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Emergency spending soared amid pandemic, protests

Plus, scores of Pa. hospitals don’t make their prices public, in violation of federal rule.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
July 19, 2021
Emergency spending, hidden costs, audit pushback, cashing in, pipeline 'scheme,' Senate silence, and the truth about Appalachian fossils. It's Monday.
JOIN US: We're hosting a free virtual Q&A on Wednesday, July 28 at 5 p.m. ET about the millions of taxpayer dollars lawmakers spend on personal accommodations — expenses largely hidden from public view. Register here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
Pennsylvania lawmakers this week will probe whether state agencies had too much leeway in spending hundreds of millions of dollars on emergency contracts during the pandemic, following controversy over a serious data breach with a vendor hired to conduct contact tracing for the state.

"It's not a very transparent process," state Rep. Jason Ortitay (R., Allegheny) said of emergency procurements, which allow state agencies to bypass competitive public bidding to acquire what they say are urgently needed supplies or services. 

On Tuesday, Ortitay will lead a House hearing to investigate the process, one tied to $340 million in expenditures last year, a four-fold increase over the annual average.

In separate hearings on Wednesday, two Senate committees will question top health department officials about why they're rushing another contact tracing program agreement after the state fired the last company for a data breach less than two months ago, a story first reported by Spotlight PA.

"We have a lot of questions as to the cost, the selection, and the merit of this contract, along with many concerns over personal health care information, and protecting and safeguarding the privacy of Pennsylvanians," state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York) explained. 

THE CONTEXT: Emergency procurement requests can be as simple as fixing a heating problem at a state prison.

But some requests made during the pandemic were less straightforward, a Spotlight PA review found. Several were related to the anticipation of Black Lives Matter and November 2020 election protests.

This includes hundreds of thousands of dollars for portable toilets and showers ahead of a National Guard deployment to Philadelphia, tens of thousands of dollars for special eyeglasses meant to protect state police against laser pointers, and $20,000 to build an access road for workers at a prison ahead of expected protests that never occurred.

State law does not require a written contract for emergency procurements, and that lack of transparency has fueled criticism.

Earlier this year, lawmakers questioned another expensive purchase: an $11.6 million contract with Boston Consulting Group, a firm hired by the Health Department in February to advise the state's vaccine task force on a struggling rollout.

At the time, lawmakers who served as members of the task force couldn't explain how Boston Consulting Group was chosen. 

Wolf administration officials, calling emergency procurement vetting "thorough, comprehensive, and transparent," credit the contract and Boston Consulting with vastly improving the state's vaccine distribution program. Others agree with that takeaway but question the scale and price of the deal.
Huge issues are being debated in Harrisburg, from voting changes to redistricting, that could have ramifications on our state for years to come. Now more than ever, we need unflinching investigative journalism in Pennsylvania.

And Spotlight PA is answering the call in a bold new way.

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"I have not been able to stop crying. It's so frustrating because this was the year that I was going to go to college. I want to become a nurse. I feel like I'm going to have to wait again."

—Marilu Saldaña of Harrisburg, who was brought to the U.S. as a 13-year-old, on a federal judge blocking new DACA applicants. The Biden administration plans to appeal the decision, which halts legal protections for some migrants.
VACCINE UPDATE: President Joe Biden says social media sites are "killing people" with the spread of vaccine misinformation. The 12 social media users spreading the most misinformation online include a bodybuilder, a wellness blogger, and JFK's nephew, per a new report. For vaccine providers, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX).
>> THE HIDDEN TAB: Join us Wednesday, July 28 at 5 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A about Pennsylvania lawmakers spending millions of taxpayer dollars on personal accommodations, and how these expenses are obscured from the public. Register here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
Thanks, Robert N., for this shot of a rippling Susquehanna River in Lancaster County. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
HEALTH COSTS: Some of Pennsylvania's largest hospitals still aren't making their prices public, seven months after a federal "price transparency" rule took effect, the Post-Gazette reports. The paper found about three-quarters of Pennsylvania's 163 acute care hospitals don't follow the rule, either in whole or in part, "creating obstacles for consumers" who want "a greater role in their own medical care."

NO VOTES: York County is also pumping the brakes on a partisan and highly contested audit of Pennsylvania's 2020 and 2021 elections, the AP reports, days after rural Tioga County said it would not allow third-party access to election equipment amid warnings from the state. But the AP found a much warmer reception for the audit on the campaign trail, where top GOP candidates have been vocally supportive.

LEGAL AID: Two Philadelphia council members are fighting federal corruption indictments and taking cash donations to support the costs of their legal defense — including funds from prominent political donors, parking magnates, lobbyists, and even a strip club owner, Billy Penn reports. Ethics watchdogs say the funds are problematic and emblematic of a statewide problem around gifts given to lawmakers.
'BUY-A-BADGE': Two state constables involved in what prosecutors called a "buy-a-badge" scheme around Pennsylvania's contested Mariner East pipeline project saw the most serious charges against them, including bribery, dropped by a judge before a jury's conviction on lesser counts, WHYY reports. The case renewed questions about the role of constables in Pennsylvania and the pipeline project itself.

NO NOD: Gov. Tom Wolf says he won't endorse anyone in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat — including his own lieutenant, John Fetterman. Wolf told The Inquirer he'll endorse whomever Democratic primary voters choose, a position at odds with his actions in the concurrent race for his seat and in the last U.S. Senate primary. Spotlight PA has a rundown of the Senate field here.
ICONIC PICS: The photographer behind Lil Nas X's New York Times Magazine cover shoot is a Philadelphia native now living in Pittsburgh named Shikeith. WESA profiled Shikeith in March and said his star is ascendant and his focus on Black male queer lives as important as ever.

PIZZA STROLL: Inquirer reporter Amy S. Rosenberg tasted and ranked every pizza on the Atlantic City Boardwalk so you don't have to and found "a clear favorite, a splintered family rivalry, a dominant style (New York-ish), and the town's signature quirky weirdness present at every stop."

FOSSIL FINDERS: "Have you ever wondered why we don't find fossils in the Appalachian mountains? The truth is, we do..." And so begins one of the most delightful Twitter threads in recent memory, courtesy of a Pennsylvania-based ecologist.

FRESH MOVES: Philadelphia is evaluating three new design proposals to make the Ben Franklin Parkway more pedestrian friendly, WHYY reports. Across the state in Pittsburgh, mass transit officials are floating a $3.8 billion long-term plan with aerial cable cars included, per the Post-Gazette.

NO NEST: The trashing of 100-plus cliff swallow nests at a Pennsylvania Game Commission Building has Mercer County bird watchers dismayed with the state agency in charge of ensuring the species' protection. The Game Commission told Capital-Star the nests were a "human health concern."

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.

Friday's answer: Verification

Congrats to our weekly winner: Karen W.

Congrats to our daily winners: Neal W., Irene R., Michelle T., Elaine C., Don H., Doris T., Brian B., Susan D., Patricia M., Mike B., Al M., Clayton L., Dennis M., George S., Steve D., Heidi B., Jessica K., Suzanne S., James B., Craig W., Jill A., Barbara A., Dianne K., Joel S., David W., Elizabeth W., Carol D., Kim C., Bob R., and Perry H.
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