Lawmakers spend 15 percent of time approving special-interest “holidays”

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Yes, if you can dream it up, the Pa. state legislature will pass a resolution commemorating your special “holiday.” In fact, last year nearly 400 of such holidays were passed by resolution, including Loyalty Day, Crooked Billet Day, Spanish Water Dog Day, National Nurse Anesthetists Week and Pennsylvania Health Care Information Technology Day.

Critics contend that there are better uses of lawmakers’ time in the Legislature, and that fully 15 percent of their efforts in the last two years went to commemorating the questionable so-called holidays, all for the purpose of placating vocal constituents.

As benign as it might seem, the state government is required to handle the resolutions with the same procedures as a full-blown bill. So even the most non-controversial holiday, such as the Childhood Stroke Awareness Day, needs to be reviewed by at least one attorney, two proofreaders, then back to the attorney for final review, and off to the floor where it’s voted on by lawmakers.

Activists claim the legislation is a colossal waste of time and money, when pressing matters, such as the state’s looming $5 billion deficit and other serious matters requires 100 percent of lawmakers’ attention.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Pittsburgh city council passes $737.7 million parking tax to avert pension fund takeover

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After years of attempting to make sense of the city’s financial predicament with its employees’ massively unfunded pension plan, the city council passed a 37.5 percent parking tax ordinance, and passed on its proceeds to the plan for the next 31 years. The city council’s action beat a state-imposed deadline by only 8 hours.

Pittsburgh's city council passed a $737.7 million parking tax that will be collected from taxpayers not yet born. Even after doing so, its employee pension plan is only one-half funded.

The city council and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl had been battling for months over the best way to avert the state’s takeover of the pension plan, which could have occurred as early as Jan 1. The state of Pennsylvania requires that retirement plans be at least 50 percent funded; Pittsburgh’s was only 29.3 percent funded at the end of the third quarter. A consultant’s report said the plan has about $325 million in assets to cover about $1 billion in benefits that the city promised its workers.

If the state were to take over the plan, it would require an onerous payment plan to bring plan balances to a fully-funded level. The city feared that the state would immediately order it to double its $46 million contribution to the plan by 2015, and raise it to $160 million by 2030. Under the state’s supervision and funding requirements, the city would be severely constrained in its ability to provide even the most basic city services.

Two months ago, Ravenstahl floated a plan that would lease the city’s parking facilities for 50 years to a private operator, raising $452 million. The city council rejected that proposal.

Normally, the only method to increase the balance in a pension fund is by the deposit of monies.  The executive director of Public Employees Retirement Commission, James McAney, has said that he would approve the deposit of another form of “value”, in this case, a dedicated income stream from the parking tax imposed on residents.

Even after the vote, officials won’t know if the plan will be enough to keep the state from taking over the plan. Actuaries will need several months to calculate if the fund balances will rise to 50 percent, after the infusion of the parking tax.

Even after imposing the outsized tax, bringing the fund’s balance to the required 50 percent level means that the city will only have reserved one-half the monies it promised its police, firefighters and city workers, and that more tax hikes and service reductions will be needed in the future.

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10th lawsuit filed against Philly Housing Authority after exec director Greene fired

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A former employee of the Philadelphia Housing Authority has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming he was fired for reporting that others in the agency were involved in waste, fraud and theft. John Tatum, a former assistant general manager who supervised 400 employees, was terminated after telling his superiors that employees were using the agency’s Home Depot credit cards to steal building materials.

Tatum was head of maintenance for thousands of freestanding houses scattered through the Philadelphia area. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, after informing his supervisors about his suspicions, he was demoted and then reassigned to managing two people at an apartment complex in North Philadelphia.

The lawsuit said that Tatum began suspecting employees were stealing building materials in 2007. In July 2008, police raided a North Philadelphia “chop shop” and recovered a large amount of building materials stolen from the PHA.

During the subsequent police probe, Tatum told investigators and his supervisor, Daniel Quimby, that he had information and documents detailing how the thefts were being carried out. Shortly thereafter, Tatum was demoted and reassigned. On Jan. 5, 2009 he was fired.

