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WASD hoping for savings with bond refinancing

WYALUSING – With all time low interest rates, one bond past its call date for refinancing and a second just months away, the Wyalusing School Board has started discussions that could potentially save more than $123,000 through bond refinancing over the next five years.

“One hundred and twenty-three thousand dollars is a lot of money. I wish it was $223,000, but your old interest rates were pretty good,” said Audrey Bear, a managing director with Piper Sandler. about the district’s 2013 and 2016 bond issues. Bear conservatively estimated the cost of refinancing to be around $50,000, which was included in the projected savings.

Although the call date on the 2016 bond is not up until April 1, 2021, Bear said the board can lock in an interest rates as soon as 120 days prior.

“So this is the time when we should be thinking about it,” she said.

If the school board is interested in moving forward, Bear will bring a resolution for approval at the October meeting to get the process started. The board can then lock in interest rates at the end of November.

Superintendent Jason Bottiglieri noted that the board had previously set an $80,000 savings benchmark for pursuing any refinancing.

Business Manager Stephanie Heller added that the refinancing wouldn’t extend either of the existing bond terms as currently proposed.

“This sounds good to me all the way around,” said school board member Richard Robinson. Other school board members also praised the effort as they extended an invitation for Bear to return next month to begin the process.

“An opportunity to save taxpayers $120,000, it’s hard to say no,” said Bottiglieri.

Bear noted that the school board would be under no obligation to move forward with refinancing once the resolution is signed if interest rates became unfavorable.


Local
Top Pa. Republican’s campaign sues journalists over public records costs

HARRISBURG — The campaign committee of the state Senate’s top Republican is suing a publication of LNP Media Group and two journalists who uncovered questionable spending by the lawmaker and other politicians.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati’s campaign filed the suit on Aug. 10 in magisterial district court in his home county of Jefferson, seeking $6,070 from The Caucus, Caucus Bureau Chief Brad Bumsted, and Spotlight PA reporter Angela Couloumbis.

Scarnati’s campaign alleges the trio owes $5,070 for work an accounting firm conducted to produce public records the journalists requested during an investigation into his and other lawmakers’ campaign spending. The campaign also wants $1,000 for attorneys’ fees and court costs.

Should it prevail, the suit could make it easier for politicians to hide their campaign spending from the public, while at the same time have a chilling effect on investigative reporting, media experts said.

State law requires campaigns to maintain vouchers of their spending and to make the information available to the public. Scarnati’s campaign chose to store those public records with the DuBois accounting firm Clyde, Ferraro & Co. His campaign and the accounting firm initially tried to charge journalists about $2,000 for the documents.

The Department of State, in an October 2018 letter to Scarnati's then-lawyer Lawrence Tabas, said the law only allows campaigns to charge copying and delivery fees. The campaign subsequently charged $0.25 per page — the maximum set by the state's Office of Open Records — plus the actual cost of delivery, which in total was a fraction of the amount the accounting firm had originally sought.

“The statute plainly and unambiguously does not permit a candidate or political committee to charge for anything other than copying and delivery costs,” Trisha Robinson, chief of the Division of Campaign Finance and Lobbying Disclosure, wrote to Tabas in October 2018. She called the charges “non-permitted costs.”

Naming individual reporters in the suit “appears to be some kind of retribution, some kind of nefarious attack to chill and punish and send a message that, ‘Hey, you other journalists, if you dare ask for information like this, you’re going to pay,’” said David Cuillier, a public records expert and director of graduate studies at the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism.

“That’s kind of scary,” he said. “We’re living in a weird climate today, where authoritarian practices seem to be picking up speed.”

The year-long investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found that from 2016 to 2018, Scarnati and other lawmakers spent nearly $3.5 million in campaign money that cannot be fully traced based on the information their campaigns publicly disclosed. Scarnati’s obscured spending totaled nearly $246,000, more than any of the other nearly 300 campaigns the news organizations examined. Some of that money paid for hotel rooms and lavish dinners on a 2016 trip through Europe.

State law places no limits on campaign contributions or spending, but requires candidates to publicly disclose donors and expenses. Lawmakers hid some of their spending by listing it simply as a credit card payment without saying what the credit card was used to purchase. Scarnati used vague descriptions like “lodging” without saying that the hotel room was, for instance, in Germany, as was the case during part of Scarnati’s European trip.

