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Head of State Ethics Commission says ‘the time is right’ to enact restrictions on gifts to lawmakers

On today’s episode of The Confluence: The head of the State Ethics Commission discusses why now might be the time for elected leaders to put limits on gifts to public officials, despite years of failed efforts; researchers found evidence of the virus that causes COVID-19 in white-tailed deer; and Pennsylvania residents who received additional unemployment compensation benefits, at no fault of their own, are getting sent confusing, and what some call “threatening,” letters from the state.

Lawmakers could be subject to new gift limitations, but the executive director of the State Ethics Commission says the limit should be more strict
(0:00 - 7:56)

It’s been about three decades since major changes were made to Pennsylvania’s ethics laws. Now the House is considering legislation to change how the state regulates gifts to elected officials and public employees.

“The time is now right for instituting some greater changes to promote transparency, in essence, to limit the gifts that come from outside influences,” says Robert Caruso, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission.

Caruso says previous efforts to restrict gifts have failed because the legislature and governor’s office weren’t terribly motivated to implement changes to the rule,

The State Ethics Commission receives more than 500 sworn complaints a year, and Caruso guesses they also take up 700 calls of complaints a month. Caruso says about a quarter of the calls relate to concerns over the receipt of gifts by public officials that onlookers fear are influencing lawmakers.

Under House Bill 1009, which was approved by the State Government Committee last month, lawmakers would be prohibited from accepting gifts worth an aggregate of more than $250 in a calendar year from any one particular source, including lobbyists. But Caruso suggested public employees shouldn’t be able to accept any gifts worth more than $50.

“I certainly think [gifts over $50] calls into question why a public official would need to receive something more of a $50 value for doing their job,” says Caruso.

He says a first start in gift restrictions will likely be limitations on what lobbyists can give. Under current rules, any gifts can be received, even though gifts over $250 in value have to be reported.

The virus causing COVID-19 is also circulating among deer populations
(7:58 - 17:38)

Transmission of COVID-19 has been the topic of much discussion and concern since the beginning of the pandemic. Now, there are clear mitigation strategies: wearing masks, social distancing and, of course, vaccination.

But Pennsylvania State University researchers recently discovered the virus causing the disease can transmit widely among white-tailed deer.

Suresh Kuchipudi, a professor of virology at Penn State, co-led a study looking at the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in the lymph nodes of nearly 300 white-tailed deer.

“Our interest is particularly on a group of infectious diseases called zoonotic viruses which have both animal and human elements … so one of the questions was, ‘What is the possibility that [SARS-CoV-2] could infect, livestock species like cattle, pigs, and poultry, which can create food safety and other concerns?’” says Kuchipudi.

His research team looked at tissue collected from hunter-killed or roadkill deer by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. They were able to detect the virus causing COVID-19 in deer as early as September 2020.

The team also detected more deer who died in November and December of 2020 were infected with the virus at a time when human COVID-19 cases were also rising in the region. Over 30% of deer sampled tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Deer are highly susceptible to the virus, so even if they’re coming across a small amount of virus somewhere, they can easily be infected,” says Kuchipudi. “All it takes is just one deer or two deer to be infected and as soon as that happens, the virus then spreads among the other deer very quickly.”

Kuchipudi says other experimental studies are not finding that deer are dying at a rate commensurate with humans from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, nor do they have notable clinical signs. However, he says more research is needed to confirm if the same thing happens in natural settings.

Although Kuchipudi’s study sampled deer in Iowa, he says it’s safe to assume Pennsylvania deer are also infected.

“When a virus circulates in multiple species … the virus continues to evolve and mutate in ways that are twice as complex as having just one host,” says Kuchipudi. “The chances of a potential variant that might have increased virulence to either animals or humans or a variant that could undermine the efficacy of current vaccines can also happen.”

Some who received extra unemployment compensation from the state are being asked to give it back
(17:45 - 22:30)

Many people who were laid off early in the coronavirus pandemic have returned to work. But some are still dealing with problems from Pennsylvania’s Unemployment system.

90.5 WESA’s Kate Giammarise has the story on the distressing messages some have received from the state.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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