The hugely important court fight over abortion rights you’re not hearing about is right here in Pa. | Friday Morning Coffee

March 8, 2019 7:14 am

By PBS NewsHour from Arlington, Va., USA – 082812_Planned Parenthood_006, CC BY 2.0, WikiMedia Commons

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

On this final day of the working week, we’re going to ask you to put aside your feelings about abortion rights and consider another question:

Do Pennsylvania taxpayers have the right to know how a group that receives state grant money is spending its cash? Or can some portion of that money be defensibly shielded from public view?

That’s one of the issues at the heart of a lawsuit, filed last year, pitting a New York-based abortion-rights group called Equity Forward, against a a two-decade-old, state-funded abortion alternatives group called Real Alternatives, that will be heard in Commonwealth Court in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

First, a word about the players:

Equity Forward  bills itself as a “non-partisan” organization that nonetheless conducts “research-driven campaigns to hold accountable anti-reproductive health forces.” Its executive director, Mary Alice Carter, is a former Planned Parenthood official.

Harrisburg-based Real Alternatives, which began operation in 1997 as a way for former Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr. to steer money to anti-abortion causes, counsels women on alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, according to its website. It has received $83 million in taxpayer money since fiscal 2003-04, state records show.

Equity Forward filed suit last year, asking the state appellate court to overturn a ruling by the Office of Open Records denying them access to some of Real Alternatives’financial records.

Equity Forward thinks Real Alternatives, which administers the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, and distributes money to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” violated the terms of its grant agreement by using Pennsylvania money to expand its operation into other states.

“It’s not only a violation of contract, it’s also a violation of the spirit [of the contract],” Carter told the Capital-Star this week. “They are taking Pennsylvania money to set up operations in other states.”

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, an audit by the Pennsylvania Department Human Services “flagged a practice in which Real Alternatives withheld 3 percent of all payments to service providers under a side deal they called a ‘program development and advancement agreement.’ Auditors ultimately estimated Alternatives had collected more than $800,000 over the last five years through this deal.”

Real Alternatives has faced similar scrutiny in Michigan, where the organization has received about $2.6 million in public funds to administer anti-abortion programs, according to published reports. The state’s new Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has been pressured to cut off that funding stream.

Equity Forward’s Carter told the Capital-Star she believes the financial documents it’s seeking will explain what happened with that money.

In a statement to PennLive last year, Real Alternatives said it “has always fully complied with the transparency requirements of [its] grant agreement,” with the state. The group told PennLive that Equity Forward was on a fishing expedition for “documents … that are private corporate records.”

In that statement, Real Alternatives further accused Equity Forward “of being ‘hostile to Real Alternatives’ mission to provide life-affirming alternatives to abortion services.'”

Speaking to the Capital-StarCarter made no secret of her opposition to Real Alternatives’ mission, saying its methods are coercive,” and based on “[shame].” “We know it’s not based on alternatives … Our concern with Real Alternatives, is our concern with other anti-abortion networks. Not provide full range of information they need. From our perspective, Equity Forward believes women should have the full range of information.

But, she insisted, the heart of the lawsuit is what Real Alternatives does with the millions of dollars in taxpayer money it receives.

“Our argument on our case has always been that Real Alternatives has received 100 percent of its operating money from the [taxpayers]* and the idea that they are not transparent is inappropriate,” Carter told the Capital-Star. “Taxpayers deserve to know that 100 percent of the money goes, not where 97 percent of where the money goes.”

Our Stuff:
Right now, Pennsylvania’s sick and aged inmates die in prison. A proposed ‘medical parole’ system could change that, Elizabeth Hardison reports.
Sarah Anne Hughes explains why food stamp work requirements are back on the table.
Hardison also reports that mental health services in schools have declined as police presence grows.
Capital-Star Washington reporter Allison Stevens has the story on efforts in the U.S. House to revive lapsed domestic violence protections.

On the Opinion side of the house, Anwar Curtis tells you the story of an important literacy program in the city of Harrisburg; Fletcher McClellan explains why there’s no time like the present for Pa. to raise its minimum wage, and a Dickinson College professor brings you the inspiring tale of the young Nigerian women who escaped Boko Haram and found a new life in Pennsylvania.

The Inquirer
 considers whether a condemned killer’s appeal could lead the state Supreme Court to abolish capital punishment in Pennsylvania.
Pa. has sports-betting. But when do the online-based games arrive? PennLive explains.
Detroit police are expected to file charges against Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner after an alleged altercation with police and hotel security earlier this week, CBS-Pittsburgh reports.

Here’s a perfectly lovely #Philadelphia Instagram of the Day:


BillyPenn has the story on a new Phillies’ beer garden that replaces a bar with a shady past.
The Morning Call has the story on an Allentown company that’s recycling old Mack trucks.
WHYY-FM looks at whether Philly’s cashless store ban still harms ‘unbanked’ residents.
Pitt students can hold a vote to unionizeWESA-FM reports.
Pa. should have a $12 minimum wage in 2020PoliticsPA’s readers say in a new poll.
Advisers are urging President Trump to do the seemingly impossible: To run a ‘Rose Garden’ strategy in 2020Politico reports.

Gov. Tom Wolf
 has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out today to York County economic development czar, Kevin Schreiber. Congrats and enjoy the day, sir.

Heavy Rotation.
Another longtime Friend O’the BlogMichael Giblin, of Cumberland County, Pa., celebrates today. In addition to being something of a mensch, we’ve been lucky enough to record and perform with the multi-talented instrumentalist and songwriter over the years. From his band, Parallax Project, here’s one of our favorite tunes, “To the Moon.” Play this one loud. And enjoy the day, Mike.

Friday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
The Pens shut out Columbus 3-0 on Thursday, making us sorry we missed Torts’ post-game press conference. That must have been a doozy.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.