"What's black and white and read all over?"

Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Posted 10:21 PM by

Pa. public pension plan doing just fine

I've got a nasty cold, so don't read this with an eye for cohesion. In fact, I openly admit today's post is purely stream of consciousness because I'm writing it under the influence of an over-the-counter drug cocktail. Deal with it or I'll cough on you.

State Employees' Retirement SystemYou can tell I'm on drugs because the first thing I'm going to do is praise - you heard me right - praise the folks running the State Employees' Retirement System. Somehow, they managed to reap a 17.2 percent rate of return last year, earning a whopping $5.2 billion.

Guess those investments in booze, oil, gambling and defense contractor stocks are paying off. Just kidding, the only thing squirrely on a list of the system's investments was just the name "Fidelity Real Estate Opportunistic Income Fund."

But if being oppportunistic pays, more power to 'em. How many of us in the private sector wish we could have done so well with our 401(k)s?

By having such a great year, the system now projects the taxpayers' share toward state employee retiree benefits will cost less than 8 percent of the state's payroll in 2012 - instead of the 28 percent forecasted just five years ago.

If you that forecast was fubared, just ask Philly Mayor Michael Nutter what he's facing thanks to the city's underfunded retirement plan.

Hell, I hope PHEAA hires a few of those SERS folks away. The huge egos over at the student-loan agency, which is suspending its federal loans, could not forsee the subprime mortgage crisis rocking the bond market too and now college students are paying the price. Duh!


This one must be brought to you by the same geniuses who thought it was cool to allow motorcyclists to drive without helmets and don't see a correlation with the resulting increase in brain damage and fatalities.

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board spokesman Nick Hays says the idea of mobile liquor stores is just one of several possibilities the agency is weighing to make wine and hard liquor more available in rural parts of the state, I kid you not.

Believe it or not, that was the best Hays could spin the idea Board chairman P.J. Stapleton mentioned during a Senate hearing on the PLCB's budget, Hays also noted it's not a priority for the agency.

What a state! We can't afford bookmobiles, additional funds for meals on wheels, and are reduced to art on a cart in some school districts, but we can afford to drive around the countryside delivering booze to doorsteps like the milkmen of old?

Money is so tight now, that Gov. Ed Rendell is selling half of his air force - if you can call a two-jet fleet that.

To save money, Fast Eddie want to sell the older and smaller of the two jets, a 1982 Beech King Air 200, for $1.3 million.


In a pair of hearings held in the state Capitol Wednesday, House Republicans criticized what they called weaknesses in the current slots law, while the Senate Appropriations Committee called on the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to defend its performance.

Some lawmakers who opposed the state's 2004 legalization of slot machines cited the perjury charges against Mount Airy Casino Resort owner Louis DeNaples as evidence.

"We all look funny with this," Sen. James J. Rhoades, R-Schuylkill, told gaming board members and staff. "Dealing with gaming, we have to be beyond any reproach."

Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, called it a "black mark" as he and other senators asked gaming board officials what changes should be made.

The board's own investigators believed DeNaples lied about his relationship with reputed mob boss Billy D'Elia, but couldn't prove it. They alerted the state police, who began investigating DeNaples, but did not tell the board. Nor did the board subpoena D'Elia before issuing a license to DeNaples on Dec. 21, 2006.


For more about Louis DeNaples and to read my complete take on this long-predicted Slotsylvania snafu, click here.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Posted 9:24 PM by

Preaching to the wrong choir in Slotsylvania

State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola.To state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, slot machine gambling preys on the poor, breeds destructive behavior and hurts local economies.

So, that's what the Republican from Dauphin County told leaders in the industry while delivering the keynote address today at the 4th annual Pennsylvania Gaming Congress & Mid-Atlantic Racing Forum in Harrisburg.

An outspoken critic of the state law legalizing slot machines in Pennsylvania, Piccola was chosen after Gaming Control Board Chairwoman Mary DiGiacomo Colins withdrew in protest to the event's sponsor, Spectrum Gaming Group of New Jersey.

Fred Gushin, CEO of Spectrum, told The Morning Call of Allentown last year that the control board's licensing of applicants was "an overtly political process instead of an exercise in regulatory control. It was a disaster in the making."

