switched from Zoom to another service, and complaints at every correctional institution in the state. 


ON THE MAP: Spotlight PA and Votebeat reporter Marie Albiges recently talked to Pittsburgh NPR-affiliate WESA about what a census data delay could mean for the timing and transparency of Pennsylvania's upcoming redistricting process. “Advocates like Fair Districts PA are worried that the legislators will blame that delay and use it to say we don’t have time for public input or for public meetings,” Albiges explained.

'GLORIOUS RACKET': Enthusiasts like Keith Burkey have long flocked to Cambria County's Route 53 corridor for close encounters with the behemoth freight trains that regularly pass through the area. “From the youngest point of my childhood, I was interested in trains," Burkey told the Tribune-Democrat. "There is no reason for the draw. It’s a cultural thing, I would suggest.”

GOING ONCE, GOING TWICE: The bidding for Conneaut Lake Park in Crawford County was quiet by auction standards. Friday's deadline came and went with only one qualifying offer — a $1.2 million bid — made for the bankrupt amusement park, The Meadville Tribune reports. The bidder, Keldon Holdings LLC of Narbeth, has said it plans to keep the amusement park and its amenities in operation.

FLY, EAGLES, FLY: Meet Centre County teen Abby Serefine, one of the first female Eagle Scouts in Boy Scouts history. Two years after the Boy Scouts of America opened membership up to girls — a move that prompted legal action — Serefine is part of its inaugural class of female Eagle Scouts, telling the Centre Daily Times: “It felt really surreal just because I grew up with my brothers in Scouts, and I knew about Eagle (Scouts) and I’m like, 'Yeah, that’s really cool.'" 

PITT-ZA PARTY: Pittsburgh's regional pizza scene is as idiosyncratic as the region. There's raw pizza with room-temperature cheese, sponge pizza, and very deep-dish pizza. Pittsburgh Magazine looks at the variety and how the region weathered the "gentrification" of pizza itself.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Yesterday's answer: Asteroid

Congrats to our daily winners: Jessica K., Mary Ellen T., Craig W., Dennis M., Bill C., Eve B., Susan D., David I., Joel S., Irene R., Dixie S., Jill G., Steve D., Patricia M., Marty M., Neal W., Tom M., Kim C., George S., Dianne K., Bette G., Suzanne S., Christopher R., Heidi B., Karen W., Donna W., Michele K., Gloria G., Rick D., David W., Ron P., and Anna T.
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