Editorials from around Pennsylvania

November 27, 2019 GMT

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania’s newspapers:

Grand jury reports have proven to be a tool for justice in Pennsylvania — ask the Catholic Church

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Nov. 27

Last August, Attorney General Josh Shapiro unveiled a list of more than 300 catholic priests who are accused of preying on children — many by name — that were brought to light in a statewide investigating grand jury report. The list was the result of a two-year investigation and published as a part of a 1,356-page report documenting decades of abuse and cover-up by the church. The report was only possible because Pennsylvania is among the 30 states that allow grand juries to publish both presentments — recommendations of criminal charges — but also reports.

Last week, the state legislature passed three bills based on the report’s recommendations that expand the civil and criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. The day after, a Task Force of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recommended that the state abolish reports like the one that led to the clergy abuse reform.

In 2017, the state Supreme Court impaneled a seven-member Investigating Grand Jury Task Force to identify needed reforms in the grand jury process. The task force made 37 recommendations, primarily procedural. The call to abolish grand jury reports — centered on the concern that the practice of naming individuals in the reports robs the accused of due process — divided the task force.

The concerns of the task force are valid, but could be addressed to ensure the accused has a chance to respond. This tips the balance in favor of keeping such reports.

Individuals named in a grand jury report are not afforded the right to present exculpatory evidence, cross-examine witnesses, or call witnesses on their behalf; those rights only follow if a prosecutor brings charges. Because grand jury reports are likely to represent only the views of the prosecutor, the four anti-report members contend, legislative hearings and oversight bodies such as the auditor general and inspector general are more appropriate venues to unearth malfeasance.

Failing the abolishing of reports, members recommended eight reforms, including banning names from appearing in the report.

In addition to the priest abuse scandal, other notable grand jury reports, such as those detailing the Bonusgate and Computergate scandals in Harrisburg, landed like bombshells when they were released. As the two dissenting members rightly pointed out, the exposure of these wrongs were the result of the work of grand juries — made up of ordinary citizens — not legislative hearings.

According to Suja Thomas, a professor of law at the University of Illinois, historically the role of investigating grand juries was to create an independent citizenry body to investigate malfeasance in government — not private individuals.

Shapiro argues that grand jury reports are a critical tool to hold powerful institutions to account, and that anyone accused in a report can have a response appended before publication.

Abolishing grand jury reports all together would be an over-correction. Instead, legislators should consider amending the law to require a stronger judicial review process to corroborate statements related on named individuals.

Grand jury reports have proved to be a force for justice in the commonwealth — and they can and should be reformed to ensure protection of individuals’ rights instead of abolishing them all together.

Online: https://bit.ly/37BR5wG


Is opioid settlement right move?

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Nov. 26

Gambling is coming to Westmoreland County.

No, not just in the mini casino at the mall. It’s happening in the halls of government too.

The Westmoreland County Commissioners decided Friday to roll the dice on a settlement in the federal opioid lawsuit.

The proposed total of the litigation that involves more than 2,000 municipalities plus attorneys general from four states, including Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, rests at $48 billion.

But Westmoreland looked at its cards, assessed the dealer and pressed on.

“The money being tossed around in these various lawsuits is extraordinary, and we’re trying to find the best deal for Westmoreland County,” Commissioner Charles Anderson said.

That is admirable. The county’s leaders should be looking for the most return for the county.

The question, as with all gambling, is whether the risks outweigh the rewards.

According to a county controller’s study, Westmoreland spent $19 million on law enforcement, investigation, incarceration, supervision and other programs directly related to drug addiction just in 2016. That’s one year in an epidemic that has been growing for almost two decades.

Pittsburgh attorney Robert Peirce represents Westmoreland in the suit and said he believes the proposed settlement places too much emphasis on the states.

But in September, OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy just weeks after attempting to negotiate a $12 billion settlement. Shapiro then sued the company’s owners personally.

Negotiations have continued with Purdue and the other drug companies. But is Westmoreland holding out for a settlement that could disappear amid other payouts and bankruptcy court?

Ideally, no. County lawyers recommended the move and said participating in upcoming settlement talks is what could limit Westmoreland’s options.

