Tag Archives: Jesse White

Attorney General Investigating Allegations that Republican Representative-Elect Jason Ortitay Committed Voter Fraud

Jason Ortitay

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office on Wednesday confirmed that it is investigating whether or not Republican Representative-Elect Jason Ortitay committed voter fraud.

Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone in a telephone call to Marcellus Monitor Wednesday said it was a “no brainer” decision for him to refer the case to the Attorney General’s office.

“I try to do the right thing,” Vittone said, adding that, because he was one of Ortitay’s campaign donors, it would be inappropriate for him to investigate the formal private criminal complaints filed against the Republican first-time political candidate.

Vittone, whose office has been in the spotlight for Rule 600 – or due process – violations, said he referred the case to the Attorney General last week. However, the attorney general’s office confirmed Wednesday morning that the case had just been referred to their office Tuesday.

An investigator, the AGs’ office said, had not yet been assigned.

Questions arose in October about a voter registration form Ortitay filled out in 2013, claiming he had moved into the 46th District on the last day on which he could and still be eligible to run for office. An investigative report published on Marcellus Monitor uncovered documents that cast doubt into whether Ortitay ever actually lived at a Burgettstown home he claimed as his residence on the form.

The report prompted at least one person to file a formal private criminal complaint asking Vittone’s office – which has original jurisdiction – to investigate whether “(Jason) Ortitay knowingly and intentionally changed his voter registration to an address he never lived at in order to run for the General Assembly.”

Vittone’s decision to punt the case to the Attorney General’s office came after Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn called on him to immediately recuse himself from the case.

Burn gave the following statement:

“The evidence suggests – in my opinion – that further investigation is warranted and should start immediately. The candidate needs to come clean or hire a lawyer. It is of extreme significance to us in the Democratic Party: (Vittone) must recuse himself immediately. In my opinion it creates the appearance of a conflict because he gave money to a candidate who is the subject of a private criminal complaint.”

Burn then added:

“It’s unfortunate that Republicans made so much noise in 2012 about voter fraud on the part of Democrats. When we raise similar concerns, we can’t seem to find a Republican who wants to do anything about it.”

The private criminal complaint filed last week, names both Ortitay and Pam Church, the woman with whom he said he lived when he filled out a voter registration form on Oct. 7, 2014 – the last day on which he could register and still meet the residential requirements to run for office in the 46th legislative District.

The complaint alleges that Ortitay violated Pennsylvania election law, specifically 25 Pa.C.S.A. § 1703(a)(3), which prohibits an individual from declaring a residence he knows is not his legal residence on a voter registration form.

Violation of this statute is a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a fine of as much as $10,000, and/or five years in prison. It also calls for the loss of voting rights for a period of 10 years. State law indicates that a person convicted of voter fraud may not serve as a member of the state Legislature.

Documents obtained by Marcellus Monitor indicate that while Ortitay registered to vote in Burgettstown Oct. 7, 2013 – certifying under penalty of perjury that he would have lived there for a minimum of 30 days prior to that year’s election – he then, just a day later on Oct. 8, signed a lease for an apartment in South Fayette.

On Oct. 8, Ortitay also filled out a change-of-address form through the U.S. Postal Service asking that his mail be forwarded from his former Pittsburgh address to his South Fayette apartment, beginning on Oct. 11. The lease for his former Pittsburgh apartment did not expire until Oct. 31, 2013, according to that document.

To read Marcellus Monitor’s investigative report about Ortitay’s voter registration, click here.

Oritay did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment on the matter.

Oritay won the election Tuesday against incumbent Rep. Jesse White, a Democrat from Cecil Township, in a Marcellus Shale-centric race.

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DA Reviewing Private Criminal Complaint Against Republican House Candidate for Alleged Voter Fraud; PA Dem Chair Calls for Recusal of DA/Campaign Donor

Jason Ortitay (left) and District Attorney Gene Vittone (right)

A formal private criminal complaint was filed this week against a Republican state House candidate asking the Washington County District attorney – who after being questioned Friday said he might have a conflict of interest in the case – to investigate whether “(Jason) Ortitay knowingly and intentionally changed his voter registration to an address he never lived at in order to run for the General Assembly.”

According to a campaign finance report filed this week by Ortitay’s campaign, the Committee to Re-Elect Gene Vittone donated $200 to the fellow Republican’s political campaign.