In September, the Philadelphia Daily news reported that the FBI was conducting an investigation of a major theft ring at the Housing Authority.

Tatum also alleged in his lawsuit that former PHA executive director Carl R. Greene falsified his performance reports to increase his annual bonus by downplaying the amount of work orders on scattered housing sites. Requests for repairs were often recorded as “closed” and subsequently moved to other departments where they were handled by non-agency subcontractors, making it appear that Greene was managing the department more efficiently.

Besides the Housing Authority, Greene, Quimby and Diane Rosenthal, head of finance at PHA, were named in the lawsuit.

Greene was fired in September after the PHA board discovered he had been concealing a number of sexual harassment lawsuits and settlements. Since then, nine other lawsuits have been filed against Greene and the agency.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Pa. aide to top state representative off to prison for “Bonusgate”

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The chief of staff for former Pa. State Rep. Mike Veon, was sentenced Friday to 11 ½ months to 23 months in state prison for participating in the corruption scandal known as “Bonusgate.” At the time of the scandal in 2006, Veon was House minority whip.

The aide, Jeff Forman, 59, admitted to directing public resources to pay for the cost of running political campaigns at the direction of Veon. Authorities said that Foreman was conducting campaign work while on state time and ordering his staff to do the same. He also was responsible for approving bonuses to be paid to staff for work they did on political campaigns, using taxpayer dollars.

Veon was charged with 11 counts each of conflict of interest, theft by unlawful taking or disposition, theft of services, theft by deception and theft by failure to make required disposition of funds. He was found guilty in March and is currently serving 6 to 14 years.

Three defendants, all associated with the House Democratic caucus, were found guilty, while seven others, including Foreman, pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors. Foreman had originally been charged on 24 counts, but the amount was reduced as part of his plea deal.

Foreman is also expected to testify against Veon in a separate corruption case accusing the lawmaker of misusing millions of dollars in public funds that were funneled into a non-profit organization run by Veon, and used to pay for personal expenses and campaign workers.

Veon, 53, represented Beaver County in the Pa. legislature for 22 years and is now residing in the Laurel Highlands State Correctional Facility.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Philadelphia Housing Authority snags another lawsuit, thanks to former head Carl R. Greene

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Getting rid of executive director Carl R. Greene in September apparently hasn’t relieved the embattled PHA of continuing fallout from his time there. Now it’s been learned that one of the woman who settled a sexual harassment claim for $350,000 with the agency in 2008 over Greene’s unwanted advances, has filed a lawsuit in Common Pleas Court charging PHA employees with intimidation and harassment after she left the agency.

The lawsuit asks for damages of $600,000 for PHA’s failure to adequately discipline Greene.

Greene can't be happy about all the harassment lawsuits that he and PHA have attracted.

Moneke Thomas, 38, claims that current and former PHA employees inflicted emotional distress to keep her silent and to frighten other women in the organization so they wouldn’t speak out about the goings on inside. Thomas said that she was followed while driving in her car, had her mail tampered with and flowerpots were turned over in front of her home.

While the lawsuit does not specifically name Greene, in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Thomas said that she believe Greene was behind the activities. “He will do everything in his power to keep me from speaking,” she said.

Thomas’ earlier sexual harassment settlement specifically includes a non-disclosure provision, preventing her from discussing the alleged sexual harassment, and the current lawsuit sidesteps that matter.

Greene was fired in September when the PHA board learned the agency had secretly paid $648,000 to three female employees to settle sexual harassment complaints, and that a fourth woman was pursuing the same claim against the agency. Since Greene was fired, three more women have filed lawsuits in state and federal courts against Greene and the agency for sexual harassment.

Greene has denied wrongdoing in all the previous sexual harassment complaints.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Philly school superintendent Ackerman silences five whistleblowers

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Update on 12/15/2010:

The identities of the five suspended employees were reported today, and they are: John L. Byars, senior vice president of procurement services; Francis Dougherty, a key aide to Deputy Superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II; and Patrick Henwood, senior vice president for capital programs. Two are top information technology staff members – Robert Westall, deputy chief information officer, and Melanie Harris, the department head.

