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Omicron subvariant spreading in Pennsylvania

Plus, lawsuit seeks State Police pipeline protest chats.

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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
March 21, 2022
Police calls, variant volume, charter changes, no comment, coroner conflict,  Oz's evolution, and remembering John Clayton. It's Monday.
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A court case involving a reporter's stifled request for Pennsylvania State Police communications about Mariner East pipeline protests could have implications for similar attempts to obtain public records, advocates say. 

Journalist Dan Schwartz requested trooper emails, text messages, and voicemails about protests against Sunoco's 350-mile pipeline, the source of multiple police encounters with some opponents of the troubled project.

Schwartz received heavily redacted emails and less redacted versions following a petition to the state's Office of Open Records.

But he was told the State Police didn't have the phone records requested and, ultimately, that the agency didn't have the authority to ask for them.

Attorneys for Schwartz say the agency's contract with Verizon is clear: Such records must be released under the state's Right-to-Know Law.

At stake, an attorney for Schwartz argued, is a precedent that lets government agencies use third-party vendors to keep taxpayer-funded communications from the public, with deleterious effects on transparency.

THE CONTEXT: Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler is presiding over the case and was critical of the State Police's handling of the matter, from the wholesale blacking out of emails to previously unexplained denials.

An attorney for the law enforcement agency, one of the largest in the U.S., said relevant state law hasn't caught up with the technology, and that Verizon wouldn't produce voicemails and texts without a court order or subpoena.

"You could have included all this [in responses to the request], which would have put us all in the position of not being blindsided by this," Ceisler said.

The judge had planned on filing a court order compelling Verizon to produce the State Police voicemails and text messages in the coming weeks, but the company says the communications may no longer exist. 

All of it, advocates argue, demonstrates the massive hurdles facing members of the public who want to keep tabs on the agencies they fund.
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RISING VARIANT: The COVID-19 subvariant called BA.2 is now dominant worldwide and accounting for one-fifth of new cases in the U.S. It's spreading in Pennsylvania, too, where doctors are watching closely, cheering the advent of new therapeutics, and continuing to urge vaccinations as the best line of defense. Congressional funding choices, meanwhile, could hamper the national response. 

REFORM MOMENT: Regulations proposed by the Wolf Administration in an effort to increase "transparency and accountability" around Pennsylvania charter schools could get a key vote at today's meeting of the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. If approved, CNHI reports a showdown between the Republican-controlled General Assembly and the governor's office could be next. 

RALLY STAGE: State senator and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano has refused media requests to discuss whether he complied with a subpoena from the congressional committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol. But PennLive reports a Mastriano rally in Gettysburg over the weekend included lots of 2020 election denialism, the same kind that sowed the violence seen on Jan. 6.

DISPUTED RULINGS: Schuylkill County recorded 115 drug-related deaths last year, the ages of the deceased ranging from 9 months to 88 years. Coroner David J. Moylan III labeled 50 of them as homicides, in part to raise awareness, per the Republican-Herald. But District Attorney Michael A. O'Pake calls the move "irresponsible" without investigations, adding, "They should be classified as accidental."

CHURCHILL DOWN: E-commerce giant Amazon is backing off its contested plan to open a massive warehouse in Churchill Borough near Pittsburgh, WTAE reports. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald blamed "a small group of non-elected residents" for thwarting the project. Amazon's statement indicates it may never have been set on Churchill anyway, and its county presence is far from muted.
TRIAL DATE: Jury selection in the federal fraud and racketeering trial of Democratic Philadelphia Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and his wife, political consultant Dawn Chavous, begins today, per PhillyVoice. Johnson is accused of taking thousands of dollars in bribes. If found guilty, his would be the second Philadelphia City Council corruption conviction in four months.

STANCE EVOLUTION: Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Mehmet Oz has made support for fracking a cornerstone of his campaign. But Inside Climate News reports that for years, and as recently as 2018, Oz warned readers of his syndicated newspaper column of related dangers in no uncertain terms. 

MYSTERY MARK: Federal Judge Cathy Bissoon tells WESA she has "no idea" how her signature ended up on a nominating petition for congressional candidate Steve Irwin, one of five Democrats running to replace U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle in Pittsburgh. The Post-Gazette reports she's not the only one.

TURNOVER TRACKER: Two more state lawmakers announced retirements last week following the finalization of Pennsylvania's new legislative maps. Sens. John Yudichak (I., Luzerne) and Mario Scavello (R., Monroe) are the latest exits in a wave of legislative turnover. Capital-Star has a running list.

IN MEMORIAM: Pro Football Hall of Fame journalist John Clayton died last week at the age of 67. The Braddock native started his career with The Daily Press newspaper in St. Marys, Elk County and became an ESPN fixture, making wonky analysis accessible and the network's ads unforgettable.
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