Asked Thursday about whether his office would investigate, Vittone first said the state Attorney General would have jurisdiction. When told the Attorney General’s office indicated that his office had jurisdiction, Vittone then suggested that the state House of Representatives would need to take up the issue if and when Ortitay got elected. He then said that his office would not be able to investigate unless a formal criminal complaint was filed.

“That’s the procedure,” he said Thursday.

Reached Friday after Marcellus Monitor obtained the formal criminal complaint, Vittone said it would be reviewed, and that he could not make a decision or comment extensively until he had read it.

Asked if his campaign committee donating money to Ortitay’s campaign would constitute as a conflict of interest, he said he would need to review what was being alleged before making that determination.

“If I believe there is a conflict, I will farm it out to the Attorney General’s office,” Vittone said.

Asked why he didn’t mention the potential conflict of interest when asked about the issue Thursday, he said, “You didn’t ask,” then added, “I forgot about it.”

Vittone, who said he was “permitted to donate to political campaigns like anyone else,” then added:

“There is nothing sinister going on.”

But reached Friday evening, Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn called on Vittone to immediately recuse himself from the case.

Burn gave the following statement:

“The evidence suggests – in my opinion – that further investigation is warranted and should start immediately. The candidate needs to come clean or hire a lawyer. It is of extreme significance to us in the Democratic Party: (Vittone) must recuse himself immediately. In my opinion it creates the appearance of a conflict because he gave money to a candidate who is the subject of a private criminal complaint.”

Burn then added:

“It’s unfortunate that Republicans made so much noise in 2012 about voter fraud on the part of Democrats. When we raise similar concerns, we can’t seem to find a Republican who wants to do anything about it.”

The private criminal complaint filed Friday, names both Ortitay and Pam Church, the woman with whom he said he lived when he filled out a voter registration form on Oct. 7, 2014 – the last day on which he could register and still meet the residential requirements to run for office in the 46th legislative District.

The complaint alleges that Ortitay violated Pennsylvania election law, specifically 25 Pa.C.S.A. § 1703(a)(3), which prohibits an individual from declaring a residence he knows is not his legal residence on a voter registration form.

Violation of this statute is a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a fine of as much as $10,000, and/or five years in prison. It also calls for the loss of voting rights for a period of 10 years.

Documents obtained by Marcellus Monitor indicate that while Ortitay registered to vote in Burgettstown Oct. 7, 2013 – certifying under penalty of perjury that he would have lived there for a minimum of 30 days prior to that year’s election – he then, just a day later on Oct. 8, signed a lease for an apartment in South Fayette.

On Oct. 8, Ortitay also filled out a change-of-address form through the U.S. Postal Service asking that his mail be forwarded from his former Pittsburgh address to his South Fayette apartment, beginning on Oct. 11. The lease for his former Pittsburgh apartment did not expire until Oct. 31, 2013, according to that document.

To read Marcellus Monitor’s investigative report about Ortitay’s voter registration, click here.

Oritay did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the matter.

Oritay is the Republican facing off against incumbent state Rep. Jesse White, a Democrat from Cecil Township in the 46th District race – one in which Marcellus shale is a leading issue.

 

 

 

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Did A Republican Candidate in Shale-Centric PA House Race Commit Voter Fraud?

Editor’s Note: Faithful readers of Marcellus Monitor likely have noticed the vast majority of stories I’ve published over this past year have originated from southwestern Pennsylvania, or, more specifically, from Pennsylvania’s 46th Legislative District.

The sitting representative in the district, which encompasses portions of Washington and Allegheny counties, is state Rep. Jesse White, a Democrat from Cecil Township. White has been called a “watchdog” on matters pertaining to Marcellus Shale. Because of his outspoken criticism of the Marcellus Shale industry and the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is tasked with regulating it, White has been painted as the “anti-shale” candidate by some.

His opponent, Republican Jason Ortitay (who owns Jason’s Cheesecake Company) is, by contrast, largely considered the “pro-shale” candidate (in fact, EQT’s political action committee is hosting an event to benefit the first-time state representative candidate this Thursday at the Cambria Suites in Washington.

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By way of background, DEP recently announced it is seeking a $4.5 million fine from the company for what the department called an impoundment leak. If assessed, it will be the largest such civil penalty in state history.

