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HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolfe took office eight years ago as an advocate for government transparency.
He posted his public schedule online. He prohibited members of his administration from accepting gifts.And he urged other state agencies, not just Congress, to do the same.
But when it comes to legal bills in his office, the outgoing Democratic governor is all talk big and little substance.
Spotlight PA and The Caucus.
In fact, over the past year, the Wolf administration has actively blocked the press from releasing details, sharing only records showing which companies it hired and how much they charged for some of its legal services. but that is almost always the case, not the cases, policies or other issues related to that work.
The administration argues, among other things, that the information is confidential and that disclosing it could jeopardize its legal strategy, thus exempting it from state public records laws.
A lack of transparency has allowed the Wolf’s Office of General Counsel to spend at least $367,500 on six law firms over the past three years, often without explaining why.
That total typically includes Wolfe’s laws dealing with litigation specific to the governor himself and other legal matters important to his office, such as disputes that may arise over his particular policies or the state budget. Only payments made by the firm of advisers to private law firms are included.
This amount does not cover the countless state departments under Wolff’s jurisdiction. These departments regularly hire private companies to handle issues specific to their agency.Over the past few years, these institutions have $30 million and $40 million Outside Lawyer for the Year.
David L. Cuillier, president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said he did not believe that providing a general description of the job the company was employed in would somehow divulge confidential details about the incident. says he wants to
“A simple general description will suffice, but apparently, people in Pennsylvania will never know because they have to trust their government that every smeared description contains classified information. would be” agency.
In a statement, Wolf spokesperson Beth Rementer said the governor had made transparent government “his top priority.” Initiating competitive bids for significant contracts and publicly posting legal bids and awards.
She also said the administration is prioritizing cooperation with the public and the press, and that it has “made available hundreds of pages of documents” in regards to its legal bill, adding that “the I edited only the parts that the law requires to be kept secret.” Or to maintain attorney-client privileges. “
Records on bills can be valuable guides to policies and issues that elected officials prefer but do not necessarily want to make public. The process of redrawing the political mapFor example, one of the key issues that state officials turned to outside law firms and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.
Leveraging Pennsylvania’s Public Records Act, Spotlight PA and the Caucus in January requested invoices and other financial documents from the government for spending on outside law firms from 2019 to 2021. Did. The information they wanted and the best way to get it.
Upon request, legal counsel staff provided copies of 45 bills totaling $367,538 outlining the amounts billed by the six outside firms during that period. The subject lines of all invoices have been redacted, as are portions of invoices describing work done by private attorneys. The office did not provide the requested contract or other documents.
On every invoice, officials compiled a brief description (three or four words) of the work the private lawyer was hired for.
In doing so, they cite exemptions under state public records laws to reveal information that falls under the prerogative of attorneys and clients, or legal strategies or personal communications between attorneys and clients. They also state that their bills do not include litigation in court and that they have public minutes summarizing the proceedings of that litigation. It is claimed that
Deputy General Counsel Thomas P. Howell summarized the administration’s position in a recent email to Spotlight PA and the Caucus. [General Counsel’s] The Office hires companies to handle specific legal matters that do not lead to litigation. The exact legal issue/question to be asked of the attorney is privileged (to reveal direct communication between client/attorney seeking legal advice). “
The media outlet appealed to the state’s Office of Public Records, an independent body that decides disputes over public records, and shortly thereafter agreed to enter arbitration with the Office of General Counsel to resolve the matter.
But the office took months to produce some of the additional records agreed upon during the arbitration. did not provide any insight.
Specifically, the Office of the General Counsel has made available the underlying agreements it has signed with six law firms.
For example, a contract with Myers, Brier & Kelly, one of six law firms, states that the firm will provide “complex litigation services.” Another agreement with Blank Rome LLP describes the company’s business as providing “litigation and other potentially urgent legal services on an ad hoc basis.”
Spotlight PA and The Caucus concluded arbitration this fall (about six months after it began). Wolfe’s Office of General Counsel said in late September it would provide more information about the bill, but only by email at 3:57 p.m. Monday after news outlets sought comment from the governor’s office of public affairs. did.
The government provided additional information as to why it hired six companies, but only one instance revealed what the actual problems involved in the work were. In that case, the administration hired a private attorney to help review and sort out the sudden amnesty application.
In two other cases, the Office of General Counsel said private counsel was used for matters related to “professional tax advice” and “federal rulemaking,” but did not provide further details.
Last month, the Office of Public Records issued the administration’s final opinion, ruling that the compiled information was not subject to disclosure.
But the record agency also touts transparency, an opinion that “means the public can’t fully understand why taxpayer-funded litigation costs were incurred against these bills.
“Government agencies and third parties have been working to ensure that the public can see how and why taxpayer funds have been spent when preparing legal invoices. We need to be aware of that,” wrote Erin Burlew, an attorney at the Open Records firm who wrote the decision.
Accessing the details of bills paid by state agencies and state legislatures has a long and divisive history. But his landmark 2013 ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the general description of legal services and the identities of those represented are public information.
The Wolfe administration is not alone in seemingly ignoring the spirit of the ruling. State legislatures spend millions of taxpayer dollars each year to hire private law firms through a closed-door process that takes place virtually without public oversight, unlike contracts in other states. I am spending
And like Wolf’s Office of General Counsel, legislative leaders have also completely redacted many of the objectives of previous bills. Research by Spotlight PA and The Caucus found.
The press agency, represented by the Press Committee for Press Freedom, sued the state legislature and the Senate to clarify why they are hiring outside attorneys. It has been filed in federal court, with oral argument scheduled for December 12.
Gunita Singh, a press committee staff attorney who was not involved in discussing the lawsuit next week, said Pennsylvania agencies have a clear duty to construe the disclosure waiver narrowly. Because the Public Records Act contains explicit presumptions in favor of making records public, the rules apply even when dealing with privileged information.
Additionally, the law does not prohibit government agencies from releasing records to increase transparency.
She said Woolf’s office of general counsel appears to be hiding even the most common information about why the government spends money on private law firms. There are certain criteria that must be met in order to withhold records under privilege. If information deviates from these specific indicators, as generalized descriptions do, it should be disclosed.
“This is especially true given the growing public interest in these records,” she said.
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