Incoming state AG pledges to broaden reach of his office
January 11, 2017 12:00 AM
Photo by William Moree
By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For years, Pennsylvania’s attorneys general made headlines the old-fashioned way: by jailing criminals, prosecuting corrupt state officials, and triggering judicial crises by disclosing pornographic email chains.
But when the state’s next attorney general takes office next week, he hopes to stake out a broader claim.
“We can no longer be an Attorney General’s office that just looks inward,” Josh Shapiro told more than two dozen people gathered at the Squirrel Hill Carnegie Library branch Tuesday morning.
Mr. Shapiro, a Montgomery County commissioner, campaigned last year on a promise to broaden the office’s reach to include more consumer protection efforts. Mr. Shapiro heard a range of concerns from a 10-member panel Tuesday, from the relationship between Highmark and UPMC to the practices of for-profit educators who target veterans.
“Veterans get their GI benefits drained and have a worthless degree,” said Veterans Leadership Council director Ben Stahl.
Eileen Yacknin, litigation director at the Neighborhood Legal Services Association, said that “adequate housing and affordable housing has become a terrible crisis for low-income people” and warned that many were being drawn into “rent to own” arrangements. As the Post-Gazette has previously reported, renting to own can be the worst of both worlds, with tenants having to pay for major repairs while being subject to eviction. Ms. Yacknin said that although the law has given the state’s top attorney the ability to pursue abusive landlords, previous officeholders had shown little appetite for doing so.
Without promising a specific investigation, Mr. Shapiro said he’d recently spoken with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who last summer stepped up efforts to curb abuses by mortgage lenders and landlords. “These are issues of great concern, and the fact that these other states are working on it is important,” he said.
Mr. Shapiro did pledge to create an “Office of Public Engagement,” with offices scattered statewide to make it more accessible to the public. He said the office’s Public Protection Division, which handles consumer and other complaints, would be “dramatically revitalized and beefed up.”
The gathering was the fourth such meeting Mr. Shapiro is holding statewide; others have focused on heroin and opioid abuse, gun violence and senior scams.
Mr. Shapiro’s win was a rare bright spot for state Democrats in 2016. His 3 million votes topped every other candidate, including the two major presidential contenders. Nationwide, many liberal interest groups hope Democratic attorneys general may be a bulwark against President-elect Donald Trump’s efforts to rewrite environmental and other regulations.
Asked whether he saw that as his role, Mr. Shapiro called himself “pragmatic” and said “I won’t prejudge” administration actions.
But, he added, “if they do something to undermine the rights of Pennsylvanians, then I’m going to stand up and protect the people of Pennsylvania.”
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