All that said, this story, while a bit different from the types of investigative reports I have published in the past, is pertinent, I believe, to all those who have been following this shale-centric race, and to all those who live  or work in the 46th District. -amanda

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(This house on Maple Avenue in Burgettstown – the home of Pam Church – is where Jason Ortitay, Republican candidate for the 46th District state House seat, said he lived when he registered to vote in Burgettstown, Washington County. Ortitay registered to vote there on the very last day he could move into the district and still, under Pennsylvania statute, be eligible to run for office during this year’s election. Photo by Faith Cotter. Taken on Oct. 13, 2014)

By Faith Cotter

Despite admitting in a recent interview that he was in between apartments at the time, Republican candidate for the 46th state House seat, Jason Ortitay, registered to vote in Burgettstown, Washington County – an address that, on paper, moved him into the district on the very last day he could and still be eligible to run for office there in this November’s general election.

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However, state election code dictates that, by registering, a prospective voter is stating – under penalty of perjury – that they will have lived at that residence for 30 days prior to the election in which they wish to vote. But according to documents, Ortitay signed a lease in South Fayette in Allegheny – which is also in the district – just a day after registering to vote in Burgettstown. And according to documents, Ortitay never even received mail at the Burgettstown addresss.

According to a change-of-address form filled out by Ortitay on Oct. 8, 2013 – just a day after he registered to vote in Burgettstown—he had his mail forwarded from his former Pittsburgh address to his new South Fayette Township address. The change of address was scheduled to take effect just days later on Oct. 11, 2013.

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Had Ortitay waited to register Oct. 8 at his South Fayette address, he may not have been eligible to run for office in the 46th District because he would not have lived in the district for the amount of time required by state statute.

When asked about when he moved in and out of Church’s Burgettstown home, and why he registered there when he signed a lease in South Fayette Township only a day later, Ortitay said:

“I changed my voter registration on the last day I could. Everything I did was completely legitimate. I asked if it was legitimate, and they said yes.”

But according to obtained documents, Ortitay, on paper, was still living in a Pittsburgh apartment until Oct. 31, 2013, when the lease expired. His former Pittsburgh address is not part of the 46th District.

He then signed the new lease for his South Fayette Township apartment (in which he currently resides) on Oct. 8, 2013, the day after he registered to vote in Burgettstown.

During an interview in a Panera parking lot on Oct. 13, 2014, Ortitay was unable to provide specific dates on which he moved in and out of the Burgettstown home – or why he registered there when he signed a lease elsewhere just a day later.

Although a car was in the driveway and a light was on in Church’s home the afternoon of Oct. 13, 2014, nobody answered the door to help clarify when Mr. Ortitay allegedly resided there.

While no one answered the door there after three attempts at knocking, a neighbor across the street answered hers. The neighbor, Carrie Ferris, has resided at her home for 16 years and said that she is “pretty familiar” with the neighborhood.

After being shown a photo of Ortitay, she said, “No, I’ve never seen him around.”

According to Pennsylvania election code, a person is committing voter fraud if they, “Declare as residence a place or address which the individual knows is not the individual’s legal residence.”

If an individual is found guilty of violating this section of Pennsylvania law, which is a first-degree misdemeanor, the penalty could include a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than five years. Additionally, individuals who are found guilty of violating the statute may lose their right to vote for a period of 10 years.

According to the Criminal Law Division of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, if there is evidence of an individual committing voter fraud, the case would be investigated by the district attorney’s office in the county the individual voted in, unless there is a conflict of interest. In that case, the state Attorney General would have jurisdiction to investigate.

A phone message left with the Washington County District Attorney’s office last week was not immediately returned.

Ortitay did not return two voice mail messages left on his cell phone seeking comment on this story. He hung up on a reporter without answering during a third attempt to make contact prior to publication.

Author’s Note: Faith Cotter is an award-winning writer and editor based in Pittsburgh, PA. Her background includes working as an investigative reporter for The Innocence Institute of Point Park University. She is currently working toward a Master of Arts in Professional Writing from Chatham University. She can be reached by email at faithc3865@gmail.com, or via her website: http://faithc3865.wix.com/faithcotter

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PA Rep. Introduces Bill to Retain Local Impact Fee if Severance Tax is Enacted

PA state Rep. Jesse White D, Cecil, recently introduced the legislation.

PA state Rep. Jesse White D, Cecil, recently introduced the legislation.

State Rep. Jesse White on Tuesday introduced legislation that would preserve the Marcellus Shale local impact fee if a severance tax on natural gas production is enacted.

