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How Pa. politicians party with lobbyists in secret

Plus, Mariner East pipeline builder pleads no contest.

A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
August 8, 2022
Invitation only, J6 testimony, environmental crimes, prisoner exchange, Roe referendum, under investigation, and river islands for sale. It's Monday.

Mystery surrounds a posh party attended by state lawmakers and lobbyists in Canonsburg last December — namely who picked up the hefty tab. 

The Post-Gazette obtained a copy of an invite to the private event and found sponsorship levels ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. While that isn't uncommon for political fundraisers, an organizer insisted this wasn't one.

Other questions about the party, including who cut checks and for how much, went unanswered by the political consultant listed on the invite, Phil Saggese, and state Rep. Natalie Mihalek (R., Allegheny), who paid the deposit for the "Southwest Society" event in 2020 using campaign funds. 

The gathering at the Bella Sera restaurant — which included pan-seared crab cakes, grilled lamb, and bacon-wrapped scallops — wasn't reported by a single legislator, showcasing what the Post-Gazette calls "Pennsylvania’s notoriously weak lobbying and disclosure laws."

THE CONTEXT: The only publicly searchable record of money changing hands for the event is a $1,000 payment to Bella Sera from the Pittsburgh firefighters union's political action committee, listed on the union PAC's year-end campaign finance report, the Post-Gazette explains. 

Pennsylvania is among a minority of states that places no limits on the value of gifts special interests can give legislators, something ethics experts say breeds mistrust in the political system and democracy itself. 

Long-running efforts to change the rules continue.

But as Spotlight PA reported in May, no matter how many advocates call for the policies to be tightened, how many bills are introduced, or how many legislators pledge to vote for them, the proposals have historically failed to reach the state House or Senate floor for a vote.

Often, they haven’t even received a hearing in the legislature.

Read more on the lack of transparency around lawmaker spending, perks, and gifts in Spotlight PA's ongoing The Hidden Tab series.


"I may be tired after an all-nighter but I'm feeling fired up and hopeful for our nation's future."

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) on the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act by Senate Democrats; here's what's in the U.S. House-bound bill

» TALK OF THE TOWN: On Friday, Aug. 12 at 6 p.m. ET, meet our new State College regional bureau team, get an inside look at what we're investigating, and tell us how we can better connect with you. RSVP here. Tell us what you want to know about the bureau at events@spotlightpa.org

Islands in the stream, via @yatskoSend us your Pennsylvania photos, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
CONDITIONAL Q&A: GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano is having second thoughts about a scheduled interview with congressional J6 investigators, Politico reports. A lawyer for Mastriano, who aided efforts to overturn the 2020 election, says the candidate won't testify unless they can record the session. The investigators are likely to reject that condition. Politico reports a legal fight may be looming.

NO CONTEST: A major Pennsylvania pipeline developer has pleaded no contest to criminal charges stemming from what the state AG's office said was the systematic pollution of waterways and residential water wells, the AP reports. The company, Energy Transfer, will pay $10 million to restore watersheds and streams along the Mariner East pipeline route. It also agreed to independent testing of residential water.

PRISONER SWAP: A bipartisan group of Pennsylvania lawmakers is asking the Biden administration to include Allegheny County teacher Marc Fogel in any potential prisoner exchange with Russia that might include WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, KDKA-TV reports. Fogel was arrested with medical cannabis near Moscow and sentenced to 14 years in a Russian prison. 

POST-ROE RESULTS: A proposed constitutional amendment that would have eliminated a state constitutional right to an abortion was soundly defeated by Kansas voters last week. With a similar ballot question being pursued by Republican state lawmakers in Pennsylvania, encouraged abortion access advocates say the results in ruby red Kansas "proved what we have already known," The Inquirer reports.

DEADLY FIRE: Ten people — ranging in age from five to 79 — were killed in a fire in Nescopeck, Luzerne County early Friday. Harold Baker was one of the first firefighters on scene and WNEP reports his own family was inside the home. "I couldn't get in there to save them. That is the biggest thing that has been on me. I couldn't get in there to save them," Baker said. Here's how to help. A criminal probe is underway.

IN MEMORIAM: Morning Call editor Mike Hirsch died on Wednesday at the age of 62 after years of living with Lou Gehrig's disease or ALS. In his last piece for the paper, Hirsch wrote his own gratitude-filled obituary.

START NEW: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman has ended a storied, 34-year career at the outlet and he's got a new gig lined up.

RIVER BIDS: Two islands in the Susquehanna River are up for sale for the first time ever, The Burg reports. The asking price is $150,000 for the pair.

N-BEY-C: NBC Philly reporter Sheila Watko made 15 Beyoncé references in a single traffic segment. Beyoncé's mom certainly noticed.

TAKE FIVE: Drive & Listen is a website that lets you listen to local radio stations while virtually driving through cities around the world

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.

*This week's theme: Newspapers
Friday's answer: Flourishes

Congrats to our weekly winner: Marty M.

Congrats to our daily winners: Kathy O., Don H., Craig W., Michelle T., Joel S., Myles M., Susan D., Susan N.-Z., Starr B., Elaine C., Doris T., George S., Daniel M., Dianne K., Bill S., Suzanne S., Stanley J., Lynne E., Vicki U., Nancy S., David W., James B., and Kimberly D.
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