Pa.’s got plenty of 2020 election lawsuits: An Update

Ethics fine for ex-Luzerne elections official

  • Emily Previti
Join our partners at WITF tomorrow at 7 p.m. for the fourth in a series of virtual conversations about systemic racism and injustice. More sessions are planned this summer, each featuring community leaders and focused on specific manifestations of institutional racism. Thursday’s discussion will explore racial inequality in housing, including access to home ownership and gentrification. Sign up to attend the free event here. — Emily Previti, staff writer

Courtesy Election Systems & Software

An electronic poll book manufactured by Election Systems & Software.

The state Ethics Commission has ordered Luzerne County’s former elections director, Marisa Crispell, to pay $4,000 in fines and investigation costs for failing to disclose her relationship with Election Systems & Software before the company landed a $325,000 election equipment contract from the county.

Crispell’s correspondence with ES&S about the county’s potential transition to electronic pollbooks overlapped with her tenure on the company’s advisory board — during which she went on an ES&S-sponsored trip to Las Vegas, according to the ethics commission’s report.

Her relationship with the company spurred an investigation by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s office that turned up gifts from vendors reported by officials in 17 other counties.

Sanctions against Crispell (now working at the elections division in Orange County, Fla.) were announced Monday, 18 months after DePasquale published his findings and referred them to the state Ethics Commission.

Is there more to come from the ethics commission regarding other officials in DePasquale’s report?

Maybe not, according to what I was told by Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Caruso.

First, it’s important to remember that Caruso can’t say anything about anything that’s under investigation. But he said Crispell’s conduct was the most egregious of anything highlighted in DePasquale’s report.

Caruso also explained the commission’s standard for issuing violations, etc., is mainly monetary — and most other financial disclosures highlighted in DePasquale’s report seem like they wouldn’t meet the threshold for action. Generally, if a public official’s gain doesn’t exceed $500, the commission won’t issue a violation, he said.

“It’s not specifically spelled out” in statute or guidelines, Caruso said. “But that’s the standard that the investigative unit I run looks for.”

Several other Pennsylvania election lawsuits are pending in state and federal court. Here’s where they stand: 

  • President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign filed a lawsuit that’s been fast-tracked by U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan. Pa.’s 67 counties, the Department of State, and interveners such as the ACLU of Pa., Pennsylvania Democratic Party and NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference submitted motions to dismiss Monday. But on Monday, Trump’s attorneys filed an amended complaint. That prompted the judge to ask the Trump lawyers to provide a document highlighting the changes so that the state, counties and others can retool and resubmit their motions by Friday.

  • Trump’s campaign also has filed to intervene in Commonwealth Court lawsuits over Pennsylvania election procedures filed recently by the state Democratic Party and NAACP conference — but not the case filed by the Pennsylvania Alliance of Retired Americans (at least not yet).

  • A separate federal lawsuit filed against Allegheny and Philadelphia collar counties by Judicial Watch over voter roll maintenance likely will languish until after the election. U.S. District Judge Christpoher Conner, an Obama-era appointee, filed a case schedule Monday and the first deadline isn’t until Dec. 1.

  • You might recall that the National Association of the Blind of Pennsylvania secured a preliminary injunction less than a week before the primary that provided visually impaired voters who’d already been approved for a mailed ballot the means to complete and print their ballot at home. Now, the state Attorney General’s office wants U.S. District Judge Jennifer P. Wilson to end the case because DoS is close to clearing a remote ballot-marking system for use in the general election by all visually imparied voters. That system doesn’t allow voters to submit ballots electronically, however, and that likely will prove a sticking point for the plaintiffs.

  • Speaking of voting technology: The controversial ExpressVote XL touchscreen device survived a federal court challenge that came to a head earlier this year. But the XL still faces a lawsuit filed in state court. Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson on June 16 denied the National Election Defense Coalition’s request to expedite the case. Sources involved with the case say they’re regrouping this week to determine whether they have any moves left to play — but it’s probably the court’s move next.

Related: 

Best of the rest

Matt Smith for WITF/PA Post

President Donald Trump speaks during a 2020 campaign rally Dec. 10, 2019, at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for WITF/PA Post)

  • Pennsylvania isn’t in the bag for Joe Biden. The Philadelphia Inquirer notes that President Trump enjoys one big advantage: “President Donald Trump and Joe Biden aren’t competing for the same composition of voters who won Trump the state four years ago. And despite Trump’s eroded political standing at the moment, at least in terms of which voters are joining which party, there’s good news for the GOP: Registration shifts across the state show Republicans are gaining voters at five times the rate of Democrats.”

  • Owners of bars and restaurants say the state mandate capping seating at 25 percent of capacity makes it impossible for them to make money, much less cover their costs. “At this point, it just makes more sense to not be open,” one Derry Township owner told PennLive this week. The head of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association told legislators Tuesday that Gov. Tom Wolf’s tough coronavirus restrictions could result in 7,500 restaurants and bars permanently closing statewide this year.

  • Pa. Health Secretary Rachel Levine on Tuesday called out critics who’ve taken to making transphobic attacks on her. “While these individuals may think that they are only expressing their displeasure with me, they are, in fact, hurting the thousands of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians who suffer directly from these current demonstrations of harassment,” Levine said at a news briefing. “I have no room in my heart for hatred. And frankly, I do not have time for intolerance.” Spotlight PA’s Sara Simon has the story.

  • It could take months for the state to update its unemployment compensation system if Congress decides to means test benefits for expanded compensation, Secretary of Labor and Industry Jerry Oleksiak said during a press call on Monday. Congress is currently considering what to do about extending the expanded benefit, which expires at the end of this month. Republicans have argued the expanded benefits provide a reverse incentive, with the extra $600 per week meaning that some people make more on unemployment than they would working, while Democrats have argued the benefits are an important cushion for working families. As The Washington Post reported Monday, Republicans favor reducing the benefit to $200 per week for two months (to give states time to adjust their unemployment compensation systems) and then 70% of employees’ salaries before they lost their jobs. That type of plan, Oleksiak said Monday, could require the state to revisit millions of existing claims. Even if Congress decides to change the amount from $600 to another flat figure, that could cause delays. “We will do what we need to do,” said Oleksiak, “but the time required is really going to depend on what the final legislation looks like.”

  • “Public health and environmental activists are urging Pennsylvania officials to close what they say are loopholes in a proposed rule that would require oil and gas producers to sharply reduce emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds,” StateImpact Pennsylvania reports.

  • Reuters published a big investigation on Tuesday into the use of facial recognition technology in Rite Aid stores nationwide. This line caught our eye: “Starting in 2013, as Rite Aid deployed FaceFirst’s technology in Philadelphia, Baltimore and beyond, some serious drawbacks emerged, current and former security agents and managers told Reuters.”

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