At the time, Tabas said the expenses were related to campaigning and Scarnati’s descriptions of his spending were “adequate.” Tabas, now the chairman of the state Republican Party, did not respond to questions about Scarnati’s lawsuit. Scarnati also did not respond to questions for this story.

Hours after The Caucus and Spotlight PA published the original investigation, lawmakers attempted to change the law to make it harder for the public to access the records it relied upon.

That effort failed, but if the new suit succeeds, it would offer politicians another way to hide their spending, said Cuillier, of the University of Arizona.

Campaigns could simply hire an expensive legal or accounting firm to maintain records, then demand thousands of dollars from any member of the public who wants to see them, he said.

“To be a public entity and to push your records onto some private firm and then force people to pay those folks to access them is really outlandish,” Cuillier said. “It’s totally contrary to the intent of the law and democracy. Essentially, you price people out of their government. It’s really dangerous.”

It could also have a chilling effect on other journalists, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. (LNP|LancasterOnline, The Caucus, and Spotlight PA are members of the organization.)

“It’s outrageous, to be quite frank,” Melewsky said. “We should not be seeing $6,000 fees as a result of a journalist seeking access to public records from a public official.”

She questioned why Scarnati’s campaign committee singled out two reporters in its lawsuit.

“Is this retaliation for the investigative journalism work that they’re doing? Is it an attempt to silence them? Is it based on the content of their reporting?” Melewsky said. “I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I think they’re legitimate questions that need to be asked and answered.”

Tom Murse, executive editor of LNP|LancasterOnline and editor of The Caucus, said the “legal action is a clear attempt to intimidate not just reporters for The Caucus and Spotlight PA but all journalists and citizens who dare to hold candidates for public office accountable.”

“We understand Sen. Scarnati’s interest in trying to prevent unflattering details about his questionable campaign spending from becoming public. But charging thousands of dollars for documents that are required by Pennsylvania’s campaign finance law to be readily available for inspection would make those documents prohibitively expensive and represent a significant blow to transparency,” Murse said. “We intend to fight this move vigorously.”

Christopher Baxter, editor in chief of Spotlight PA, said the decision to name reporters for The Caucus and Spotlight PA individually “could inflict long-lasting damage on their personal credit reports.”

“To use such tactics as a method to chill accountability and investigative reporting in Pennsylvania only furthers our resolve to leave no rock unturned in holding the powerful to account,” he said.

Cuillier said the suit could deter other members of the public who want to dig into the ways lawmakers spend their donors’ money.

“I hope people see through it and don’t allow it to happen,” he said. “It’s these two journalists now. Who’s next?”

A hearing on the suit is scheduled for Oct. 7 before District Judge David Inzana.

100% ESSENTIAL:Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. If you value this reporting, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.


Local
Guthrie, Penn State partnership to help sexual assault investigations

A new partnership between Guthrie and Penn State University is designed to not only bolster the evidence collected in sexual assault cases, but also provide expertise and support to those collecting that evidence locally.

On Tuesday, Guthrie and Penn State’s SAFE-T (Sexual Assault Forensic

Examination-Telehealth) Center announced the launch of the local SAFE-T program during a virtual presentation for local law enforcement, community advocacy organizations and the media,

According to Sheridan Miyamoto, director and principle investigator with the SAFE-T Center, one in five women are raped at least once in their lives while one in two women and one in four men experience sexual violence other than rape. However, 75% of sexual assaults go unreported.

Through the partnership between Penn State University and Guthrie, Miyamoto said, “Our hope is that will encourage more people to come forward if they know that specialty care exists.”

The system includes a large screen and camera for general communication and examination, an iPad the patient can use to fill out questionnaires and other interactive elements, and a more remote camera that can be used for up close examinations and evidence discovery.

Miyamoto stressed that the system is completely secure, and the tele-health option is not used without patient consent.

“The great hope with this is that we have more forensically defensible exams, and that’s where it is important for us to work with law enforcement and the district attorneys to help them understand what is being collected and what might be a benefit to their case, and how they can adequately interact with the nurses to move those things forward,” she said.

The SAFE-T program is now in seven rural Pennsylvania hospitals in addition to the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. By establishing a network of health care providers, Miyamoto said examiners can share information, grow in expertise together, and curb the burnout and high turnover rate currently seen in the field.

Being able to work collaboratively is especially important given that sexual assault examinations can last several hours and involve 20 pages of documentation for the Department of Health, she noted.