The impact fee, which was enacted in 2012 as part of the state’s natural gas drilling law, Act 13, brought in an estimated $225.7 million in 2013.

The lion’s share of the impact fee goes to municipalities and counties most heavily impacted by drilling to mitigate road and infrastructure damage, and other effects from natural gas development.

White, D-Cecil Township, said that according to current law, if a severance tax is enacted the impact fee will go away by operation of law:

Title 58, Chapter 23: Unconventional Gas Well Fee, § 2318, Expiration:

(a) Notice.–The Secretary of the Commonwealth shall, upon the imposition of a severance tax on unconventional gas wells in this Commonwealth, submit for publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin notice of the imposition.

(b) Date.–This chapter shall expire on the date of the publication of the notice under subsection (a).

White’s legislation, House Bill 2403, would repeal that section of law to ensure any severance tax enacted would not eliminate the local impact fee.

“Like with any industrial operation, local communities and residents feel the impact of natural-gas development, whether it is damage to roads or increased demands placed on emergency-service providers and other resources,” White, whose district includes portions of Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties. “The Marcellus Shale impact fee is essential for our municipalities dealing with these impacts, and we need to be absolutely certain the impact fee remains available to help lessen those burdens when Pennsylvania finally joins every other gas-producing state by enacting a reasonable severance tax.”

White said that with increased discussion and support from both Republicans and Democrats for a severance tax on natural gas drilling, the only way to be certain the impact fee remains in place is by amending or repealing the language within current law.

“This is a manufactured crisis created by Gov. Corbett and those in Legislature who voted for Act 13, and it must be fixed to ensure the communities impacted by natural gas drilling activity continue to receive the Local Impact Fee,” White said. “Instead of using the threat of losing the Impact Fee as an election year scare tactic, we need to put policy over politics and do the right thing by passing H.B. 2403 without delay.”

“I urge local municipal officials to make sure their voices are heard on this important topic,” White said.

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PA Rep. White Wins Primary, Says Rumors of Political Death ‘Greatly Exaggerated’

PA state Rep. Jesse White D, Cecil, recently introduced the legislation.

PA state Rep. Jesse White D, Cecil, won the Democratic primary Tuesday.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Jesse White won the Democratic primary on Tuesday, and will face off against his Republican challenger, political newcomer Jason Ortitay, in the November general election.

Upon finding out that a local newspaper, the Observer-Reporter had called his race, White announced his victory over Democratic challenger Tom Casciola to supporters, who gave him a rowdy round of applause.

A short time later, White wrote the following on Facebook:

“With nearly all precincts reporting, I have won the Democratic Nomination for the 46th Legislative District with approximately 57% of the vote. To my supporters, thank you for your tireless work and dedication. To my detractors, I look forward to working harder than ever to earn your support as we move forward with the singular goal of defeating Tom Corbett and bringing some common sense back to Pennsylvania government.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of my political death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Casciola did not immediately return a message left on his cell phone Tuesday night seeking comment.

 

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PA State Rep Introduces Law Requiring Full Disclosure of Fracking Chemicals, Mandatory Air Quality Monitoring

PA state Rep. Jesse White D, Cecil, recently introduced the legislation.

PA state Rep. Jesse White D, Cecil, recently introduced the legislation.

By Amanda Gillooly

A Pennsylvania state representative announced this week that he has introduced two new bills in the state House that he said would help further promote responsible Marcellus Shale drilling operations in local communities.

House Bill 1721, the “Fair Frac Disclosure Act,” would mandate the full disclosure of all chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, including the disclosure of compounds labeled as “proprietary” by drilling company vendors and subcontractors.

White said that when companies dump drilling waste water from multiple sites into open-air waste water impoundments, chemicals from the fracking process can mix, react and release into the air or into groundwater if the impoundments leak.

White said that the Fair Frac Disclosure Act would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to maintain a public database of all compounds used by an applicant before a permit could be issued, thus providing transparency and accountability to Pennsylvania residents.

“Local residents who live near industrial drilling operations at the very least deserve to know what chemicals are being put into the air and water as part of the fracking process,” said White, D-Allegheny/Beaver/Washington. “While I applaud the recent news of hydraulic fracturing supplier Baker Hughes deciding to disclose all of its chemicals, not all companies are following suit. This legislation would simply add another layer of protection for our local communities.”