Original story :

A new development in the controversy regarding a $7.5 million contract that was allegedly steered to a small firm by Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, was reported today by The Philadelphia Inquirer. State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan said that the district suspended five employees, after notifying them in writing on Monday that the district was investigating the disclosure of sensitive school documents.

McGeehan said that he would ask the state’s attorney general to investigate the suspension and whether it violated the state’s whistleblower protection.

A press statement issued on Monday evening by the school district said that an outside expert had recently been hired to review its business operations.  The statement said, “Apparent inconsistencies in the distribution of prime contracts to vendors, as well as questionable practices in other areas of business and facilities operations, as reported by multiple firms hoping to do business with the school district, led to these new aggressive steps.”

Philadelphia school superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman suspended five employees on Monday claiming that they had leaked sensitive school documents. Others say that the employees are whistleblowers, exposing improper procurement practices inside the district. (photo:The Philadelphia Inquirer)

The statement claimed that an investigation began about two weeks ago, but that it had been more complicated than expected, making it necessary to hire the expert, whose identity was not disclosed. The investigation followed closely the first published report in The Inquirer on Nov. 28 that Ackerman had abruptly pulled a $7.5 million contract for surveillance camera systems at 19 area high schools, and handed it off to a little-known firm, IBS Communications, that was not qualified by the state to handle emergency work, as provided by the contract.

At McGeehan’s request, the state’s acting secretary of education is also investigating the matter to determine if procurement rules were violated and the district officials acted improperly.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Offending coal plants evade repercussions in Pa.

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A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigative report claims that 16 coal-fired plants in Western Pennsylvania have been repeatedly charged with air pollution offenses, and in some instances received relatively minor fines, while in other instances have had little or no repercussions.

The EME Homer City Generation plant was rated as the second largest polluter in the state. In five years, fines assessed for emission infractions totaled $40,700.

The news is troubling in that it shows state and federal agencies are seemingly powerless to enforce existing laws to protect the health of the public, which are impacted by pollutants known to cause respiratory and heart disease, and lung cancer.  In fact, the Post-Gazette investigation found higher incidences of off all such illnesses in 14 southwestern Pennsylvania counties, where air quality has been negatively impacted by coal plant emissions.

Since 2007, the EPA has cited Allegheny Energy for its Hatfield’s Ferry, Armstrong and Mitchell power plants; RRI for its Keystone and Shawville plants and EME Homer City Generation for its plant in Homer City.

The violations at the Homer City power plant have been going on for years. Recently, the EPA filed a notice of violation that the plant made equipment changes in the 1990’s that significantly increased its emissions. Now, according to the EPA’s Enforcement & Compliance History Online database, the plant is the second largest polluter in the state. Over the last five years, the company has paid a whopping total of fines in the amount of $40,700.

Critics say that with fines as tiny as being imposed on the plants, there’s little incentive for companies to take action to reduce poisonous emissions.

Scientific studies show that even at the levels permitted by regulating agencies, sulfur dioxide (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), ozone and other particles trigger illnesses which lead to 20,000 premature deaths annually throughout the U.S.

While the problem has persisted for years, information provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection shows that authorities have treaded easy on repeat offenders. Records show that settlements at seven plants amounted to $1.25 million, with a single $925,000 fine paid by the current and former owners of the Bruce Mansfield plant in Shippingport, covering five consent orders and agreements dating back to 1998.

DEP secretary John Hanger said that he feels the level of enforcement by his department is appropriate, and varies absed on  agency resources and priorities. “I think we’ve been pretty active litigating when we have a good case.” He said.

Perhaps so, although it’s difficult to agree when fines are so small and enforcement actions are so slow. Considering that all these plants take in hundreds of millions of dollars annually, a $40,000 fine to them is like getting a parking ticket.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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