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The Investigator
Your exclusive guide to the best journalism in Pa.
January 16, 2020 | spotlightpa.org
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If you've got kids or grandkids, don't miss our Spotlight PA story today on how some youth organizations are failing to follow a 2015 law requiring background checks and child abuse clearances for employees and volunteers. Turns out, there's not a whole lot of oversight to make sure everyone abides by the rules.

Also this week, the Post-Gazette published a stunning retrospective on a 2018 natural gas pipeline explosion, and the Morning Call took a look at 911 dispatch times since two call centers merged (hint: it's bad news). We've also got updates from the Capitol and more top stories from the week to check out.

Christopher Baxter, Spotlight PA

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“Is this something that needs to be worked through and figured out, and do people need to be held accountable? Yes."

— York County District Attorney Dave Sunday on some youth organizations failing to get necessary background checks for volunteers

 YOUR MONEY 

A shell company allegedly got $100K in state tax credits. Now, lawmakers want to crack down.

On paper, Abella Inc. looked unremarkable – just one on a list of hundreds of startups receiving state tax credits. In fact, the company only existed on paper, according to a grand jury report released in December.

It had no offices, no employees, no customers. It didn’t make or sell anything. Its president, “Rob Davis,” didn’t exist. But none of this prevented the company from getting $100,000 in state tax credits, the report said.
 
Abella Inc. was allegedly part of a web of shell companies created by a Bucks County couple to scam two tax credit programs out of millions of dollars. Between 2012 and 2017, the report said, the companies submitted dozens of applications for tax credits, which they then re-sold, earning millions of dollars that went into the alleged scammers' Hong Kong bank account.
 
The grand jury report concluded that the fraud was “enabled by insufficient government oversight” and “systemic deficiencies” in the way the two programs were administered by the Department of Revenue and the Department of Community and Economic Development. Some of the report's recommendations have already been implemented, but others require legislation, and Democrats in the House and Senate are taking action.
 
Some of the suggested reforms, however, may face an uphill battle, even in the wake of the scandal. More scrutiny for each tax credit application, for instance, will slow down the process. Requiring applicants to attend in-person interviews may be seen as unfairly onerous to businesses. And a plan to license tax credit brokers, who help companies buy and sell the credits, seems at odds with a push to reduce the number of state-licensed occupations.

Legislation is expected to be introduced in the coming weeks.

Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA

 CAPITOL NOTEBOOK 

The House advances hand-held cell phone ban, the Speaker erases the vote, and more from the week

The House returned to session this week for the first time in 2020, and if the opening week was any indication, it could be a long, bruising year between Republicans who control the chamber and Democrats seeking to snag the majority away in the upcoming election. Here are the highlights from the week:
 

CELL PHONE BAN

House lawmakers were sharply divided over a bill to ban using hand-held cell phones while driving. Though it was approved by a 120-74 vote, there was plenty of frustration, from those concerned about racial profiling to others worried it would weaken existing rules banning texting and driving.
 

ERASING THE VOTE

A heated disagreement broke out over House Speaker Mike Turzai’s decision to strike from the record what many thought was an official vote on two separate bills — both sponsored by Republicans — effectively making it seem like there was never a vote on them at all. The move prompted confusion and disbelief from representatives who had voted against the two measures.

One of the bills aimed to keep some violent offenders in prison longer, and the other was an amendment to a bill sponsored by Turzai to provide scholarships to help Harrisburg public school students attend private schools.

Some Democrats believe Turzai made the move when it became clear the vote wasn’t going in Republicans’ favor. Republicans countered that there were lawmakers who wanted to speak on the bill before the vote occurred. The House’s parliamentarian, Clancy Myer, who is the arbiter of such disputes, said, "during the past 40 years, five other Speakers from both political parties have had the vote stricken under similar circumstances."
 

MENTAL HEALTH

Wolf administration officials released preliminary findings by the governor’s Suicide Prevention Task Force. It highlighted eight takeaways gained from more than 800 comments gathered at statewide public listening sessions and submitted online. Key themes included elevating mental health as a public health issue, reducing stigma, and most controversially, introducing a Red Flag law that would allow for firearms to be taken from those at risk of dying by suicide.
 

NEXT WEEK

The House could vote on a bill protecting mothers who have had a child as a result of rape or incest, a measure urging the attorney general to file lawsuits against drug companies complicit in the opioid crisis, a bill expanding the rights of patients receiving mental health care, and a bill to repeal a 100-year-old law meant to prevent "immoral persons" at dance clubs. 

We'll spare you our terrible dance moves.

Angela Couloumbis and Cynthia Fernandez
 

Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg. Have a tip? Contact Cynthia Fernandez at cfernandez@spotlightpa.org.
Other can't-miss reads from the week
» Daylin Leach was a #MeToo moment for Pa. Democrats. But beating him won’t be easy.
» Gov. Wolf vows to veto bill loosening rules for conventional oil and gas wells
» The census is coming. Here’s why it matters, and what you need to do.
» Pa community college president blames vote of no confidence on poor communication
» Ex-Allentown mayor on prison: '‘It’s kind of like being mayor but for a lot less money’
» Maryland gets crabby with Pa. over Chesapeake Bay pollution, seeks federal lawsuit
THE RIDDLER

Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.

Unusual Cure (Case No. 21): A man walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender pulls a gun and threatens to shoot him. The man thanks the bartender and leaves. Why?
 
Stumped? Get a hint. Have a riddle? Send it to us.

Last week's answer: It takes one brick to finish a walkway.

Congrats to Dianne K. who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who correctly answered: Jai A., Bob S., George S., Kevin H., Deborah D., Andrew C., Jodi A., Jon N., Jeff W., Rick K., Jim K., Lou R., Dennis P., and Mark C.
» This week's Riddler hint: Hold your breath
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