White’s second bill, House Bill 2172, would mandate that air-quality monitoring systems be placed near all natural-gas compressor stations, processing plants and centralized waste water impoundments.

Centralized impoundments have become a controversial issue in western Pennsylvania, with news earlier this month that there was a “significant leak” at a Range Resources pit in Amwell Township, Washington County. The DEP said hundreds of tons of contaminated soil has already been removed, and a source says thousands of tons more may follow suit. The incident spurred the DEP to issue notices of violation to the Southpointe-based Marcellus Shale drilling company.

Under this bill, White said such monitoring systems would be required at all current and future sites as a condition of their permitting. The legislation would require that all air-quality levels recorded by monitoring systems be made publicly accessible through a real-time display posted on the Internet.

White pointed to a recent Associated Press report on preliminary data from the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project regarding cases in which residents might have experienced problems as a result of living in close proximity to natural gas drilling operations. To date, the project has discovered 27 cases in which residents developed symptoms and illnesses after nearby operations began.

Natural gas drilling in our region is here and here to stay, but that does not mean we should ignore simple and commonsense practices that would promote more transparency and provide for honest, fact-based debate,” White said. “When dealing with the health and well-being of our local communities and residents, the public should have access to the scientific facts and figures surrounding drilling in an unfiltered way, and my legislation offers that – nothing more, nothing less.”

 

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Act 13 Challengers: DEP, PUC Have No Basis for Supreme Court Reconsideration

Courtesy of Robert M. Donnan

Courtesy of Robert M. Donnan

By Amanda Gillooly

Editor

The law firm that led the legal challenge against a Pennsylvania law governing Marcellus Shale drilling activities this week filed a response to a motion two state agencies made earlier this month petitioning the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision that some of those regulations, collectively known as Act 13, were unconstitutional.

Attorneys for Smith Butz, the Southpointe-based firm that represented a handful of municipalities such as Cecil, Peters and Robinson townships, as well as a nonprofit and medical doctor in the challenge, filed the answer Tuesday, writing that, “Citizens respectfully request that this honorable court deny (their) request.”

In the 19-page filing, Smith Butz argues that the state Department of Environmental Protection and Public Utility Commission failed to demonstrate a compelling reason for the court to reconsider its position.

Attorneys wrote:

Reargument before an appellant court is not a matter of right, but of sound judicial discretion, and reargument will be allowed only when there are compelling reasons.”

(The DEP and PUC) presented no compelling reasons for extraordinary relief.

Attorneys from Smith Butz also wrote that the state agencies’ argument for reconsideration revolved around the standard the Supreme Court used to make its determination that portions of Act 13 violated the Pennsylvania Constitution – they specifically allege the court applied a “new” standard.

Smith Butz attorneys disagreed with this logic, writing:

(The standard used by the Supreme Court) follows the plain language of Section 27, which has been a part of the Pennsylvania Constitution for (more than) 40 years.

Agencies clearly recognized this standard, conceding that the Commonwealth…has a duty under Section 27 to conserve and maintain public natural resources.

Agencies also previously recognized that government agencies must ‘balance environmental and social concerns’ and even argued that the General Assembly did the appropriate balancing when it enacted Act 13.’

Yet now, agencies claim that they did not have an opportunity to show how Act 13 satisfies Section 27, and even argue ignorance of a balance test.

To the extent (the DEP and PUC) failed to raise argument in defense of Act 13, they cannot do so now.

A majority of the court recognized that Act 13 reflected that the General Assembly made no effort to account for local concerns or to mitigate localized impact of shale gas on the people ad their public natural resources.

…(the Supreme Court opinion) explained that Act 13’s primarily stated purpose is not to effectuate the constitutional obligation to protect and preserve Pennsylvania’s natural environment. Rather, the purpose of the statute is to provide a maximally favorable environment for industry operators.”

SmithButz attorneys also argue that the request should “be rejected because it would compromise the finality of court’s decision.”

They wrote:

“The court should not sanction an approach to the resolution of cases that does not comport with basic fairness and ultimately erodes finality and judicial economy. Because no compelling reason exists to justify reconsideration, (the DEP and PUC’s) current request fosters undue delay and creates the specter of uncertainty regarding the outcome and effect of this landmark case.”