State
AP
City to pay $12M to Breonna Taylor's family, reform police

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The city of Louisville agreed to pay $12 million to the family of Breonna Taylor and reform police practices as part of a settlement announced Tuesday, months after Taylor’s slaying by police thrust the Black woman’s name to the forefront of a national reckoning on race.

But Taylor’s mother and others who have taken up her cause said more must be done to right the wrongs of racial injustice in America.

“Please continue to say her name,” Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, declared at an emotional news conference, evoking the call that has become a national refrain for those outraged by the shooting and police violence.

Taylor’s death sparked months of protests in Louisville and calls nationwide for the officers to be criminally charged. The state’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, is investigating police actions in the March 13 fatal shooting.

“I cannot begin to imagine Ms. Palmer’s pain, and I am deeply, deeply sorry for Breonna’s death,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer in announcing the terms of the lawsuit settlement.

Standing nearby as the mayor spoke, Palmer said the police reforms were not enough.

“We must not lose focus on what the real job is, and with that being said, it’s time to move forward with the criminal charges, because she deserves that and much more,” Palmer said. “As significant as today is, it’s only the beginning of getting full justice for Breonna.”

The lawsuit, filed by Palmer in April, accused police of using flawed information when they obtained a “no-knock” warrant to enter the 26-year-old woman’s apartment. Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were roused from bed by police, and Walker said he fired once at the officers, thinking they were intruders. Investigators say police were returning fire when they shot Taylor several times. No drugs were found at her home.

Dissatisfaction with the settlement extended to “Injustice Square” in downtown Louisville, where demonstrators have gathered daily for 113 days, demanding justice for Taylor. Some who listened to the announcement over a loudspeaker near a memorial for Taylor said the price for a life seemed low, the promised reforms too little and too late.

“It’s just not enough,” said Holly McGlawn, who noted how much Taylor might have made had she lived. She was young, she could have worked for another 40 or 50 years, she said.

“You can’t put a price on a Black woman being able to sleep at night and know she’s not going to get murdered,” McGlawn said.

“Justice delayed is justice denied. There was a better way to handle this,” agreed Shameka Parrish-Wright who has been part of the daily demonstrations where the city often faced peaceful protesters with force. “I’m hearing apologies now that should have happened early on.”

Palmer left the news conference with one of her attorneys, Ben Crump, and met with protesters at the nearby park. She surveyed the original art of her daughter, prayed and wiped away tears.

She had just two words to say: “Pressure applied,” a saying her daughter often used as an emergency medical tech.

Crump said the $12 million payout is the largest such settlement given out for a Black woman killed by police.

The settlement, “sets a precedent for Black people,” he said. “When (police) kill us we expect full justice. We expect justice for the civil rights that you took from this human being. And then we expect full justice from the criminal justice system.”

In the time since Taylor’s shooting, her death — along with George Floyd and others — has become a rallying cry for protesters seeking a reckoning on racial justice and police reform. High-profile celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and LeBron James have called for the officers to be charged in Taylor’s death.

Palmer’s lawsuit accuses three Louisville police officers of blindly firing into Taylor’s apartment the night of the raid, striking Taylor several times. One of the officers, Jonathan Mattingly, went into the home after the door was broken down and was struck in the leg by the gunshot from Walker.

The warrant was one of five issued in a wide-ranging investigation of a drug trafficking suspect who was a former boyfriend of Taylor’s. That man, Jamarcus Glover, was arrested at a different location about 10 miles (16 kilometers) away from Taylor’s apartment on the same evening.

The settlement includes reforms on how warrants are handled by police, Mayor Fischer said.

Other reforms seek to build stronger community connections by establishing a housing credit program to encourage officers to live in certain low-income areas in the city. Officers will also be encouraged to perform two paid hours of volunteer work every two weeks in the communities where they serve. The city will also track police use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints.

The city has already taken some other reform measures, including passing a law named for Taylor that bans the use of the no-knock warrants. Police typically use them in drug cases over concern that evidence could be destroyed if they announce their arrival.

Fischer fired former police chief Steve Conrad in June and last week named Yvette Gentry, a former deputy chief, as the new interim police chief. Gentry would be the first Black woman to lead the force of about 1,200 sworn officers. The department has also fired Brett Hankison, one of the three officers who fired shots at Taylor’s apartment that night. Hankison is appealing the dismissal.

The largest settlement previously paid in a Louisville police misconduct case was $8.5 million in 2012, to a man who spent nine years in prison for a crime he did not commit, according to news reports.

———

Associated Press reporter Claire Galofaro contributed to this report.