And Piccola hammered that point home to the casino operators and suppliers today, saying, "The process is inherently flawed if the staff that you are relying on for accurate information does not have direct access to the information that it so desperately needs."

He was referring to privately hired investigators who did the background check on now-indicted slots parlor owner Louis DeNaples, but never named him specifically.

The investigators believed DeNaples lied about his relationship with reputed mob boss Billy D'Elia, but couldn't prove it. They alerted the state police, who began investigating DeNaples, but did not tell the board. Nor did the board subpoena D'Elia before issuing a license to DeNaples on Dec. 21, 2006.

DeNaples maintains his innocence. "The facts are that the (bureau) and the board investigated Mr. DeNaples for nearly 2,000 hours before finding him suitable for a license," DeNaples spokesman Kevin Feeley told the Citizens Voice on Monday. "Now after the fact, it's become fashionable to use Mr. DeNaples as a scapegoat."

But Piccola told the crowd of about 100 today, "I'm here to tell you that a legislative response to this present controversy is inevitable. Many of you are going to pay the price if we don't do it over."

Among other proposed reforms, Piccola wants to put the state Attorney General's office in charge of licensing applicants so that office can utilize information in law enforcement hands.

To see a video of his speech in Windows Media Player, click here.


The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority decided two weeks ago to suspend loans made outside the state through the Federal Family Education Loan Program, but didn't announce it until this afternoon.

The agency will soon send out notices to colleges and universities that it will suspend in-state loans effective March 7, acting president and chief executive officer James Preston told lawmakers.

"Right now, it's not profitable for us at all to finance (FFELP) loans," Preston told a House committee during a hearing on the agency's budget. He cited the subprime mortgage mess and chaos in the bond market for making the loans too expensive.

Instead, the agency will steer prospective borrowers to banks that are still participating in the $50 billion program. PHEAA provides federally subsidized, low-cost student loans to about 500,000 Pennsylvania students annually.

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Friday, February 22, 2008
Posted 11:55 PM by

Follow-up Friday: Everything's connected in Slotsylvania


Look who's floundering now.First, they blew $7.5 million on executive bonuses, $2.2 million on promotional swag, $800,000 on lavish trips for themselves, and $108,000 renting out HersheyPark for a day, claiming they deserved the perks for doing such a good job.

Then, they fought three media outlets who sought to prove their out-of-control spending, paying lawyers $409,413 to battle the legitimate requests for public records all the way up to the state Supreme Court.

Now, the lawmaker-dominated board which runs the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority (PHEAA) - the largest provider of college loans and grants to students in the state - is crying poverty and plans to lobby federal officials for help with a "looming crisis in funding for student loans."

On the plus side, at least its chairman, state Rep. Bill Adolph (R-Delaware County), said last week his agency won't appeal a Commonwealth Court decision saying it must now reimburse the media's $48,000 in legal fees. "We're going to pay the bill and move on," Adolph said.

If it can afford to.

PHEAA's board held an "emergency" summit Thursday which blamed the nation's subprime mortgage mess, and its resulting credit crunch, for the "failed auctions" of student debt it has experienced recently in the bond market for the first time in its history.

The authority's bond market woes are "substantially increasing its cost of borrowing and putting its ability to fund additional student loans at risk," Adolph said in a press release Thursday.

The agency doled out 162,502 awards in 2006-07, with students receiving an average of $3,135. The agency has declined to estimate next year's awards because of the credit problems.

"As many Americans face foreclosure on their homes, millions of college students may now face foreclosure on their plans for a higher education," Adolph said. "We must act quickly and we must act now - before our students are caught in a painful student aid funding crunch that could put their college plans financially out of reach."

He said the summit came up with a plan to ask the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, the U.S. Secretary of Education, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and the President of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh for help.

I kid you not.

Like they even have time to notice right now with the rest of the U.S. economy spiraling down the toilet.

The plea for help came from the same arrogant agency that claimed it could do no wrong just last year, and whose own board member, state Sen. Vince Fumo (D-Philadelphia), had the audacity last month to accuse Auditor General Jack Wagner of playing politics with the state's first-ever audit of PHEAA.

Much like the authority he helps run, Fumo is now flat on his back or ample gut after undergoing lumbar fusion surgery on Tuesday. He did not attend the summit.


