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The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

January 30, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Well, that's embarassing: The state inspector general's office, responsible for ferreting out waste and abuse and protecting taxpayers, spent $160,000 on guns, ammunition and other gear its investigators can't legally carry (which is a good or bad thing, depending on whom you ask). Now it's all sitting in storage.

Top news from the Capitol includes Gov. Tom Wolf's priorities in his coming budget, which will be introduced next week, and a dust-up over honoring Kobe Bryant after his tragic death. Plus, a wave of new lawsuits against the Glen Mills Schools and a new tool to search for priests credibly accused of abuse.

Christopher Baxter, Spotlight PA

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"If you spend $160,000 to buy weapons — and then put them on ice — how is this not a classic example of wasting taxpayer dollars?"

— Eric Epstein, a good-government advocate in Harrisburg, on the inspector general's office buying $160,000 in guns, ammo and equipment it can't use

 FIGHT FOR THE TRUTH 

The case of the missing records and the Pennsylvania State Police

Public records are the lifeblood of investigative journalism.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania doesn’t make it fast or easy to get them.

That was evident throughout the reporting that my colleague, Angela Couloumbis, and I did for our latest story on how the State Police downplayed the findings of research analyzing traffic stops for racial disparities.

Most state police agencies track the race of drivers who get pulled over to monitor for discrimination. But, as we reported in September, the Pennsylvania State Police stopped doing that about a decade ago. A spokesperson told us that research by the University of Cincinnati found no racial disparities.

Naturally, we wanted to see the proof. So we requested copies of all of the university's reports. The State Police required us to file a Right-to-Know request, which is a formal way of asking for public records. These requests also allow public agencies to delay the release of records for weeks or months.

In our case, we waited seven weeks, and what did we get? One report, analyzing stops in 2006. We were confused. The State Police had told us in September that research reports had been produced annually, studying data collected from 2002 to 2010.

It took multiple follow-up calls and emails with the agency’s open records office and the filing of an appeal – which we later withdrew – before the State Police finally provided all of the reports we requested.

After going through those records, totaling 2,000 pages, Angela and I ultimately found that the State Police hadn't told the whole story in September. While researchers had found no evidence of racial bias in traffic stops by troopers, they did repeatedly warn that troopers were disproportionately searching black and Hispanic drivers. That, despite the fact that they were far less likely to find contraband on those drivers compared to white drivers. 

We would have never known the truth had we not fought for the records. And that's why Spotlight PA is so important, giving reporters the time and resources to hold the state government accountable. It's expensive work, and it's the support of readers like you that make it possible.

Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, Spotlight PA

Report waste, fraud or abuse. Send a tip now.

 CAPITOL NOTEBOOK 

Wolf prepares his budget, Kobe resolution sparks debate, and more from the week
 
» THE BUDGET COMETH: 1,000,000. That’s about how many minimum wage workers would be eligible for a raise under Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed 2020-21 budget, which he will officially unveil Tuesday. Wolf previewed parts of his proposal across the state this week, and on his wish list for the sixth-straight year is increasing Pennsylvania’s wage floor from $7.25 an hour to $12, and eventually up to $15. But Republicans in the legislature remain opposed.

Wolf’s budget would also:

» CONTROVERSY OVER KOBE: In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death and a “heartbroken” message from Wolf, state Sen. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery) tweeted that the NBA legend’s “talent does not override or neutralize the fact that he was charged with rape.” That set off a firestorm in the progressive lawmaker’s mentions, but the conflict wasn’t contained to the internet. Muth also objected to a condolence resolution offered by state Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) on Monday. 

“I had several calls from survivors,” Muth told Spotlight PA. “We are still having difficulty talking about sexual violence.”

She added that there were objections to the resolution’s proponent, Leach, who has been accused of sexual assault. Leach vehemently denies the decades-old accusation, and he is suing his accuser, two of her supporters, the Inquirer, and a Spotlight PA reporter. 

An aide to Leach told PennLive the resolution’s fate is “up in the air.”

Muth is a survivor of sexual assault and has introduced #MeToo-inspired legislation. One bill would ban the use of non-disclosure agreements when lawmakers are credibly accused of sexual harassment and would regulate professional behavior in the legislature. 

» A VETO — AND A LAWSUIT: The state Senate voted 28-21 on Monday to place a hold on the closures of the Polk and White Haven State Centers for people with disabilities. Over the objections of Democrats and Republicans who represent the areas where the centers are located, Wolf will veto the bill. “Governor Wolf agrees that we can continue to improve our community-based care system,” his spokesperson said in an email Tuesday. “Disability experts overwhelmingly agree that community-based care is preferred over institutionalization.” 

Wolf’s administration said residents at the centers will be immediately placed with a community provider, or, if they choose, at another state center. When — or if — that will happen is unclear: The state is facing a federal civil rights lawsuit to stop the closures, according to Erie News Now

» GOOD FOR VOTERS, TOUGH FOR COUNTIES: In 2019, the General Assembly passed a sweeping overhaul of how Pennsylvanians can vote. Among the changes was a provision that will allow anyone to vote by mail-in ballot. While these changes are good for voters, counties are feeling the crunch, WITF reported.

Cynthia Fernandez, Spotlight PA

Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg.

Can't-miss reads from this week
» INQUIRER: Feds charge Philly city councilman with using office to enrich himself
» INQUIRER: Ex-state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell pleads guilty to theft, faces jail time
» PA POST: Hold your breath, because Pennsylvania's air is kinda gross
» WHYY: Child care costs are through the roof, hurting low-income families the most
» LNP: Sex offender's stay at treatment center for Amish and Mennonites raises questions
THE RIDDLER

Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.

Chilly night (Case No. 23): The power goes out in the middle of the night in the winter, and the house is getting cold. You have one match. There is a candle and there is a wood burning stove. What's the first thing you light?
 
Stumped? Get a hint. Have a riddle? Send it to us.

Last week's answer: They looked at the stars, which is the past because of how long it takes the light of stars to reach Earth.

Congrats to Kenneth J., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who correctly answered: Jon N., Claudia M., Annette I. and Sarah P.
» This week's Riddler hint: Don't overthink it.
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