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Pa. pol charged with theft of taxpayer money

Plus, lawmakers want more oversight of Pa.’s emergency spending.


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
July 23, 2021
Spending scrutiny, lawmaker charged, wrong numbers, wait times, cannabis case, school money, and $30,000 worth of old video games. It's Friday!
JOIN US: On Wednesday we're hosting a virtual Q&A about the millions of mostly hidden taxpayer dollars lawmakers spend on personal accommodations (register here); and on Thursday we're hosting a virtual panel about rental assistance available in Pennsylvania as the federal COVID-19 eviction ban comes to an end (register here).
Wolf administration officials doubled down this week in their pursuit of more than $100 million in new pandemic-related emergency contracts amid tough questions from state lawmakers about the need for and vetting of such spending.

The state House and Senate held two hearings this week after Spotlight PA reporting found that the Department of Health was using the emergency procurement process, which allows state agencies to sidestep public bidding for contracts they say are urgent, to hire a new contact tracing company after the last one failed to prevent a data breach.

Not only is the health department requesting a $34 million contract to replace that fired contact tracer, it's also asking for millions more to fund COVID-19 testing in K-12 schools and additional consulting from a group that assisted with the state's vaccine rollout, Spotlight PA reports.

Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said the pandemic isn't over and the urgency remains.

But Republican lawmakers pushed back, saying that at this stage of the pandemic, there needs to be more transparency around how emergency contracts are used.

THE CONTEXT: A Spotlight PA analysis showed state agencies made 483 emergency procurement requests in 2020, up from an average of 135 each year since 2015. The estimated costs attached to those requests totaled more than $340 million last year, up from an annual average of $81 million.

The Department of General Services typically approves emergency procurement requests within a day or two after they are submitted, a review of state records showed. Non-emergency solicitations can take a minimum of 45 days to finalize.

Wolf administration officials say vetting of emergency procurements is robust, but legislators say they'll continue pushing for more oversight.
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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"We are not going to accept a settlement that is a sellout. And from what I see, this is a sellout. The money is too low, the payments are too slow, and the money may never show."

—Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner announcing a lawsuit against Pennsylvania’s attorney general over an opioid settlement with $1 billion for the state
VACCINE UPDATE: Philadelphia officials want fully vaccinated people to wear masks inside public spaces again to protect those who are too young for vaccines. President Joe Biden says kids under 12 could be eligible in weeks, but USA Today says that's not likely. 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.

>> HOUSING PENNSYLVANIA: Join us Thursday, July 29 at 5 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free panel on everything we know about rental assistance as the federal eviction ban lifts. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

A red-spotted purple butterfly seen at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County. Thanks, David S.! Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
CHARGES FILED: Democratic state Rep. Margo L. Davidson, of Delaware County, plans to resign after being charged with theft and other crimes for allegedly requesting overnight reimbursements for time she did not actually spend in Harrisburg and reimbursements from taxpayers for expenses that had already been paid for by her campaign

BAD INFO: Key numbers are wrong on a Pennsylvania-run website meant to help desperate families compare the quality of addiction treatment centers, rendering the tool confusing and potentially dangerous, the Morning Call reports. Officials say they're looking into it, while coming to terms with major blind spots in industry oversight.

BACKLOGGED: Pennsylvania's unemployment eligibility backlog has ballooned to about 315,000 people since the rollout of an update to the state's related computer system, advocates told the AP. The update's rocky rollout has piqued concerns among the jobless after a year of clerical chaos and surging demand amid the pandemic's economic fallout.

OPEN RECORDS: PennLive's years-long quest to learn more about the firms making and selling medical cannabis in Pennsylvania got a big win this week in the form of a state Supreme Court ruling. It requires the state to divulge details about the program's participants that officials sought to keep private with heavily redacted public records

SPENDING PLAN: Pennsylvania's state university system is set to receive $75 million in pandemic relief money over the next year. The system's chancellor wants to spend it on supporting a contested merger of six schools, clearing debt, and making all of the system's universities "more attractive in a post-pandemic world," WITF reports. 
WITH CREDIT: Alexis Figueroa told the Washington Post she was excited to use part of her first child tax credit payment on a trip to the Philly Zoo, leading a reader to donate a membership. Meanwhile, some worry the tax credit payments, an anti-poverty measure, might miss the poorest people.

BATTER UP: Major League Baseball is now counting some Negro League stats as major league stats, and that has Negro League legend, Hall of Famer, and Pittsburgh powerhouse Josh Gibson vying for records left and right, per the New York Times — more than 70 years after his death.

PAID OFF: The Community College of Philadelphia will use coronavirus relief money to pay off outstanding balances for up to 3,500 students, KYW Newsradio reports. The money will go toward bookstore fees and tuition balances for students enrolled between March 2020 and this spring.

ROBO SHOP: Carnegie Mellon University is collecting historical artifacts from its pioneering robotics program, including videos, software, code, and the actual robots. “It's important for us as a society to understand how the field developed so we understand where it's going," an archivist told TribLIVE.

GAME STOP: Twenty-seven vintage Nintendo games donated to a Hanover Goodwill location wound up fetching $30,000, the highest amount ever spent on Goodwill's auction site. "I had no idea the final bid would land where it did but was thrilled," a Goodwill rep told Lehigh Valley Live.
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: Satisfaction

Congrats to our daily winners: David I., Mary Ellen T., Craig W., Michelle T., Myles M., Susan N., Barbara F., Daniel B., Steve M., Kevin H., Doris T., John P., Joel S., Patricia M., Irene R., Neal W., Susan D., Shaye E., Wendy A., Christine M., Brian B., Susan F., Heidi B., Elizabeth W., Daniel M., Mike B., James B., Don H., Kim C., Elaine C., Jessica K., Tish M., Diane P., Yvette R., George S., Karen W., Craig E., Dennis M., Becky C., Dianne K., David W., Suzanne S., Gail H., Bill C., Barbara M., Barbara A., Paul H., Lex M., and John A.
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