Sure, he's under federal indictment for allegedly extorting $17 million from PECO for a non-profit agency in his district and then trying to cover it up.

And it's more than a little mysterious that the city lost its property tax file on his $6 million Fairmount Place mansion sometime over the last two decades, letting him pay just $6,611 a year in property taxes instead of $165,000 annually.

But if the Vince of Darkness does stand for re-election on April 22, he may not have much to fear from self-termed "reform" candidate Lawrence M. Farnese Jr..

Farnese, a Philly attorney, submitted voter petitions with 1,800 signatures last week to run for office, however, hundreds of them were in the same handwriting - obviously forgeries, according to today's Philadelphia Daily News.

This from the same guy who promised a small group of supporters this week, "When I get to Harrisburg, transparent and accountable government is going to be one of the main priorities that I work on, right from Day One."

Not a great start. But hey, at least none of the forgeries came from dead people. That's an improvement right there.

Still, another Democratic rival John J. Dougherty, business manager of the Local 98 electricians union, sponsored a lawsuit this week challenging Farnese's petitions in Commonwealth Court. No word yet on whether Fumo and another Democratic candidate, community activist Anne Dicker will join the suit.

A total of 228 legislative seats - all 203 House seats and half of the 50 seats in the Senate - are up for grabs this year. And Farnese, a newcomer, isn't the only one in hot water over petitions.

There also were petition challenges to at least five incumbent state lawmakers: Rep. Frank Andrews Shimkus (D-Lackawanna County), Rep. Mauree A. Gingrich (R-Lebanon), Rep. Harold James (D-Philadelphia), Rep. Thomas W. Blackwell IV (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Tony Payton Jr. (D-Philadelphia), according to the Associated Press.

James was accused of improperly signing petitions. He claimed he circulated them personally, but voters have said someone else had been circulating the petitions.

As majority chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, James has also been holding up legislation that could reform the state's seven slots parlors before the next seven open their doors.


As I wrote on Wednesday, one of James' biggest contributors over the years was former state Rep. Mike Veon, an outspoken advocate of gambling expansion in the state who wanted riverboast gambling legalized when he was in office.

In addition to being architects of the slots bill, Veon and House Floor Leader H. William DeWeese were the only two representatives to vote against repealing the 2005 legislative pay raise.

Veon, a former Democratic whip, got cracked when he lost his re-election bid in the fall of 2006, despite spending $2 million, and is now one of the 843 registered lobbyists roaming the halls in Harrisburg.

To help retire the rest of Veon's campaign debt, the House Democratic Campaign Committee gave him a total of $40,683 in November and December, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"I don't think it's appropriate for the campaign committee to be doing that," state Rep. Dan Frankel, (D-Pittsburgh), who is co-chairman of its fund-raising committee, told the newspaper. "The function of the campaign committee is to help elect Democrats; that's our mission, and I'm not sure this action helps advance that."

But state Rep. Todd Eachus (D-Luzerne County) said, "This is a decision I made and I stand by it. I would do the same thing for Dan Frankel if he lost tomorrow."

Lame-duck Gov. Ed Rendell has also given Veon $5,000 from his remaining $2.25 million in campaign funds.

Here's where things get fun.

Fast Eddie has been facing mounting criticism - including at least one call for his impeachment - for failing to get property tax reform passed in the Legislature. His inability to do so, just like the governors before him, has led me to call for mandated property tax reassessments statewide in order to prevent more tax cases like Fumo's and to correct long-ignored inequities.

Rendell's office this week quietly floated the idea of providing statewide property tax cuts averaging $185 per homeowner this summer out of the state's 55 percent rake from slots gambling, even though no such plan has been approved by the Legislature.

The move drew immediate derision from some lawmakers, including state Rep. Nick Kotik (D-Coraopolis), who said, "I don't think 185 bucks will make anyone happy. But it's the old story that something is better than nothing."

Expect calls to further expand gambling at the slots parlors to table games - thereby providing more tax relief - to begin this spring. And there's already a bill, H.B. 2121 penned by DeWeese, sitting in James' oversight committee to do just that.

"We started with slot machines and now we should complete the job because there is no practical difference between putting $10 in a slot machine and putting $10 on a blackjack or poker table," DeWeese said way back in 2005.

