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Lawmakers' redacted legal bills flout court ruling

Plus, GOP seeks to overhaul Pa. redistricting panel.


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January 11, 2022
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Legal cover, 'power grab,' court press, fire trap, PSERS portrait, price fix, and political golf balls. It's Tuesday. Thanks for checking in.
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State legislative leaders spend millions in taxpayer dollars each year to hire private law firms through a closed-door process that, unlike other state contracts, receives virtually no public oversight.

And the work performed often remains a mystery, with legislators spending more money to keep the details of those contracts hidden, an investigation by Spotlight PA and The Caucus has found.  

In one instance, GOP lawmakers who control the state House and Senate hired the chair of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania — who is also one of the state's top election lawyers — to represent them in unspecified legal matters for $575 an hour, quickly racking up a $36,000 legal bill.

But what the lawyer, Lawrence Tabas, did for that money remains untold, part of a stubborn pattern of secrecy surrounding the legislature's agreements with private attorneys and firms — some of them big-money campaign donors.

THE CONTEXT: All details about Tabas' work were redacted from his contract and public records. Other contracts were handled in much the same way, with lawmakers often arguing that disclosures could jeopardize legal strategy.

In eight cases that began in 2021, or continued to be billed that year, the House and Senate wholly blacked out the reasons a private law firm was hired.

In other cases, lawmakers drafted the contract with the outside law firms using language so vague that it is impossible to tell what the case was about.

Not only is the practice severely lacking in transparency, it also flies in the face of a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling that found general descriptions of legal services, and the identity of who is being represented, to be public record. 


"Speaker Cutler has been in contact with representatives of the Jan. 6 committee. We are barred from discussing any details of that contact while the select committee's proceedings are still in progress."

—Mike Straub, spokesperson for Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), on Cutler being questioned for the U.S. House's Jan. 6 probe. Ex-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar has also been questioned.
» ANIMAL CASES: Fearing that COVID-19 in white-tailed deer will mutate and circle back to humans, scientists are struggling to figure out how exactly the deer keep being exposed, NorthcentralPa.com reports.

» TEST RESULTS: Want to report a positive result on a COVID-19 home test? WHYY reports that in many places, such as Philadelphia, you can't.

» NO SUBSTITUTE: Facing a substitute teacher shortage, Pittsburgh Public Schools are holding open houses for interested applicants all week.  

To find a COVID-19 vaccine, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your zip code to 438829 (GETVAX).
It will be very cold out there today, folks, so be sure to bundle up. Take inspiration from this frosty file photo, courtesy of @yatskoSend us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
REDISTRICTING OVERHAUL: Upset over proposed updates to state legislative maps they say would unfairly benefit Democrats, Pennsylvania Republicans are pushing a ballot question that could give lawmakers in the Republican-led General Assembly final say over how their districts are drawn, Spotlight PA and Votebeat report. Critics call it a power grab that does nothing to remove lawmaker influence.

FURTHER REVIEW: The Commonwealth Court on Monday declined to block a GOP-issued subpoena for personal information on millions of Pennsylvania voters who cast ballots in 2020, saying the court needs more time to decide, per Capital-Star. In a separate case, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court declined to immediately take up a lawsuit urging it to take over the drawing of Pennsylvania's new congressional map.

NOWHERE TO GO: A mother who died in a Philadelphia fire that claimed 12 lives last week, including those of eight children, had been worried that their four-bedroom public housing unit was too crowded and potentially unsafe, a therapist told The New York Times. But with 40,000 households already on the waiting list for public housing in Philadelphia, they had little choice but to stay put, the paper adds.  

INSIDE REPORT: Pennsylvania's largest pension fund paid $400,000 for a report that, while avoiding the subjects of an ongoing criminal probe, found an entity "torn by internal divisions, consumed by relatively trivial matters, and frozen on key decisions," The Inquirer explains. The report offers the latest look inside the dysfunction plaguing the $73 billion, taxpayer-backed Public School Employees' Retirement System fund.

COLLEGE 'CARTEL': The University of Pennsylvania and 15 other private universities are accused of illegally working together as a "cartel" to unfairly limit student financial aid. A new federal lawsuit claims a long-running scheme saw preferential treatment given to "past or potential future donors" and that the schools used a shared formula to illegally weigh a student's ability to pay when determining aid, per Axios.

IMPEACHMENT CASE: Members of the state House Judiciary Committee will start their investigation of Schuylkill County Commissioner George Halcovage Jr. today, a rare move made as the chamber explores whether to impeach Halcovage over sexual misconduct allegations.

TAKING REFUGE: Once dubbed "America's Refugee Capital," Lancaster is home to people from around the world seeking opportunity and safety. USA Today reports their impact on the city is undeniable and could offer something of a blueprint for municipalities looking to stave off further decline.

NATURAL CAUSES: Robert Durst — the real state scion convicted of murder — died on Monday of natural causes. The Lehigh University alum was 78. A nationwide manhunt for Durst ended in 2001 when he tried stealing a single Band-Aid and a sandwich from a Bethlehem Wegmans.

AWKWARD ANGLES: WaPo's redistricting-themed golf game lets you take a swing at political mapmaking, with nine holes showing how politicians nationwide finagle maps to win elections. Once you're done, get involved in Pennsylvania's redistricting process in real life. Spotlight PA explains how.

TINSELTOWN: "Captain America" star Chris Evans is reportedly in talks to play Pittsburgh native and Hollywood legend Gene Kelly in an upcoming biopic, Variety reports, while "Succession" star Jeremy Strong has been tapped to play Pitt vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk in another film.

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:
Words that are fun to say.
Yesterday's answer: Ragamuffin

Congrats to our daily winners: Becky C., Bonnie R., Beth T., Elaine C., Vicki U., Judith D., Susan N.-Z., Michelle T., Deb N., Craig E., Kimberly S., Doris T., Irene R., George S., Irene R., Don H., James B., Barbara F., Susan D., Craig W., Bill S., Carol D., Karen W., David W., Alan V., and William S.
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