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FBI investigating $25M Pa. pension fund 'error'


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
March 30, 2021
Eviction ban, Trump-vaccine link, Breonna's Law, charter concerns, PSERS probe, long haul, pot arrests, and rising river tolls. Today is Tuesday. 
THE PUSH TO 2,000: We're nearing 2,000 Spotlight PA members! Help us reach this historic mark by contributing any amount right now to support our investigative journalism. Help put us over the top  »»

Pennsylvania is distributing a new wave of financial assistance to help tenants harmed by the pandemic stay in their homes and keep the lights on, and there are fewer restrictions this time after a previous effort failed to deliver nearly $100 million in relief

In total, $847 million is available through the new Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which can be used to cover rent, utility bills, or other household expenses. There's no cap on the amount of monthly aid a person can receive. Owners of rental properties can also apply for assistance on behalf of tenants. 

The relief comes as nearly 200,000 Pennsylvania households tell the U.S. Census Bureau they're facing foreclosure or eviction, while 2.9 million report difficulty paying household expenses. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended a federal eviction moratorium until the end of June, though advocates warn it will only serve as a Band-Aid if it's not backed up by financial assistance. 

“While $847 million is a lot of money that can help a lot of people, it is first-come, first-served," Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said yesterday. 

THE CONTEXT: Two-thirds of Pennsylvania counties are taking applications for the relief program through the state's compass.state.pa.us site. Others, including Allegheny County and Philadelphia, have built their own submission sites. Here's a county-by-county listing.

Proof of unemployment benefits, a drop in income, increased household costs, or other financial hardship directly or indirectly related to the COVID-19 pandemic is needed to qualify along with a demonstrable risk of homelessness or housing instability and a household income at or below 80% of area median income, which varies by county

Officials say county ERAP offices will work with applicants to obtain documents or written attestations when necessary, but that will almost certainly add time to the process, reinforcing the importance of starting the application process ASAP, especially since the program will end when all funds have been expended. Find more program details and FAQs here


"This is a model, a strategic model, and a tactic that should be generalized by housing groups across the country."

—Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on the grassroots housing activists who "took on Philadelphia and won"
VACCINE UPDATE: Thousands of vaccine appointments are going unclaimed in western Pennsylvania and officials are urging people to double-check their eligibility. Meanwhile, The Inquirer finds a "clear correlation" between the percentage of people who have not received a vaccine in a county and the percentage who voted for Donald Trump. For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.
» The Fettermans: Join Spotlight PA at 5 p.m. April 6 for a conversation and reader Q&A with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Second Lady Gisele Fetterman on immigration, legal cannabis, racism, and more. RSVP FOR FREE

POST IT: A Spring shot along Westmoreland Heritage Trail between Trafford and Monroeville. Thanks, Doug W., for sharing! Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.
BREONNA'S LAW: A Pennsylvania lawmaker has reintroduced a ban on no-knock warrants named for Breonna Taylor, the Kentucky woman killed by police in a botched raid one year ago. State Sen. Tim Kearney (D., Delaware) said he will continue outreach to Republican colleagues who did not give the bill a vote when Kearney first introduced it last year, WHYY reports.

CHARTER REFORM: A new Harrisburg charter school got the go-ahead to open its doors thanks to a state Charter School Appeals Board populated with the founder's former Corbett administration colleagues. The Capital-Star reports the decision highlights long-running concerns about the board's shortcomings and potential conflicts of interest — concerns Gov. Tom Wolf has little time left to address.

PSERS PROBE: The FBI is reportedly investigating a $25 million "error" involving Pennsylvania's largest pension fund, as the retirement plan's own board investigates exaggerated returns that may have come at taxpayers' expense. According to The Inquirer, a PSERS spokesperson declined to say whether an earlier claim that there was no indication anything criminal occurred still stands.

DELAYED BENEFITS: John Good has spent months trying to get the more than $20,000 in unemployment benefits owed to him, to no avail. “There were days where I put [300], 400 calls in," the Allegheny County boilermaker told WESA. Now, an already struggling state system is bracing for a fresh wave of jobless claims, and that's concerning advocates who fear more stories like Good's as a result.

MARIJUANA BUSTS: More than 20,000 people were arrested for pot in Pennsylvania last year — the third highest total since 2009 — even as more cities decriminalize possession and state officials urge full legalization, the Courier Times reports. "We know that too many people’s lives are ruined for a simple possession charge," advocate Jeff Riedy said, "and that must end now."
MISS THE BOAT: The cargo ship that launched a thousand memes while stuck in Egypt's Suez Canal is moving again, but the internet never forgets. Now, a new app allows you to get the "Ever Given" stuck anywhere and any time you want. Just drag and zoom the map to move the boat somewhere else, like Pittsburgh's confluence, for example. 

CITIZEN SERENADE: Philadelphia Orchestra members performed at a naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens in West Philadelphia last week. Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin was there, writing: “And with pandemic safety protocols robbing the room of family or friends, there was no question that music was able to rush in where hugs might have been.”

RIVER RUN: Tolls for river crossings between New Jersey and Pennsylvania are going up next month for the first time in 10 years and again in 2024 as The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission looks to offset falling revenue and maintenance costs, CBS3 reports. Car tolls will grow from $1 to $1.25 with E-ZPass and from $1 to $3 with cash at seven bridges.

VIETNAM VETS: Pennsylvania marked Vietnam Veterans Day this week, and Morning Call columnist Paul Muschick details the impact of an online gallery showing the faces of all 3,150 Pennsylvania lives lost in the war. Muschick writes: "Some of the soldiers, sailors and airmen are shown in high school photos, reinforcing just how young they were when they died."

PARDON THE 'IRRUPTION': Yesterday I told you about the snowy owl hanging around a Somerset County ski resort and the natural phenomenon that sometimes drives the arctic-dwellers way south. But that process is dubbed "irruption," not "eruption" as I had it (near-homophones are tricky). Thanks to wise-owl readers Janet T. and Russ W. for the heads up.
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Yesterday's answer: Absolute

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