Let’s hope it works out. Let’s hope the county spins the wheel long enough to recoup the millions of taxpayer dollars that opioids have sucked up like coins fed into a nickel slot machine.

But let’s also hope they know when to stop, because a jackpot would be fantastic, but just a portion of one would be better than the losses the drugs have already delivered.

Online: https://bit.ly/33rPlmt


Don’t stop short on impeachment

The York Dispatch

Nov. 26

During two weeks of public hearings, House Democrats have laid out a compelling case for bringing articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.

One after another, career government officials and diplomats have corroborated the initial whistleblower assertion: The president sought to make an official White House visit and some $400 million in military aid to Ukraine contingent on that country’s president announcing plans to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory about the origin of 2016 election meddling, as well as former Vice President Joe Biden’s son’s role on the board of a Ukrainian power company.

The findings of the investigation weren’t important to the president — indeed, there was nothing in either case to find. But the announcement would allow Trump to tar a possible opponent in the 2020 presidential election while discrediting the determination by Special Counsel Mueller and U.S. intelligence that Russia sought to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.

There is no arguing these findings. Yet the president’s Republican defenders continue to ignore or dismiss them.

Pennsylvania’s Sen. Pat Toomey is one of many GOP lawmakers embracing the “it’s-bad-but-not-bad-enough-to-impeach” defense.

Others, like Sen. Lindsay Graham, are simply ignoring the hearings, pretending the incriminating evidence doesn’t exist (much like they refused to read the Mueller report; what they don’t know can’t hurt their guilty consciences, evidently).

And then there are those, like the president himself, who continue to insist he has done nothing wrong. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is still whining there was no quid pro quo — despite first-hand witness testimony, the readout of the president’s phone call and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney all confirming that was indeed the case.

So, while making clear the president has egregiously abused his office for personal and political gain, Democrats have yet to make a dent in the lead-headed party apparatus that is the Trump Protection Program.

In short, their work is not done. Far from it. There is no clock running on the impeachment inquiry and the only deadline has been self-imposed. House inquiry leaders should toss it.

Why have they not called witnesses like the president himself? Or Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s now-indicted Ukrainian associates Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas?

Why are they not fighting the refusal of others, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or former National Security Advisor John Bolton, to testify?

In fact, why do House Democrats continue to shrug off the administration’s wholesale refusal to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry? They claim they don’t want to get dragged into a lengthy legal battle but by simply ceding to unfounded claims of “executive privilege” they forfeit not only the opportunity to conduct a full and thorough investigation but Congress’ very role as a co-equal branch of government constitutionally responsible for executive oversight.

And why are they limiting their investigation to misdeeds associated with Ukraine? From directing government business to his private resorts, to subverting government security parameters to secure clearances for his daughter and son-in-law, to repeated attempts to obstruct justice in the Ukraine and Russia probes, the president respects neither precedent nor probity.

No, House Democrats must put the brakes on the rush to complete their findings. Even plans to revisit allegations in the Mueller report during a one-day hearing next month — fueled by new evidence that emerged in the trial of former Trump adviser Roger Stone that the president may have lied in his written answers to the special counsel — though welcome, are not enough.

Republicans have turned their back on the American people, the Constitution and the rule of law. Democrats must stand up for all three.

Push back against White House obfuscation, ignore the childish name-calling and theatrics by the president and House jesters like Jim Jordan, and carry on the important and very likely historic work of getting to the bottom of this president’s misdeeds.

Then and only then will your work be done.

Online: https://bit.ly/34qYjBT


Praising General Assembly for raising legal age to buy tobacco products to 21


Nov. 25

Three cheers for this move by the General Assembly.

Frankly, the legislation moved so quickly that we’re curious why it didn’t happen years ago. Pennsylvania will become the 19th state with 21 as the minimum age for the purchase of tobacco products, according to the AP.

Why now?

Perhaps it was last year’s report from the federal government that 3.6 million U.S. teens are using e-cigarettes — that’s 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle-schoolers.

Perhaps it aligns with the strong and admirable campaign launched in June by the Pennsylvania Department of Health to keep children from vaping.

Perhaps it’s a response to the terrifying outbreak of lung disease this summer and fall among vapers. About 2,100 people have gotten sick and 42 have died, according to the latest figures from the AP.