Once that happens, Slotsylvania may become known as Pai-Gow-Pennsy.

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Friday, February 15, 2008
Posted 8:44 PM by

Three for follow-up Friday

I hope this will become a continuing feature on The Daily Rant on Fridays, so I can empty my mind and my notebook of some incremental changes in stories I'm following.

Tad Decker finally gets it!

Tad DeckerIn a letter to the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer on Thursday, former Slotsylvania Gaming Board Chairman Tad Decker once again blames the state police for failing to turn over a transcript of an FBI wiretap before he and others unanimously approved a license for now-indicted slots parlor owner Louis DeNaples.

"By letter of Dec. 20, 2006, state police Commissioner Col. Jeffrey Miller advised the board that it was in a position to determine the suitability of all applicants, including Louis DeNaples, even though the state police now admit it knew at the time this statement was untrue," Decker wrote. "The state police's misrepresentation violated the act and its agreements with the board and the governor's office and did a terrible disservice to the commonwealth's citizens."

Decker later told the Associated Press, "Because of what (the state police) did, it was an embarrassment of issuing a license to someone who potentially - potentially - may have done something wrong in the process."

DeNaples now faces eight counts of perjury after a Dauphin County grand jury found that he lied to both them and the gaming board about his alleged ties to organized crime.

"Their own agents thought he was lying," Bruce Edwards, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, shot back in an article in today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Personally, I don't care what the state police letter said or about its pissing match with the control board, which hired private investigators instead of letting troopers handle the background investigations of slots parlor license applicants.

There was plenty of anecdotal evidence in the public domain (namely DeNaples' 1976 federal felony and his name appearing in Pennsylvania Crime Commission reports) tying DeNaples to reputed and indicted Northeastern Pennsylvania mob boss Billy D'Elia. DeNaples also gave at least $115,000 in political contributions to Decker's "close friend," Gov. Ed Rendell.

That alone should have given Decker and the rest of the board pause before they embarrassed the state.

By the way, it was Rendell who appointed Decker, a Philadelphia attorney, to both the board and the chairmanship and it was Rendell who later defended him against allegations that Decker too had a conflict of interest with another slots parlor applicant.

In other Slotsylvania casino news:

  • New Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told reporters Friday that his city budget does not count on any revenue from any of the seven slots parlots now operating within the state.

    "We know it's out there," Nutter said. "It's not in our pocket so we're not counting it."

    That's prudent plannning Mr. Mayor and I applaud you for it, even though part of that money is supposed to be used eventually to lower Philly's wage tax.

  • State Senator Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin County) will deliver the keynote address at the 4th annual Pennsylvania Gaming Congress & Mid-Atlantic Racing Forum, February 25-26 at the Whitaker Center and Harrisburg Hilton.

    Piccola, a member of the senate's Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee, unsuccessfully threatened to shut down the state amid budget talks last year while trying to reform the slots parlor law.

    Mary DiGiacomo ColinsGaming Board Chairwoman and former Philly judge Mary DiGiacomo Colins was supposed to deliver that address. However, she withdrew after the CEO of the event's sponsor, Fred Gushin of Spectrum Gaming Group of New Jersey, openly criticized the board's licensing process.

    Gushin told The Morning Call of Allentown in September that the control board's licensing of applicants was "an overtly political process instead of an exercise in regulatory control. It was a disaster in the making."

  • Monthly casino revenue was down 10 percent in January in Atlantic City, marking the 12th month out of the last 13 that revenues have fallen, the Associated Press reported this week. Last year was the first in the 30-year history of A.C. casino gambling that revenues decreased from the previous year.

N.J. student loan agency gets a monitor, freespending PHEAA doesn't.

New Jersey Attorney General Ann Milgram has appointed an independent monitor to watchover the state's Higher Education Student Assistance Authority after a state investigation found troublesome lending practices, including the steering of students to Sallie Mae loans.

HESAA and 41 New Jersey colleges have also agreed that their financial aid officers will no longer take gifts from loan companies. Milgram said gifts in the past have given some lenders an unfair inside track.

No one knows if that is happening across the river, but we may know by June when state Auditor Gener Jack Wagner is expected to complete his first-ever audit of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority.

