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More trouble as FBI probes teacher pension fund


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
April 21, 2021
PSERS pivot, Chauvin verdict, traffic deaths, unemployment update, post-mortem, ballot ruling, and the fabled 'Pennsylvania accent.' It's Wednesday. 
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Tens of thousands of Pennsylvania public school employees could soon find themselves paying higher pension contributions under a plan approved this week by the embattled PSERS board. 

The board voted nearly unanimously this week to increase contribution rates after moving to lower them in December — a move that coincided with a maelstrom of scandal still facing the $64 billion fund.

There is a catch. Under current law, the board can't do this without state law changing first. If the legislature does not change the law and the higher employee contributions don't take effect, taxpayers will be footing the bill. The system will not say how much money is at stake, per the Associated Press.

THE CONTEXT: The Public School Employees’ Retirement System fund, long criticized for its largesse and management practices, launched an internal investigation soon after realizing the board's December vote to lower employee contributions was based on bad data

Soon after that investigation was launched, The Inquirer reported the FBI was pursuing its own probe and issuing subpoenas. (All of this, and much more, is chronicled in a handy explainer here.)

This week, the focus of that FBI investigation became clearer, with sources linking it to $13.5 million in real estate purchases near PSERS' Harrisburg headquarters. But it's unclear if this is the full extent of the federal inquiry's scope, as The Inquirer notes.

Yesterday, the fund named a new overseer as its current chief investment officer, the "highest paid person in Pennsylvania’s government," responds to the probes. 

Also noteworthy: Former State Treasurer and PSERS critic Joe Torsella is officially back on the pension fund's board after a four-month layover, the Capital-Star reports.

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"While we've done a lot to thank these workers through our words, what they really need is for us to raise the minimum wage and keep them from worrying about how to pay their bills."
Jennifer Berrier, acting secretary of the Department of Labor & Industry, urging the legislature to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour
VACCINE UPDATE: Former state Health Secretary Rachel Levine says she got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and has confidence in it. E.U. regulators say they've found a possible link between the J&J vaccine and blood clots but insist the benefits outweigh the risks. For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.
» THE PRIMARY: On Tuesday, May 4 at 5 p.m., join Spotlight PA as we break down the judicial candidates and four questions you’ll see on the primary ballot. RSVP FOR FREE

POST IT: Head over to @iamyolimar's Instagram page for some tips on how you can get your hyacinths as healthy and vibrant as these found in Camp Hill. Thanks for the tag! Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.
GUILTY VERDICT: Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. Chauvin's sentencing is expected in two months. In Pennsylvania, the verdict prompted reactions from elected officials and residents of PittsburghPhiladelphia, and beyond.

CRASH DATA: Pennsylvania traffic dropped 20% during the pandemic, but traffic deaths were actually up 6% last year over 2019, Lehigh Valley Live reports. PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian says the cause is unclear, but national data show a jump in motorcycle crashes, impaired driving, and increased speeding on emptier roads.

FILING DATE: Pennsylvania is updating its unemployment computer system, and the new interface means things won't look the same. New user guides published by the state can help ease the transition. People also won't be able to file claims during a related two-week shutdown of the system in June. Officials say backdated claims will still be paid, per WGAL.

CAUSE OF DEATH: U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick died of natural causes a day after the Jan. 6 insurrection, not of a chemical reaction as some speculated, an autopsy found. This means murder charges are unlikely against the State College man authorities say sprayed Sicknick with a powerful bear repellant during the siege, via NPR.

SPECIAL ELECTION: State Rep. Marty Flynn (D., Scranton) is still in the running for the state Senate seat vacated by John Blake. A Commonwealth Court judge denied a GOP bid to have Flynn removed from the May 18 special election ballot but also chastised Flynn for his related financial disclosures, the Scranton Times-Tribune reports. 
TRASH TALK: Tomorrow is Earth Day, and all the cool kids are picking up trash. WESA reports "competitive litter collection" is Pittsburgh's new "it" sport, which reminds us that literally HALF-A-BILLION pieces of garbage are scattered along Pennsylvania's roadways.

WANDERLUST: Leon Ray Livingston was the self-proclaimed "King of the Hoboes." His travels took him across Pennsylvania and down to the Amazon with a young man from Harrisburg who died from a snake bite. Livingston barely survived the trip himself. Belt Magazine has his remarkable story.

READING LIST: Spanish readers now have community libraries in South Philly full of works by local authors and writers from throughout the Americas, per The Inquirer. "If we are going to be the country with most Spanish speakers," one organizer explained, "then we should have more Spanish readers."

POT PARTY: Yesterday was the unofficial cannabis holiday known as 4/20, celebrated by enthusiasts around the globe. In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and 300 of his friends marked the occasion with a pro-legalization rally on the steps of the state Capitol. PennLive was there. 

PA PARLANCE: Vanity Fair's praise of Kate Winslet's "Pennsylvania accent" in "Mare of Easttown" is totally deserved but also western Pennsylvania erasure. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. 
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: Tantrum

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