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The power of the state attorney general to tackle public corruption would be greatly expanded under a legislative proposal stemming from a state investigation into the large public debt racked up through financing deals at Harrisburg’s trash incinerator.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers plan to introduce a bill giving the attorney general authority to investigate and prosecute county, city, and municipal officials and employees for public corruption. Under current law, the attorney general can only prosecute public corruption cases of state officials and employees under certain circumstances. This occurs when county district attorneys refer a case because they have a conflict of interest or lack adequate resources to pursue it.

A state grand jury issued a report last month wrapping up a state investigation of incinerator deals that led up to $300 million in debt during the tenure of former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed. The investigation was launched followed a referral from Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico.

The grand jury recommended no criminal charges in the incinerator case citing a statute of limitations that expired in 2015. However, the grand jury made recommendations to change state laws to help protect municipal taxpayers from excessive debt in the future. These include expanding the attorney general’s prosecuting power to include local officials and extending the statute of limitations to cover wrongdoing discovered after an official leaves office.

The referral system often causes “undesirable delay” in pursuing criminal charges, the grand jury said.

The grand jury report gave momentum to senators who have pushed to enact stronger municipal debt laws since 2013 in response to the incinerator controversy. They have now gained allies in the House who plan to introduce companion bills.

Under the powers bill, the attorney general could prosecute local officials when state laws are violated, said Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna, the sponsor. Federal prosecutors have jurisdiction to prosecute local officials for violations of federal laws in such areas as mail fraud and bribery and extortion.

The legislation to expand the attorney general’s power comes after the elective office weathered a series of controversies leading to the conviction of former Attorney General Kathleen Kane for leaking grand jury information to a reporter and lying about it to another grand jury and her resignation from office last summer.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro said this week he strongly supports having the additional prosecuting authority. He also noted he’s seeking a $500,000 increase to strengthen the office’s Public Corruption Unit in the fiscal 2017-18 state budget.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, said he would take a close look at what he described as giving the attorney general “super power” to investigate local officials.

The attorney general’s office would need a larger budget if that power was granted, said Harrisburg attorney Water Cohen, a one-time acting attorney general.

“The question here is whether the General Assembly, if it expands the jurisdiction of the OAG, will give the office the necessary resources to actually conduct such additional investigations and prosecutions, which can be very complicated and time-consuming,” wrote Cohen.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association will probably take a position on the legislation.

 

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Democrat Katie McGinty, made it through to the general election,ending Joe Sestak’s hope of a rematch of the 2010 contest.

McGinty, who just two years ago placed last in the gubernatorial primary, received financial support and endorsements from organized labor, Democratic-aligned groups, and the party’s senatorial campaign arm, trounced former U.S. Rep. Sestak, the party’s U.S. Senate nominee in 2010, according to unofficial results with nearly 99 percent of Pennsylvania’s statewide precincts reporting.

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, an outsider whose politics aligned with presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, said he had an impressive showing considering “we’ve been outspent 15-to-1.” McGinty will face incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.

Sestak, who rebuffed Democratic Party leaders in 2010 and defeated the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter but then lost to Toomey, eschewed traditional support this time around.

In another heated primary, Democratic and Republican voters tapped politicians over prosecutors as their standard-bearers to replace Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro defeated Allegheny County D.A. Stephen Zappala Jr. and Northampton County D.A. John Morganelli. Shapiro will face fellow Montgomery Countian, Sen. John Rafferty, who defeated former federal prosecutor Joe Peters, in November.

Shapiro and Rafferty, who did work for the Office of Attorney General from 1988 to 1991 primarily investigating and prosecuting Medicaid fraud, both pledged to clean up the Office of Attorney General following Kane’s turbulent tenure.

As expected, Democrat Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders by a wide, double-digit margin. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump ran away with the popular vote over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

For Trump, the popular vote secures 17 of Pennsylvania’s 71 GOP delegates. And of the other 54 unbound delegates that were up for election (three delegate slots available in each of the state’s 18 congressional districts), it appears at least half of those elected are backing Trump (maybe as many as 31).

Congress

State Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia defeated long-time incumbent U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah in a four-way primary race by more than 10,000 votes. The district, which covers Philadelphia and parts of Montgomery County, is predominantly Democratic.

In the 16th congressional district, state Sen. Lloyd Smucker defeated Chet Beiler in the Republican bid to replace U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts.

In the 8th congressional district, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick’s brother, Brian, won a three-way primary race. Rep. Fitzpatrick isn’t seeking re-election. He’ll face State Rep. Steve Santarsiero, who defeated Shaughnessy Naughton.

In the 9th district, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster defeated Art Halverson.

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MedicalCannabis

After several impassioned appeals, the state House of Representatives gave its overwhelming approval to legislation establishing a system to produce and dispense medical marijuana for certain medical conditions on March 16.

The 149-43 vote sends the legislation back to the Senate. If changes are made in the Senate, it’s unclear when the House would take up the measure again.

Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, the prime sponsor and a top legislative advocate for medical marijuana, said he was “very grateful” for the House lawmakers who supported the legislation. Now, he said the House amendments will be reviewed to make sure the legislation “works for patients.”

Senate Bill 3 would allow 50 dispensaries to have up to three separate locations, meaning potentially 150 places where patients could obtain medical marijuana after receiving a certification from a physician.

The legislation’s list of a “serious medical condition” includes cancer, epilepsy, autism, sickle cell anemia, intractable seizures, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, severe chronic and intractable pain of neuropathic origin, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies and Huntington’s disease.

In one stirring plea, Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, spoke about his diagnosis with a hereditary form of cancer. After an operation and with nearly 50 staples in his stomach, he refused his friend’s offer of medical marijuana oil to help increase his appetite, he said. He said he refused to take it because he had to “live what I preached” as a state representative. The thought of the pain his daughters might have to suffer if they were struck with the inheritable disease drove him to support the legislation.

“I want them to have access to comfort that I did not have,” he said as his voice cracked.

Rep. Mike Regan, R-York, said he had “a moral obligation” to vote for the legislation, adding that “my faith tells me that this is the moral, compassionate, right thing to do.”

Much of the opposition to the legislation touched on caution from the medical community, fear of drug proliferation, and legal issues. Responding to the emotional pleas, Rep. Chris Dush, R-Jefferson, said “let’s connect the heart to the head and do this right.”

House Health Committee Chairman Matt Baker, R-Tioga, who has led the opposition in the House, said he found it “astounding” that the chamber was going to dismiss the opinions from the medical community, which supports more research.

“As the Health chairman, I think the combined professional opinions of the medical community should mean something,” Baker said. “Their opinions should not be marginalized…My goodness, we’re talking about medicine here.”

House GOP Whip Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said he was concerned that approval of the bill would lead to confusion with federal enforcement agencies as well as potential conflicts with a variety of other state laws.

Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, said he was concerned the legislation could lead to proliferation of drug use.

Under SB3, patients wouldn’t be allowed to smoke medical marijuana. Dispensaries could sell it as a pill, oil, topical form, or forms for a medically-approved administration of vaporization or nebulization, tincture and liquid. It could not be sold in edible form, but patients would be able to incorporate it into food to aid ingestion.

A 5-percent tax on growers and producers would help fund research at universities and hospitals, and be used to offset costs for patients who can’t afford medical marijuana. The Department of Health and an advisory board would oversee the program, including creating regions so patients would have access to the drug. The board would, among other tasks, determine whether to expand or reduce the number of dispensaries and the list of applicable medical conditions.

If approved, Pennsylvania will join 23 states and the District of Columbia in legalizing a medical marijuana program.

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