WESA Daily Briefing: August 13, 2020

Aug 13, 2020

News on the coronavirus pandemic, protests, 2020 election and more from around Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and southwestern Pennsylvania. 

Find all of the WESA Daily Briefing posts here

Editor's note: This post will be frequently updated with the latest news.

 

6:29 p.m. - District Attorney announce 23 prison corruption indictments

A Pennsylvania district attorney announced charges against more than 20 people Thursday after a months-long grand jury investigation into the smuggling of contraband, drugs and other alleged corruption at a county prison outside of Pittsburgh.

Those charged include a former deputy warden at the Fayette County prison in Uniontown about 45 miles (72 kilometers) south of Pittsburgh as well as several guards and other employees. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the indictments by Fayette County District Attorney Richard Bower's office Thursday.

“When we started this, we never knew how deep the corruption was,” Bower said at a news conference.

The indictments stem from a grand jury investigation that began last fall and originally focused on illegal drugs such as K2, suboxone and Xanax being smuggled into the prison. The investigation branched out to include other allegations of oppression and corruption both inside and outside prison walls.

Bower announced charges in 30 cases against 23 people including a deputy warden, four corrections officers and nine inmates as well as a law clerk and an assistant to the county court administrator, authorities said.

Former Deputy Warden Michael Zavada, 58, allegedly gave a cell phone to an inmate in May 2018. He was charged Thursday with two counts of dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity, two counts of conspiracy to commit dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity and four charges relating to possession of contraband.

It was unclear from court records if he or the others indicted Thursday had attorneys.

The larger drug smuggling cases involved two prison guards, four inmates and two civilians who allegedly smuggled loose tobacco, Suboxone strips, K2 and marijuana into the prison, sometimes taped to a guard's leg, sometimes stuffed inside books in exchange for money.

Many of the indictments were unrelated and focused on different violations, Bower said.

Some of the other indictments include a corrections officer charged with tampering with evidence for failing to file a report about a fight, another officer charged with aggravated assault for a dispute with a former inmate and several inmates charged with drug possession, smuggling and other counts.

5:44 p.m. – Wolf administration release policy report aimed at remedying health disparities

The report includes 57 recommendations to help vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

The Covid-19 Response Task Force – lead by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman - worked with stakeholders and lawmakers to examine six key issues – such as food insecurity, criminal justice, and education

Based on community feedback, it ranked housing as the top priority.

So, Fetterman is calling for the sealing of evictions for Pennsylvanians who applied for unemployment during the pandemic.

“An eviction filing can follow a family around their for their whole lives creating hardships and uncertainty,” Fetterman said. “The commonwealth has and should continue to step in and make sure housing security is a top priority during the COVID crisis.”

Fetterman says the move would prevent tenants from being penalized and jeopardizing their future housing stability — through what he calls no fault of their own”

He’s also recommending standardizing remote learning and access to technology to help ensure all students start the school year with equal learning opportunities.

5:13 p.m. – EPA Administrator touts Trump’s “energy dominance agenda”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced Thursday the agency is rolling back Obama-era rules on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

These are regulations that were finalized in 2016 and they required monitoring and fixing any leaks from oil and gas wells or pipelines or other transmission infrastructure.

Wheeler said these are duplicative, that there are other rules that can capture some of these leaks from oil and gas infrastructure. Environmental groups said they already plan to sue the EPA over the rule, saying that methane should be regulated because it is a very potent greenhouse gas.

4:58 p.m. - Union County outbreak means schools should be remote, according to state recommendations

The Wolf Administration last week provided schools districts with re-opening recommendations based the severity of local COVID-19 transmission rates—labeling counties as low, moderate or substantial risk.

The department is recommending schools in Union County use remote learning only – for at least the first few weeks of the academic year.

Even though epidemiologists have linked many cases to a federal prison in the county, the agency notes “outbreaks, regardless of the setting, pose a risk of community transmission that ultimately impacts everyone.”

The Wolf Administration recommends schools consider changing their instructional models only after looking at the past two weeks of transmission.

But Lewisburg Area School District Superintendent Jennifer Polinchock says she worries about the effect on students from switching back and forth between remote and in-person learning.

The district is still planning to have students return to the class room for in-person instruction – but Polinchok says they’ll re-evaluate the approach on Monday when new data is released.

The Milton Area School District – which is also in Union County -- has pushed its start date back to September 8.

4:27 p.m. - Record-high number of affordable housing developments to get tax credits from the

The funding will add about 150 new affordable rental units across six redevelopment projects which includes replacement housing for former Penn Plaza residents.

Mayor Bill Peduto said in a statement that the credits will also help a lease to own program in Garfield and finalize replacement housing at a subsidized apartment complex on the North Side.

3:40 p.m. - Environmental regulators withdraw objection to a proposed license transfer for Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor

The Department of Environmental Protection has settled with the companies, after raising concerns over an accelerated decommissioning at the site. The agreement gives the DEP more oversight in the financial and environmental aspects of decommissioning.

Secretary Patrick McDonnell wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in April detailing several concerns--including unknown levels of radiation left on site and where waste will go.

He also said there might not be enough money in a trust fund dedicated to clean up the site.

FirstEnergy’s subsidiary GPU Nuclear plans to transfer TMI 2’s license to the newly- formed TMI 2 Solutions. It belongs to Utah-based EnergySolutions, which aims to dismantle shuttered nuclear plants cheaper and faster than the original owners could.

3:30 p.m. - City launches online portal for community to learn more about projects

 

The interactive site Engage PGH will be a place for users to find information and provide input on different projects and programs led by the city. According to a release from the city, departments will add projects to the website and community members can comment and share ideas through the portal.

 

The release pointed to COVID-19 restrictions as a barrier to regular community engagement, and said the Engage PGH portal will help fill that gap.

12:19 p.m. – Latest COVID numbers

Allegheny County reported 114 new COVID-19 cases today, the result of 1,799 tests taken July 13 to Aug. 12. Those infected range in age from 5 months to 101 years old. The health department also reported 17 new hospitalizations and five new deaths. Those who died were in their 80s, 90s and 100s.

Statewide, the number of cases increased by 991, bringing the total to 122,121. The state also reported 24 new deaths.  

8:37 a.m. - Beaver Co. nursing home part of larger investigation

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has confirmed that the Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Beaver County is one target of a larger investigation into allegations of neglect at nursing homes during the pandemic. More than 70 Brighton residents have died and at least 300 employees have been infected by COVID-19.

A spokesperson for Shapiro's office tells the Tribune-Review that the investigation could result in criminal charges against caretakers for specific incidents of mistreatment or injury. 

7:01 a.m. - Mt. Lebo School Board to decide on reopening plan

The Mount Lebanon School board is scheduled to meet tonight to decide on a reopening plan for the district.  Yesterday, parents and students rallied at the Mt. Lebanon Safety Center and marched down Washington Road in support of reopening schools for in-person instruction this Fall.  The district has proposed fully remote learning for the first nine weeks of the semester.