PHEAA has spent millions over the years rewarding its executives with hefty bonuses, expensive trips for its lawmaker-dominated board and even renting all of HersheyPark for a day. Yet, despite Rendell calling it "a disaster" and threatening to privatize the authority, only internal changes have been made.

Pink pig dreams deflated.

Gene StilpGovernment reform activist Gene Stilp, who became famous for floating a giant inflatable pink pig in Harrisburg after the 2005 legislative pay raise, has ended his candidacy for the 104th state House seat in Dauphin County, citing personal reasons.

Last Friday, Stilp, 57, of Middle Paxton Township, said "emerging family health issues" would keep him from devoting the necessary time to his campaign to unseat incumbent state Rep. Sue Helm.

My thoughts are with him and his family.

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Monday, February 11, 2008
Posted 11:13 PM by

Who pays the cost for hiding public records in Pennsylvania?

Read this entire blog post and find out from just one example!

PHEAAHere's some irony and a valuable lesson for you.

On Monday, the same day the state House "publicly debated" and approved an update to the state's weak 50-year-old Open Records law after ironing out its kinks behind closed doors for days, the Associated Press reported that a judge ruled the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority (PHEAA) must repay three media outlets $48,000 in legal fees for refusing reporters records that were supposed to be public under the old law.

Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner ruled Friday that PHEAA acted willfully and with wanton disregard to the state's Open Records law - otherwise known as the Right-to-Know Law - in a battle over spending records, including those about PHEAA's lavish board retreats.

The judge found there was no legitimate reason for PHEAA to delay access to the records for 20 months, which the quasi-public student loan and grant agency claimed were "trade secrets."

Yawning yet? Wait. It gets better from here, much better. I promise.

Just who are these no-accounts, these trough hogs, these abusers of public trust on PHEAA'S board who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at posh resorts between 2000 and 2005 - money that could have helped worthy students pay for college?

Why they're some of the same state representatives who suddenly voted tonight - a full day earlier than expected - to send the Open Records bill back to the state Senate, where much of a 13-month delay previously occurred.

In case you didn't know, the PHEAA board is made up mostly of state lawmakers, including: Rep. William F. Adolph Jr. (R-Springfield), its chairman; Sen. Sean Logan (D-Monroeville), its vice chairman; Rep. Ronald I. Buxton (Harrisburg), Rep. Ronald I. Buxton (D-Harrisburg), Sen. Jake Corman (R-Bellfonte), former state Sen. J. Doyle Corman (Jake's father), Rep. Craig A. Dally (D-Nazareth), Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (D-Exton), Sen. Jane M. Earll (R-Erie), Sen. Edwin B. Erickson (R-Newtown Square), Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Pittsburgh), Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D-Philadelphia), Sen. Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia), Rep. Sandra J. Major (R-Montrose), Rep. Jennifer L. Mann (D-Allentown), former Rep. Roy Reinard (Holland), Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr. (D-Philadelphia), state Banking Secretary A. William Schenck III, Rep. Jess M. Stairs (R-Acme), Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson (R-Bensalem), and state Education Secretary and ex-officio Penn State trustee Gerald L. Zahorchak.

How bad do things have to get before Gov. Ed Rendell declares publicly, "It's a disaster. We have to totally re-evaluate PHEAA. I think we have to clean house and establish a new culture."

(I could say the same thing about the entire Legislature, the state Supreme Court and the governor himself, but I digress.) Rendell's threat to PHEAA came March 14, 2007.

In response, the PHEAA board issued a press release March 22, vowing it would change.

On April 20, the board issued another press release saying it had adopted a code of ethics that "formalizes longstanding policies and practices that have helped PHEAA's public service mission to always stay focused, first and foremost, on the students' best interests in all business dealings."

But on Aug. 24, Rendell again threatened to privatize the agency - or, at the very least, restrict how it spends money and consider replacing board members - after the board handed out bonuses as high as $180,857 to top PHEAA executives.

On Oct. 10, PHEAA CEO Dick Willey resigned in disgrace - two months earlier than he planned - and less than a week after preliminary findings of the first-ever state audit of PHEAA showed the board had given out $7.5 million in executive bonuses in just three years.

