PA doubles down on anti-transparency, bad ethics
Spotlight PA has a damning report out about Pennsylvania doubling down on the state's existing crappy record with regard to transparency, something that contributes massively to poor ethics on the part of government officials - and the public's inability to properly hold them to account.
The whole piece is really something, but read these parts especially:
Top officials with the Pennsylvania Senate scrubbed thousands of detailed explanations about its expenses from official records provided to two news organizations, raising alarm among open records and good-government advocates.
In turning over the documents, requested by The Caucus and Spotlight PA, Senate officials did not black out the explanations, but instead edited them out, making it appear as though they never existed. The officials also did not disclose that they had removed the information.
“You can’t just delete things from public records,” said Terry Mutchler, the first director of the state’s Office of Open Records and a prominent First Amendment lawyer. “It is absolutely flabbergasting. It’s a new level of anti-transparency. We are now in the anti-transparency Olympics.”
Pennsylvania’s open records law requires government agencies to search for all records that are relevant to a request. The law exempts certain records from release and allows government agencies to black out, or redact, portions of documents.
The law does not, however, appear to give agencies the authority to erase information without disclosing it. A bill pending in the House would make it a third-degree felony to alter government documents after a public records request has been made.
Rep. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson), the sponsor of the legislation, said it would “absolutely” prevent the Senate and other government agencies from scrubbing information.
“If they’re producing a record, then the record in full should be subject to the law,” he said.
The information deleted from Senate documents included details on the purpose of the chamber’s expenses, including travel, meetings, conferences, and other outings by senators and their staffers, as well as other top officers in the chamber.
Initially, Senate officials blacked out some of those details, arguing they were subject to “legislative privilege” and did not have to be disclosed to the public. The news organizations appealed and eventually submitted a new request for many of the same records.
This time, however, Senate officials simply erased information rather than redact it, giving the impression it was never part of the official record.
For instance, a January 2018 expense for $60 incurred by the Senate’s then-top lawyer, Drew Crompton, was originally described as: “Parking & tolls, Overnight Parking, Washington D.C. - attend meeting on [REDACTED].”
In the new set of records, it became just “Parking & tolls.”
In another instance, a staffer’s $27.27 lunch charge in August 2018 was described as “Legislative meals, Lunch, Bellefonte, to attend the [REDACTED].” In the new documents, it was described merely as “Legislative meals.”
Other seemingly trivial details that hadn’t been redacted originally were also removed. For example: The original documents showed a staffer charged $3 for “Other travel expenses, Gratuities, Maid service.”
The new documents erased the description, listing it simply as “Other travel expenses."
So, we now have no idea who Crompton was meeting with or about what. And ditto a bunch of other "public servants." Kudos to Rep. Dush for trying to fix this situation.
In 2017, Pennsylvania was rated the 6th most corrupt state in the country, beating out tough competition like Louisiana and New Jersey (which didn't even make the top 15 cut).
At the rate the state is going, it'll earn a top five, or maybe even a top three, place next time these assessments are done.