Or perhaps it’s all of the above.

Whatever road got us to this point, we’re grateful that it did.

The General Assembly even managed to pass the legislation on the same date as the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout.

“Smoking harms nearly every organ of the body, causes many diseases and reduces the health of smokers in general,” state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a news release. “More than 16 million Americans are living with a disease caused by smoking.”

Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking accounts for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S. And that includes more than 41,000 deaths from secondhand smoke exposure.

Raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 is sure to keep more Pennsylvanians from becoming addicted. Data from the American Lung Association shows that 9 out of 10 adult smokers started by age 18.

Republican state Sen. Mario Scavello of Monroe County, one of the legislation’s sponsors, cited the health care and lost productivity costs of smoking. And, like us, he’s greatly concerned about our young people.

“As the availability and appeal of e-cigarettes has increased in particular, the rates of high-school age children vaping has increased 40 percent in just one year,” Scavello said in a news release. “Twenty-four percent of Pennsylvania high school teens use e-cigarettes, driving up overall youth smoking rates to over 32 percent. It’s clear that we have to act.”

More than two-thirds of Pennsylvanians surveyed favor raising the legal age for tobacco sales to 21, according to Scavello. So this is a popular move.

Nationally, about 50% of the U.S. population lives in a state or community in which you must be 21 to buy tobacco, according to the American Lung Association. We’re heartened to see Pennsylvania help raise that percentage further.

The cascading effect of raising the legal age may help stamp out tobacco use by future generations, experts say.

“Not only do these laws seem to work, but they’re influencing the kids most at risk,” Abigail Friedman, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in July. “The laws are not just reducing the behavior of individuals, but they are reducing the behavior of friends, and that creates a feedback loop, because what your friends do affects you, especially as a young adult.”

That’s good news, and a good example of the positive role state government can play in bettering the health of its citizens.

Meanwhile, for those who also use tobacco products and want to quit, there is help available. According to Levine, Pennsylvanians can call the PA Free Quitline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They will be connected to services and resources to help with tobacco cessation. State residents can call 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669), or 855-DEJELO-YA (855-335-3569) for Spanish.

As the Great American Smokeout stresses to those who wish to quit, “You don’t have to stop smoking in one day. Start with day one.”

Online: https://bit.ly/2OoWLTi


Total lack of accountability in state raises

The Citizen’s Voice

Nov. 27

This is the time of year when private businesses typically conduct evaluations of their staffs and executives, partly to set compensation rates for the coming year.

No such process takes place at the Pennsylvania Capitol, however, because legislators have ensured their own raises, and those for judges and the governor and some other executive branch officials, as a matter of law.

Technically, the mandatory annual increase is a cost-of-living adjustment rather than a pay raise, which would require a specific vote. So, by that law tying their compensation to an inflation index rather than performance, lawmakers will receive a 1.9% raise Dec. 1, driving the base compensation for a legislator past $90,000 a year. That does not include unaccountable per diem expense payments and CEO-level compensation packages including golden parachute pensions and health benefits. Pay for legislative leaders will rise as high as $141,000.

Pennsylvania lawmakers, who recently took up a bill to increase the state minimum wage to just $9.50 an hour by July 2021, are the third-highest paid in the nation behind those in California and New York. But collectively they are just as expensive because there are 253 of them. California has 120 legislators; New York has 213.

Judges and executive branch officials will receive 1.9% raises beginning Jan. 1. The governor’s salary will increase by about $3,800 to more than $200,000 (current Gov. Tom Wolf donates his salary to charity), and Chief Justice Tom Saylor’s pay will increase by $4,000 to more than $221,000.

By giving themselves and top government officers automatic pay raises, legislators have lifted from themselves the burden of introducing compensation bills and making the case to the public as to why they deserve more pay.

Some legislators claim that their reelections are validation of the current system, but given that they also are the beneficiaries of self-selecting gerrymandering, that argument fails.

There are means other than the COLA end run to deal with officials’ compensation. Some states have independent commissions that set or recommend salaries, for example.

But this is Pennsylvania, where an automatic COLA is easier than accountability, and where no need to debate spares the Legislature at least one of its mere 90 session days each year.

Online: https://bit.ly/37I1Qh8