Email scandal, pope visit, Amtrak crash top year’s news
An alleged leak of grand jury information, an email scandal and a crippling budget impasse caused political turmoil and dysfunction that dominated headlines in Pennsylvania in 2015.
As the year ends, Attorney General Kathleen Kane is fighting charges she disclosed grand jury material to a reporter and lied about it under oath. She’s also fighting to keep her job since the state Supreme Court suspended her law license and the Senate has taken steps to remove her.
Kane seemed to have decided that if she has to go, she’d take others down with her. She hired outside lawyers to sift through a trove of raunchy and offensive emails that she discovered had been exchanged by judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers on state computers.
Among the participants: Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin, who was suspended with pay despite a tearful apology. He could face further sanctions.
Christmas arrived with the Legislature and governor still unable to agree on a state spending plan that was needed July 1.
The stalemate came with a price. It forced layoffs at social service agencies, and curtailed programs including pre-kindergarten and relocation aid for domestic violence victims and the homeless. School districts were forced to borrow at least $900 million to stay open because annual state aid hasn’t been distributed.
Amid the whirlwind came a historic visit: Pope Francis attracted throngs during a two-day trip to Philadelphia in September. Many pilgrims were thrilled to see him celebrate an outdoor Mass and hear his remarks on immigration and religious liberty at Independence Hall.
But critics said overzealous security measures turned the city into a ghost town, killing local business and preventing thousands of visitors from accessing the parkway where the Mass was held.
Earlier in the year, the city mobilized and then mourned in response to an Amtrak train crash that killed eight people and injured more than 200. Federal authorities continue to investigate why the train was going more than twice the speed limit when it derailed at a curve. Travel along the Northeast Corridor was disrupted for days while the tracks were replaced.
Bill Cosby’s fall from grace continued, with dozens of women alleging rape or unwanted sexual contact. He denies wrongdoing and has countersued seven of them. But the Philadelphia native’s reputation was further tarnished by his acknowledgement in a newly released deposition that he obtained quaaludes to offer women before sexual encounters.
“Dance Moms” star Abigale Lee Miller pleaded not guilty in Pittsburgh to charges she tried to hide $775,000 worth of income from the Lifetime network reality show and spinoff projects during her Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
State Treasurer Rob McCord resigned Jan. 30 before pleading guilty two federal counts of attempted extortion. McCord admitted trying to use his position to pressure state contractors into donating money to his failed gubernatorial campaign.
And a judge imposed a life sentence on Hugo Selenski for strangling a pharmacist and his girlfriend. The bodies of Michael Kerkowski and Tammy Fassett were among at least five sets of human remains found in Selenski’s yard near Wilkes-Barre in 2003.
Selenski’s 12-year legal odyssey included a brief prison escape and acquittal on two other homicide charges. At his sentencing this year, Kerkowski’s mother called Selenski a “useless waste of space and air” and declared, “You are going straight to hell.”
Things got a little happier in Happy Valley when the NCAA restored 112 Penn State football wins negated as punishment for the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. That makes the late Joe Paterno — once again — the winningest coach in major college football history, with 409 victories.
The record restoration was part of a legal settlement that also allows the university’s $60 million fine to be spent only on abuse-prevention programs within Pennsylvania. Some of the first funds were distributed this month, with 44 entities receiving a total of $3.4 million.
Temple University’s football team made it into the Top 25 for the first time in 36 years. The Owls ended the regular season ranked No. 24 with a 10-3 record. The school has since unveiled a controversial plan to build a $100 million stadium on campus.
United States Steel Corp. pulled out of a deal to build its new world headquarters at the former site of Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena. The announcement came two days after the steelmaker reported a quarterly loss more than four times worse than analysts’ forecast. The company will remain at its current 64-story building in the city until its lease expires in 2017.
A $26 million visitors center at the Flight 93 National Memorial opened to the public Sept. 10, a day before the 14th anniversary of the terror attacks. The new complex near Shanksville overlooks the crash site several hundred yards away, where a memorial wall stands.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from American Indian tribes and Jim Thorpe’s sons to move the remains of the athletic great from Pennsylvania to native land in Oklahoma. The justices left in place a court ruling that ordered Thorpe’s body to remain in the Pennsylvania town that bears his name.
In October, a temporarily unidentified flying object over eastern Pennsylvania wasn’t a bird … or a plane … but an unmanned Army surveillance blimp. After breaking free from its base in Maryland, it floated across the state border, dragging down power lines with its dangling tether before landing in Muncy.
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