State Auditor General Jack Wagner also found that PHEAA had rented Hersheypark for a day in April, providing free rides and food for employees and their guests, at a total expense of $108,000. The deal to lease the amusement park was signed just one day after PHEAA's board issued its news release promising to tighten expenses.

Senator Logan, vice-chairman of PHEAA's board, claims the board members knew nothing about the staff outing and admits he demanded Willey resign immediately.

I couldn't find an explanation for why Logan simply didn't call an emergency meeting of the board and fire Willey's ass on the spot, because he didn't just walk away empty-handed.

Willey took his $370,000 annual pension with him. His predecessor, PHEAA founder Michael Hershock, retired from the authority at the end of 2002 with a $222,173 yearly state pension plus a $321,409 lump sum payment. Yet, he was also still drawing a $147,000 salary from PHEAA in 2006, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review found.

How did the board react to all this?

In October it started cutting back - on its own mission - by reducing the number of grants given to full-time students and for financial aid to adults taking job-training classes. It blamed a new federal law governing student lenders and unsettled financial markets for a projected $44.4 million reduction in spending on the aid programs in 2008-09, down from $105.8 million this year.

The board then issued a press release on Jan. 24 claiming PHEAA is now in "99.5% compliance with new, stricter spending policies."

That led Senator Fumo - who also happens to be under federal indictment for allegedly extorting $17 million from PECO Energy for a non-profit group in his district and then allegedly covering it up - to vehemently claim penny pinching by the PHEAA board was now hurting its efforts to gain funding for student loans and grants.

"I think the auditor general should be ashamed for trying to run a political campaign on the backs of the students of this commonwealth," Fumo charged.

Wagner, who is seeking re-election this year and is considered a potential candidate for governor in 2010, denied Fumo's allegation without laughing too loudly. His audit won't be complete until June.

This now bring us all the way back to that $48,000 the judge ruled PHEAA now owes to Pittsburgh TV station WTAE-TV, the Patriot-News of Harrisburg and the Associated Press.

Under the old law, PHEAA's board members cannot be held individually liable for their decision to deny the public records which sparked the 20-month legal fight and the resulting investigations. But the board was legally able to sue reporters seeking the information personally in hopes of blocking their requests.

Instead, the money to repay the media's legal costs will likely come out of PHEAA's operating budget - hurting students even more - or from errors and omissions insurance, if the board had the wisdom to take out such a policy.

I've long advocated that any change in the Open Records law must hold public officials personally liable for such denials so taxpayers don't get stuck with the bill or paying higher insurance premiums for governmental agencies.

But guess what the new Open Records bill - Senate Bill 1 - doesn't say?

S.B. 1 could be on Gov. Ed Rendell's desk by the end of the day tomorrow, even though Common Cause of Pennsylvania has withdrawn support for it, arguing the bill is too weak and has a built-in conflict of interest.

Pennsylvania Newspaper Association lobbyist Deb Musselman told the AP her organization was withholding judgment, particularly because of a last-minute addition that would deny access to records identifying the names, home addresses or dates of birth of children 17 or younger

Although legislative records would be fully covered under the Open Records bill for the first time, the reason House leaders could meet in secret over the last five days to discuss changing the bill is that the Legislature is still the only state agency exempt from the state's 34-year-old Open Meetings Act or Sunshine Law while meeting in caucus.

That's progress, Pennsylvania-style, folks.

Or as Patriot-News Executive Editor David Newhouse told the AP, "We can only hope that the new Right-to-Know Law will make it so the average citizen doesn't have to pay $50,000 and take a case to the Supreme Court to get information that they have a right to in the first place."

One final thought.

Given the revelations contained within the 13,470 pages of records the three media outlets had to sue PHEAA in appellate courts to obtain, all they've won so far is their money back, no real public thanks - and possibly a three-way share in a Pulitzer Prize.

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Friday, January 25, 2008
Posted 10:49 PM by

Feds to PHEAA: You owe us $15 million

Did PHEAA purposely screw the Feds out of $15 million?One day after a high-ranking state senator blasted a state audit of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency's books as merely political grandstanding, federal regulators claimed in a letter Friday that the quasi-public student loan group owes the government $15 million.

It could have been worse.

PHEAA could have been on the line for $35 million, but the U.S. Department of Education rejected part of the findings of an audit conducted by its own Office of the Inspector General.