Editor’s Note: I am having some issues with Scribd at the moment – will get a copy of this thing online ASAP. Sorry for the inconvenience! -amanda

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PA PUC, DEP Seek to Overturn Supreme Court Act 13 Decision

Courtesy of Robert M. Donnan

Courtesy of Robert M. Donnan

Two Pennsylvania agencies on Thursday filed an application to reconsider the opinions and order entered by the state Supreme Court regarding its Act 13 ruling.

The Supreme Court on Dec. 19 declared key provisions of Act 13 – the state’s law governing Marcellus Shale drilling activities – as unconstitutional, including portions that would have taken zoning control out of the hands of local government bodies.

To read more about the Act 13 ruling, click here.

The DEP and PUC hired an outside law firm, Conrad O’Brien, P.C., to handle the filing. One of the partners of the firm is Cristopher Carusone, who joined the firm after leaving his position as Gov. Tom Corbett’s chief of staff in July.

Following the filing, general counsel for the governor’s office released the following statement:

Today, lawyers representing Commonwealth agencies and officials in the Robinson Township matter have sought reconsideration of the Supreme Court’s December 19, 2013, Opinions and Order.  In the Robinson Township decision, the Court declared key provisions of Act 13 of 2012 (the Commonwealth’s oil and gas law) to be unconstitutional.

In announcing a never-before-employed balancing test against which the constitutional validity of the law is to be judged, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made its own sweeping factual findings regarding the impact of Act 13, none of which finds any support in the sparse and uneven factual record that was made before Commonwealth Court.  The Supreme Court’s decision is a stunning departure from the historical practice of that Court, and an unrestrained venture into a fact-finding role that the Court always has insisted is not its proper place in the judicial system.

Accordingly, today’s request for reconsideration seeks to give Act 13 its fair day in court, as every law of this Commonwealth deserves when challenged.  We are asking the Supreme Court to follow its own established precedent and remand the case to Commonwealth Court for the development of an evidentiary record (through a fair and thorough process in which all parties have a real and equal opportunity to participate), application of the Court’s newly-pronounced standards to the facts as found by the Commonwealth Court (with legal briefs from all parties), and finally a fair and final determination as to whether Act 13 violates Article I, Section 27 based on a full record and formal findings.

In addition, the Department of Environmental Protection is asking the Supreme Court to reconsider a decision that certain provisions of Act 13 that involve the agency’s responsibility to protect public resources (such as public parks) cannot stand separately from provisions that the Court has determined are unconstitutional.  The Department contends that the Supreme Court misunderstood how the statutory provisions work separately from each other and asks the Court to direct Commonwealth Court to study that question as part of the other matters it must examine on remand.

The SmithButz law firm handled the challenge to Act 13 on behalf of a handful of municipalities including Robinson, Cecil and Peters townships, a medical doctor and a nonprofit.

Reached Thursday afternoon, attorney John Smith said:

After more than 160 pages and more than a year of deliberation, I think the court sufficiently explained its reasoning and position with this case.  A majority of the court found that portions of Act 13 are unconstitutional – end of question.

Co-counsel, John Kamin, of Goldberg, Kamin & Garvin, said:

The PUC’s and DEP’s Request  For Reconsideration so that it can implement and utilize unconstitutional legislation is an affront to  the Citizens of Pennsylvania, and truly demonstrates the Executive Agencies’ inappropriate stake in this legislation. – John Kamin, co-counsel
Reached for reaction to the filing, state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who was vocal in his opposition to Act 13, said:
It’s unconscionable that the state of Pennsylvania is looking at a $1.4 billion deficit, yet, Gov. Tom Corbett is wasting even more taxpayer dollars in a last-ditch desperation stunt to protect his wealthy donors in the shale industry. This has ‘sore loser’ written all over it. It’s mind-boggling to me that the DEP is taking such extraordinary steps to advocate for less environmental and constitutional protections.
White also noted that it is highly irregular for appointed department heads in the Corbett administration to file a pleading of this nature, a responsibility that generally falls to the attorney general.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane has declined to defend the law.

To read the entire court filing, click on the link below:

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Why Every Pennsylvanian Should Be Offended By the DEP

Not cool, DEP. Not cool.

Not cool, DEP. Not cool.

Let me tell you why you should be offended by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

(And forgive me for starting with a bit of necessary background):

See, when I was at Patch, I broke a story about a local impoundment operated by Southpointe-based Marcellus Shale driller Range Resources in Cecil Township. 

