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The fight to unseal lobbyist messages to lawmakers

Plus, 'child predator hunter' cases dismissed.

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A daily newsletter by The logo of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen

Friday, September 1, 2023
📣 PROGRAMMING NOTE: We're off for the Labor Day holiday on Monday but will be back in your inboxes first thing Tuesday.
RTK limits, short-staffed, 'predator hunters,' camp clearings, off the ballot, drug vote, and Pa. newspapers sold to 'vulture hedge fund.'

Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law says correspondence between a state lawmaker and a person seeking their help is off-limits to the public — unless that person is a lobbyist. But lawmakers have ignored the clause.

Spotlight PA decided to put the language to the test by requesting from both the state House and Senate copies of communications between legislators and a narrow group of well-known lobbyists. Unsurprisingly, both chambers swiftly denied the request. Spotlight PA appealed — and lost again.

Read the full report: Inside Spotlight PA’s fight to unseal lobbyist communications with the legislature.

THE CONTEXT: When the General Assembly approved the state’s Right-to-Know Law 15 years ago, it effectively exempted itself from providing access to records that it required the executive branch, for one, to make public. It also effectively gave itself policing power by appointing appeals officers to decide records disputes instead of the independent Office of Open Records.

Those appeals officers almost always rule in favor of lawmakers.

Both chambers hired a private law firm, Stevens & Lee, to defend their position that emails, letters, or other forms of communications are off-limits, even though a "correspondence" exemption in the RTK Law explicitly does not apply to messages between lawmakers and lobbyists.


"I am very happy that both parties came to an agreement."

State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie) on workers at Wabtec's locomotive plant in Erie voting to ratify a new contract on Thursday after a two-month strike
Support Spotlight PA's investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.
» GOP ex-Gov. Corbett in op-ed: 2020 election wasn't stolen, Inky (paywall)
» Lawsuit filed to keep Trump off 2024 Pa. ballot, via PoliticsPA
» Understanding Pa.’s ongoing skill games debate, via City & State
» Bill would bar Pa. businesses from refusing cash, via WHTM
» Pa. health insurance costs to change, via Erie Times-News (paywall)
» CRIMINAL SOLUTION: Join Spotlight PA, the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and experts Thursday, Sept. 14, at 6-7:30 p.m. ET at Point Park University for a live discussion on how a Pennsylvania law traps people with mental health issues in jail. RSVP now; seating is limited. 

» STORY FEST: Spotlight PA is participating in Philly Story Fest, a first-of-its-kind festival that brings together storytellers from across the city on one stage. Join us Thursday, Oct. 5 from 7-10 p.m. at the Bok building in South Philadelphia (1901 South 9th St.). Tickets are $25 and available here.
As seen at Rolling Green Cemetery in Cumberland County by Jeffrey I. Have a photo you want to share with the whole state? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
A red-tailed hawk perched on a tree branch in sunlight.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.JAIL AUDIT: Allegheny County's jail is one of the largest in the state and an audit released this week says it's understaffed. TribLIVE reports the audit by Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor concludes more than 127 corrections officers are needed to cover all shifts without overtime and says more than half of the jail’s health care positions are unfilled, with all eight therapist slots vacant last year.
  • RELATED: Allegheny County sued over jail 'gag order,' via WESA
Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.CASES DISMISSED: Criminal cases based on the work of a "child predator hunter group" are being dismissed in Clearfield and at least six other counties, WPSU reports. Clearfield County President Judge Frederic Ammerman ruled that the 814 Pred Hunters group does not legally qualify to pose as a would-be victim in stings that have led to actual criminal charges, but a bill in Harrisburg would change that.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.
TENT CITIES: Pittsburgh's new policy for clearing homeless encampments is drawing mixed reviews from legal advocates. PublicSource reports the policy outlines circumstances for "decommissioning" encampments, but two legal organizations want to ensure constitutional rights are protected. The guidelines replace an unwritten rule that stemmed from a 2003 settlement with the ACLU.
Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.NO QUESTION: A citizen-backed referendum on creating an alternative 911 response program in Allentown is off the table for now. The Morning Call (paywall) reports Lehigh County's board of elections voted down the ballot question over legal concerns. Advocates call it an "assault on democracy" and the ACLU is weighing in. The 911 program would have dispatched social workers instead of police to some calls.

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.OPIOID SPENDING: Lancaster County commissioners this week approved a contested plan to spend $193,000 of the county's opioid settlement money on drug police and a "community prosecutor," LNP (paywall) reports. Spotlight PA previously reported that advocates oppose such uses for the money, while counties seek clarity on what exactly is allowed under the $26 billion settlement with drug companies.
Support Spotlight PA's investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.
🏆 WEEK IN REVIEW: Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest Great PA News Quiz: Election day conflict, troubled waters, and broadband blitz.

15 YEARS: Zach Rehl, ex-president of the Philadelphia chapter of the far-right Proud Boys, has been sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for his role in planning the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, KYW reports.

NEWS SALE: The owner of newspapers in Hazleton, Pottsville, Scranton, and Wilkes-Barre is selling all four to a subsidiary of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known for gutting newsrooms nationwide. 

CABLE COSTS: York Daily Record (paywall) has the story of a couple that unknowingly paid the cable company's electric bill for 22 years (to the tune of more than $20,000 total) and struggled to straighten it out.

BEST TRAIL: Congratulations to the Mount Jewett to Kinzua Bridge Trail for being named Pennsylvania's 2023 Trail of the Year, via WPSU. This year also marks 20 years since a tornado destroyed part of the bridge.

SCRAPPLE DAY: This Labor Day Weekend is the perfect time to read this 2012 article on the holiday's "intertwined history" with scrapple, or, more specifically, a Philly union of scrapple-makers, via blog What is Scrapple. 

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. Answers submitted by 5:30 p.m. on issue date will be counted.
Yesterday's answer: Alphabetical

Congrats to our daily winners: Kimberly D., Susan N.-Z., Jane R., Craig E., Jon W., Barbara F., Don H., Tyler K., Kerry L., Wendy A., John E., Elaine C., Susan D., James B., Tish M., Dennis M., Richard A., William Z., Kim C., Tom M., Vicki U., Dan A., ad Stanley J.
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