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What is the Pennsylvania legislature paying attorneys to do? It’s not always clear.

The Pennsylvania State House chamber.
Matt Rourke

On today’s episode of The Confluence: An investigation into how state lawmakers don’t consistently disclose what the attorneys they hire are working on, despite Right-to-Know requests from journalists; the Steelers' road to the NFL Playoffs Wildcard Round; and how restaurant owners and workers are feeling about the pandemic.

Lawmakers are paying private law firms millions of dollars for legal services
(0:00 - 9:04)

A 2013 decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that general descriptions of legal services are public information when taxpayers are footing the bill.

But some records obtained from the state legislature through a Right-to-Know request have vague wording, or redacted the reason for hiring certain law firms.

“We found that lawmakers have been spending about $5 million a year of taxpayer money on these outside lawyers, which is in addition, obviously, to the many lawyers that they already have on staff,” says Sam Janesch, an investigative reporter with the Caucus. He co-published this investigation with SpotlightPA.

Janesch says lawmakers justify the spending by saying in-house lawyers can’t handle the legislature’s caseload, such as the ongoing lawsuit over the constitutionality of education funding.

Legal services is one of the largest expenses for the state legislature, a finding uncovered from a Right-to-Know request by The Caucus and SpotlightPA.

“The leaders engage in a lot of lawsuits that the public may not know about, or not even necessarily lawsuits, just legal matters that they need advice for,” says Janesch. “The more troubling aspects here are the redacted cases, you know, the handful or more instances where they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars that we don’t even know what those legal matters are.”

Lawmakers have defended the redactions, saying the information is under attorney-client privilege, or might reveal legal strategy. However, previous reporting by The Caucus and SpotlightPA have found that’s not always the case.

Janesch says they have appealed the redactions and hope to learn even more about legal spending by the legislature in the months to come.

The Steelers have had a bumpy road to the playoffs
(9:10 - 17:35)

The Steelers’ improbable, pothole-strewn road to the playoffs takes them to Kansas City Sunday night, and that means at least one more game in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career.

It wouldn’t have happened without a series of unrelated events this past Sunday: the Steelers beat Baltimore 16-13 in overtime; the Jacksonville Jaguars, the worst team in the league, upset Indianapolis, keeping the Steelers’ playoff hopes alive; and the Vegas Raiders defeated the L.A. Chargers with a field goal as time expired in overtime, averting a tie, which would have ended the Steelers’ hopes.

“I think the wildest thing to go down was the Sunday night game between the Raiders and Chargers,” says Sean Gentille, a senior writer for The Athletic. “Now, you’re talking about a minuscule amount of NFL games that end in ties. It’s just coincidentally that the Steelers have been involved with two of them. … By the end of it, the fact that that game didn’t end in a tie was the biggest surprise.”

Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin admitted he fell asleep and missed the game-winning field goal by the Raiders’ Daniel Carlson, although it did happen after midnight. But Steelers fans showed their appreciation by donating online to Carlson’s favorite charities.

Against Baltimore, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s stats were not Hall of Fame caliber, but he led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, for the seventh time this season, and the fifty-third time in his career.

“At different times in the game, I expected him to kind of try to wind back the clock to 2009, … Try to start forcing passes into tighter windows,” says Gentille. “He really hasn’t done that. … There’s a lot of throws that he can’t make anymore, there’s no sense in pretending otherwise. But diminished as he is, he’s found a way to get stuff done over the last couple weeks and that’s compelling to watch.”

Gentille says these last games should have hammered in this lesson: nothing's impossible in the NFL, including an improbable outcome this Sunday night.

The Steelers play the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday at 8:15 p.m.

Local restaurants continue to struggle to operate in the pandemic
(17:44 - 22:30)

Pittsburgh restaurants and their workers have suffered over the last two years as the businesses struggled to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

90.5 WESA’s Julia Zenkevich reports many restaurant owners and their employees fear the omicron variant will only make the situation worse.

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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