Local government officials there told me about a spate of issues they had with the Worstell impoundment in the wake of being notified by the DEP that Range wanted to make some major modifications there.

Then, when asked why many senior execs from Range and DEP met regarding the impoundment (information uncovered through a public records request on the frac pond) as evidenced by a sign in sheet for a meeting at the department’s regional headquarters, a local DEP spokesman told me it was regarding a leak there that had been repaired (and, of course, there was no further information for me on the matter).

Although Range and DEP told a competing news organization a short time later that there were no issues at the impoundment, and that there had not been a leak as much as a spill from a holding tank, the issue still put the frac pond in the spotlight locally.

Then Cecil Township officials asked the DEP (repeatedly) for a public meeting to get answers to questions and concerns with the Worstell Impoundment.

But the DEP – a public, tax-funded department? It refused.

Oh, they would meet with the supervisors.

Just not publicly. And with no additional visitors (such as local folks who lived near Worstell with specific questions). And with no recording devices – all behind closed doors.

Lemme tell you: My head almost exploded when I heard this was what the DEP had suggested.

Because this is how they tried to make it seem legit: They called the meeting a “conference,” after at one point saying there simply wasn’t enough space for many guests in the regional headquarters where the gathering was being held.

My opinion? Total BS.

And while I could not call the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association’s legal hotline to obtain an opinion on the legitimacy of this excuse (Patch sites are not eligible to be members), the Observer-Reporter’s Emily Petsko did.

Her story can be read here, but here’s what PNA said:

A conference typically involves some training that agency personnel receive from a state or federal authorities, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. Melewsky said that while a conference is permitted to be private under the state Sunshine Act, there is no reason that it cannot be made public.

What’s important is that they explain why they’re not having it publicly, and I think lack of space is not a good excuse,” Melewsky said. “I don’t think crowd size should be an issue. Public participation is a good thing. The fact that many people are interested is a positive, not a negative.”

Melewsky said that by law, a conference must not involve any deliberation of agency business.

Despite some public outcry, the meeting went on as planned.

When I was covering the issue, I couldn’t believe the audacity of the DEP. And, sometimes I pondered if members of the DEP were joking with each other about how they had gotten one over on all those concerned about the Worstell Impoundment with their flimsy technicality.

Then, state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who was publicly outraged by this issue and others involving secret meetings, local officials and the drilling industry/cheerleaders, released some documents he uncovered from a state Right to Know request.

While there are some things in there that really make a person who reads the news nauseated, there is an email thread I found particularly disgusting.

And here, my friends, is why every Pennsylvanian should be offended by the DEP:

Despite major public outcry for more information on public safety and other issues regarding a frac pond, the DEP not only met behind closed doors in a most shady manner, but also snarked about it in internal emails.

In an email dated July 18, 2013, Alan Eichler (who is listed as the environmental program manager for the DEP’s Pittsburgh oil and gas division) wrote to DEP staff:

We should be thinking about potential questions that are going to be asked at the August 9 meeting…uh, I mean conference (it’s not a meeting).

All that email lacked was a proper emoticon, or maybe a “LOL” or even the elusive “LMMFAO!” to make it more juvenile.

Oh, but that’s just part of the fun stuff in the RTK documentation.

There was also a lengthy (and seemingly unsolicited) email from Range Resources spin doctor Matt Pitzarella to Petsko about how everything is just fine at Worstell.

…But why does the DEP have that email? Why would it be in the DEP’s Worstell file? Did Pitzarella blind CC a DEP spokesman on the matter? Was it meant to be talking points after that same DEP spokesman told me for publication that there was a “leak” at the site? 

There was even an email with state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who has long been buddy-buddy with the Marcellus Shale folks. His suggestion? A pre-meeting so the whole thing didn’t turn into a “kangaroo court.”

Timmy, I thought you were elected to do the people's work?

Timmy, I thought you were elected to do the people’s work?

The coziness among the DEP and the industry/its cheerleaders is a little startling to me.

Because the DEP? Those are supposed to be the guys on our side – the guys with the public’s interest at heart.

I have long considered myself a student of the Sunshine Law, and those on boards I have covered during years of community reporting will attest: I am, perhaps, more aggressive about closed-doors meetings than most of my colleagues. I always insist that the board chairman in question do what he is supposed to: Announce, for the record, why the hell they are going into executive session.

Could be litigation. Could be personnel. Could be property acquisition. Could be there is a state conference that an organization such as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association is hosting and all the members of a local school board want to attend (totally cool, the Sunshine Law dictates).

