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Pa. lawmakers rack up big legal bills, hide details

Plus, AG Shapiro set to formally enter the governor’s race.


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
October 12, 2021
Privileged information, falling enrollment, higher office, fatal abuse, 'egregious' conduct, public prison, and Pennsylvania's many seasons. It's Tuesday. 
Pennsylvania lawmakers spend millions of taxpayer dollars each year on private lawyers, but routinely obscure the reason and the person represented, flouting case law that requires those critical details be made public.

The Caucus and Spotlight PA reviewed thousands of legal invoices and found the state legislature spent nearly $10 million during the past two years on private lawyers — many of whom are also generous campaign donors.

But the lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, routinely shielded the reason for the expenses, some arguing that failing to do so could jeopardize legal strategy.

Experts, meanwhile, say the redactions fly in the face of a landmark state Supreme Court ruling and jeopardize the public's right to know.THE CONTEXT: The legislature's handling of legal bills is among the starkest examples of how it spends millions of taxpayer dollars each year with minimal scrutiny — the subject of an ongoing investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA.

With legal documents in hand, the news outlets resorted to a labor-intensive process, comparing costs and legal firms with other public records to learn more about the underlying cases.

Included were harassment claims, secret personnel issues, and the $1.2 million spent so far on a Republican-led 2020 election review — a running tab that is set to skyrocket as GOP senators continue the Trump-backed push.

"When in doubt, agencies are more inclined to redact rather than release, which is exactly the opposite of what should happen," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

"In some ways, I think Meredith and I are both socialists."

—Allegheny County Councilor Anita Prizio, a Democratic Socialist, on Republican challenger Meredith Dolan's shared support for paid family leave
COVID-19 NEWS: Pennsylvania's two poison control centers counted 29 ivermectin exposures since the pandemic began, a nearly three-fold increase from pre-pandemic levels; vaccinations of state prison staff nearly doubled under a Pennsylvania mandate; and an FDA panel will consider Johnson & Johnson and Moderna booster shots this 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).
» THE JUDICIAL VOTE: Join us Thursday, Oct. 22 at noon EST via Zoom for a free breakdown and Q&A on who will be on the ballot this November and how voters will decide the future of Pennsylvania's courts. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org
A stunning overhead view of Osceola Mills in Clearfield County. Thanks for the photo, DeeBee C.! Send us your gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
CLASS SIZE: Twelve of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities saw enrollment drop this year, feeding the largest overall decrease seen system-wide in well over two decades, PennLive reports. Chancellor Dan Greenstein cited "pandemic-related reasons" and said it's unclear what role a contested merger plan may have played.

GUV BID: Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is expected to formally announce his run for governor in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the AP reports, making his the first entry into the Democratic primary for term-limited Gov. Tom Wolf's seat. The Inquirer says Shapiro locked up the nomination before announcing a run, a virtually unprecedented feat.

UNSAFE HOMES: Pennsylvania's number of child abuse fatalities increased 43% in 2020, and near deaths increased 24%, according to a state report released last week. Per York Daily Record, the report lists "violent acts" and drug ingestions as primary causes for the increases, along with a "repeated lack of supervision during the pandemic."

CASE REVIEW: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says Schuylkill County officials failed to stop "egregious sexual harassment" by County Commissioner George Halcovage, WFMZ reports. The case has prompted investigations, lawsuits, impeachment threats, and, Halcovage's accusers say, ongoing acts of retaliation.

PRISON REFORM: Delaware County Democrats have made good on a campaign promise and voted to return the county's troubled prison to public control. WHYY reports the unanimous council vote begins the process of terminating the county's contract with the prison's current for-profit operator, but notes "full deprivatization will take some time." 
CRIME CUT: When University of Pennsylvania researchers cleaned up vacant lots in Philadelphia, gun violence fell by 29% in the areas around them. One of the researchers writes in The New York Times that until the physical spaces in which crime occurs are changed, violence prevention is incomplete.

HIGH ROAD: The unveiling of western Pennsylvania's first all-new highway in decades made for strange visuals Saturday, with pedestrians and cyclists taking to the road before cars, the Observer-Reporter shows. Meanwhile, a years-old debate about the project's $800 million price tag continues to roll

AWARD WIN: Philadelphia poet, educator, and activist Sonia Sanchez has won one of the country's most prestigious arts honors. The Inquirer reports the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize comes with a $250,000 cash award.

EYE SPY: Last week we asked you all to identify the Pittsburgh backdrop in this photo of Sir Mick Jagger — the recognizability of which had been called into question. PA Posters Lauri R., Bruce G.Ron R., and Kathy H. got it.

WHETHER MAP: I think this satirical guide to the seasons in southeast Pennsylvania can be applied across the southern tier — anywhere phrases like "spring of deception" and "third winter" resonate. If you know, you know.
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: Allocutions

Congrats to our daily winners: Susan D., Susan N., Susan F., Doris T., Elaine C., Tim B., Don H., Alan V., Bill S., Kim C., James B., Myles M., Elizabeth W., Lex M., and Mary Kay M.
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