Federal regulations allow lenders to receive federal subsidies for student loans funded by tax-exempt bonds issued before Oct. 1, 1993. The department estimates that PHEAA overbilled the government $15 million between October 2004 and September 2006 for loans that were refinanced with taxable and ineligible tax-exempt bonds, wrote Patricia Trubia of the Federal Student Aid office wrote in her letter to PHEAA.

PHEAA has 30 days to respond. Although the agency has been negotiating repayment since a separate review by the DOE in 2006, PHEAA spokesman Keith New denied any wrongdoing. "We have steadfastly always followed department guidelines," he said.

That still doesn't explain why the agency:

  • Spent $2.2 million over five years on promotional giveaways.

  • Gave out $7.5 million in employee bonuses since July 2004.

  • Spent $108,000 on a single amusement park outing and an untold amount for travel by its legislator-dominated board.

"The going out ... and entertaining and marketing brought this agency a ton of money," state Sen. Vincent Fumo said during the board's monthly meeting on Thursday, charging an ongoing review by state Audior General Jack Wagner is a political stunt.

One day later, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said he hoped the enforcement letter was a sign the Education Department "is finally starting to take its role as the steward of our nation's federal student aid programs seriously."

Two similar federal audits have focused on how lenders have profited from the government's promise in the 1980s to guarantee a return of 9.5 percent on student loans financed by tax-exempt bonds. The government made that pledge at a time when interest rates were high, and it had to pay lenders the interest that was not covered by students.

When interest rates dropped, the practice sent billions of dollars in government payments to PHEAA and other lenders. Congress has more recently enacted legislation intended to phase out the subsidy.

A year ago, the Education Department issued a press release announcing it had reached a settlement with the student lender National Education Loan Network [Nelnet] regarding such loans.

"As part of the settlement announced today, the Department will end SAP payments at the 9.5 percent floor rate on those loans challenged in the IG's report. Other lenders also will not receive payments at the 9.5 percent floor rate until they can demonstrate that their loans come from eligible sources of funds," the press release says.


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Thursday, January 24, 2008
Posted 8:07 PM by

Fumo fuming over PHEAA audit

Oh Vinnie, go fight your corruption charges and leave the state auditors alone at PHEAA. You guys blew millions there.State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, D-Philadelphia, defended the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency's spending on business travel, entertainment and promotions Thursday, claiming it all helped boost the quasi-public agency's revenues.

PHEAA blew about $2.2 million over five years on promotional giveaways, such as logo-enscribed golf balls, pencils, clothing and reusable glowing ice cubes, according to a Harrisburg Patriot-News report last year.

That's the equivalent of about 553 of the $4,000 grants available to students attending state universities, or 885 of the $2,500 community college grants.

After the the promotional gifts, $7.5 million in employee bonuses since July 2004 and $108,000 spent on an amusement park outing became public knowledge last year, the head of PHEAA was forced out and state Auditor General Jack Wagner began auditing the agency.

Despite the lavish spending, members of PHEAA's lawmaker-dominated board have been unapologetic to say the least, even as they moved to reduce the number of grants given to full-time college students and financial aid to adults taking job-training classes by $44.4 million this year.

That's down from the $105.8 million they gave out to students and adults in 2007-08. Instead of taking the blame, the board cited a new federal law governing student lenders and unsettled financial markets for the funding cuts.

And on Thursday, Fumo had the balls to accuse Wagner of conducting the audit to garner political points, even though his probe won't be completed until June.

"The going out ... and entertaining and marketing brought this agency a ton of money," Fumo said during the board's monthly meeting. "I think the auditor general should be ashamed for trying to run a political campaign on the backs of the students of this commonwealth."

Wagner is seeking re-election this year and is considered a potential candidate for governor in 2010. He issued a press release through his office spokesman that said, "This is a professional audit that we undertook to make sure that PHEAA was fulfilling its mission of making college more affordable to Pennsylvania students,"

Meanwhile, Fumo is still awaiting trial on wide-ranging federal corruption charges that he used his high-ranking position in the Legislature to extort $17 million in donations from PECO (formerly the Philadelphia Electric Co.) to a non-profit agency the senator allegedly controlled.

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