One thing it never is: “Um, this subject has, like, caused us a LOT of bad publicity, and it would be awfully inconvenient for us to actually sit down and answer questions from, like, anyone who wants to ask one from the public. So, yeah. We’re gonna just go ahead and meet – call it a conference. Also, no recording devices. No big.”

But that’s pretty much what the state Department of Environmental Protection did.

Editor’s Note: To access the Right to Know files released by White, click here. Also, if you’d like to tell Alan Eichler how you feel about his email, he can be reached by calling 412 442-4024. -amanda

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Energy Interests Prevail in Legislative Process, State Rep. Writes

State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil

State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil

Editor’s Note: This column was reprinted with permission from state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who has long been a proponent of responsible drilling. In it, he writes about the Endangered Species Coordination Act. White states:

(It) was supposed to “establish a uniform and transparent process for evaluating; designating and protecting threatened and endangered species and their critical habitats in the Commonwealth.” But upon actually reading and analyzing the bill, it became clear that this was more about making it easier to keep endangered species and habitats off of the endangered list to allow development of those habitats, mainly for energy development.

But I will let him tell the story. Here is the column in its entirety. -amanda

Who’s Really The Endangered Species Here?

One of the committees I serve on in the State House of Representatives is the Game and Fisheries Committee, a committee that doesn’t usually end up in the headlines. But last week a piece of legislation we considered made headlines across Pennsylvania, and it’s a good example of how special interests get involved in the legislative process.

House Bill 1576, also known as the “Endangered SpeciesCoordination Act”, was supposed to “establish a uniform and transparent process for evaluating; designating and protecting threatened and endangered species and their critical habitats in the Commonwealth.” But upon actually reading and analyzing the bill, it became clear that this was more about making it easier to keep endangered species and habitats off of the endangered list to allow development of those habitats, mainly for energy development.

The energy industry wasn’t hiding their support for this bill; in fact, they were among the first to stake a position. A letter sent by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association urged passage of the bill, throwing in government buzzwords like “transparency”, “consistency” and “accountability”. Now, why would the energy industry care about the endangered species and high-quality streams unless there was something in it for them? The red flags were almost too obvious.

One of the big sticking points was the requirement that the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, commonly known as IRRC, approve all recommendations. This is problematic because IRRC has no scientists on their staff; the practical impact meaning that bureaucrats will be reviewing the work of scientists with no basis on knowing what they are really looking at. To many, including me, it smacks of politicizing science, which is bad public policy.

Groups representing sportsmen and outdoorsmen had serious concerns about the bill, as did environmental groups and the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. When virtually all the stakeholders have such a problem with a proposed bill, that usually indicates there are real issues to be concerned about, and HB 1576 was no exception.

The Fish and Boat Commission noted that HB 1576 creates anunfunded mandate for the agency, further limiting the PFBC’s ability to adequately survey and conserve the aquatic resources of the Commonwealth. They also noted the bill disallows consideration of species that are rare, but unlisted, in the permitting process, therefore not providing the needed protection to prevent further population declines. So in effect, there’s no way to fix a potential problem until it’s way too late.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission noted this legislation fixes a problem that does not exist, and requiring the listing of a species to go through the IRRC approval process will add months – and potentially years – onto the process and result in added layers of inefficient bureaucracy. Moreover, HB 1576 will have the opposite effect of its intended goal because state endangered species programs serve as a first line of defense in protecting species not yet federally listed.

There was also major concern about how the bill effectively eliminates the exemption under the Right to Know Law that protects threatened and endangered species location information from disclosure. This gives a virtual road map for poachers who will know exactly where to find these threatened and endangered species by simply filing a request under the Right to Know Law.

Despite all of these perfectly legitimate concerns, HB 1576 passes the Game and Fisheries Committee by a vote of 16-8 and now heads to the full House of Representatives for consideration. I was one of the eight “NO” votes.

An interesting note- the meeting in which we voted on the bill was attended by virtually every energy industry lobbyist in the Capitol. As they slapped themselves on the back in congratulations, it was disheartening to see how routine it has become to chip away at the ability of Pennsylvania’s strong heritage of outdoorsmen, sportsmen and nature enthusiasts so long as you have friends in the right places.

To get updates from state Rep. Jesse White, you can access his website here or “like” him on Facebook here.

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