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Wolf's office won't explain private law firm hires

Plus, tracking Penn State's jets in a budget crunch.


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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
December 6, 2022
Unexplained hires, private jets, emergency maneuver, bridge money, pollution police, AG entrants, and the latest Farm Show milkshake. It's Tuesday. 

Gov. Tom Wolf's Office of General Counsel spent at least $367,500 in the past three years on a half-dozen law firms, in many cases without explaining why.

The office, which refers to itself as "Pennsylvania's Law Firm," shields even the most basic information about why it spends tens of thousands of dollars annually to hire private law firms, according to hundreds of pages of redacted records reviewed by Spotlight PA and The Caucus.

In the past year, Wolf’s administration has actively blocked efforts by the news organizations to publicly release those details.

Read the full report: Pa's governor spends thousands on private law firms but won't disclose why.

THE CONTEXT: When he entered office nearly eight years ago, Wolf held himself out as a champion of government transparency.

In withholding the reasons for private law firm hires, his administration has argued that the information is exempt from the state's open records law and that disclosing it could jeopardize legal strategy and outcomes.

Legislative leaders also redact in full the purpose of many of their legal bills, a previous investigation by Spotlight PA and The Caucus found.

The news organizations have sued the state House and Senate in an effort to reveal why the two chambers hire outside lawyers.

The case is before Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court, with oral argument scheduled for Dec. 12.

» This is crunch time. We're in the final weeks of our most important fundraising campaign of the year to keep Spotlight PA going in 2023. Now is the time to show your support by making a tax-deductible gift. As a special bonus, all contributions will be DOUBLED.


"I'm so proud he's allowing me to tell you about this tonight — ladies and gentlemen, Amen Brown will be running for mayor."

—New York real estate developer Marty Burger announcing a well-funded run for Philly mayor by Brown, a Democratic state rep. who secured $2 million in state funding for one of Burger's West Philadelphia development projects
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Something big is happening.

Pennsylvanians from all corners are stepping up to take advantage of our special DOUBLE match so their support of Spotlight PA's vital investigative journalism can go twice as far. Will you take a moment and join them?

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A scene from Wellsboro's 38th annual Dickens of a Christmas celebration, via Don H. Send us your photos and artwork by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania

Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.PLANE LANE: Penn State is a public university with its own private aircraft, and the school's jets have been busy amid a budget crunch that's driving select austerity measures. Spotlight PA's State College bureau tracked dozens of flights in a month, but Penn State officials won’t say who was on board or the reasons for the trips, though they argue travel is necessary for such a large institution.

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.EMISSIONS CHECK: With hundreds of millions of federal road repair dollars potentially on the line, the Wolf administration says it has successfully used a rare emergency process to enact new limits on methane emissions at oil and gas sites, which the federal funding requires. The Bay Journal reports the move gets around GOP opposition to the rule, which is now set to take effect Dec. 10.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.BRIDGE BUDGET: Pittsburgh started 2022 off with a high-profile bridge collapse that came to symbolize the commonwealth's infrastructure woes and funding failures. PublicSource reports that Mayor Ed Gainey's promise to bring the city's bridges up to par is moving slowly, and his 2023 budget proposal amounts to a drop in the city's very big bucket of projects in need of urgent attention.

Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.ENERGY ADMIN: Environmental advocates welcomed last week's settlement in a criminal case involving Susquehanna County water sources tainted by fracking. The case was brought by attorney general and soon-to-be-governor Josh Shapiro, and Inside Climate News reports advocates hope it signals the incoming administration's environmental footing and a new era of related political dealmaking.

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.EMERGING FIELD: The Inquirer's Clout column (paywall) took a look at the unofficial field of candidates that could vie to succeed Shapiro as attorney general in 2024. The list includes six Republicans and six Democrats — a mix of state, federal, and local officials. Shapiro will choose an interim successor, but tradition dictates that such an appointee agrees not to run for the post in the next election.
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WAR CAMP: A former resort hotel in Bedford Springs was used to house high-profile prisoners of war during World War II, including Hiroshi Oshima, a confidant of Adolf Hitler, the Tribune-Democrat reports.

WISHLIST: Ninety years after he was left on a Pittsburgh doorstep as a 12-day-old baby, Jim Scott is meeting the family he never knew. TribLIVE reports it is the culmination of a Christmas wish made in 2016.

REAL ID: The Real ID deadline has been extended yet again. Homeland Security has delayed the full enforcement of Real ID security standards until May 2025, per CNBC, in part due to pandemic-related obstacles.

JUNK MAIL: If you're one of the millions of U.S. student-loan borrowers who received an email last month saying your debt relief was approved, Insider reports it was a mistake and corrections are coming.

SHAKE SHOW: The official Pennsylvania Farm Show milkshake flavor of 2023 is ... orange cream, and ABC27 reports you won't have to wait until January to try it. Pop-up events are coming soon to a town near you.

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 6 p.m. on issue date will be counted.

Yesterday's answer: Diehards

Congrats to our daily winners: Barbara F., Craig W., Kimberly D., Don H., Elaine C., Susan N.-Z., Kim C., George S., Jon W., Ed O., Dennis M., James B., Bill S., David W., Susan D., Chuck M., Jane R., Dianne K., and Joel S.
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