by Lowman S. Henry | January 05, 2004

Legislative spending, public right to know collides

When asked to describe what it was like serving in Pennsylvania’s legislature, one former member of that august body replied: “It’s like being in college –with money.”

While many, in fact most, members of the General Assembly are diligent, hard-working folks doing their best to serve the people of this commonwealth, there are some bad apples who unfortunately besmirch the reputation of that governing body with offensive, or borderline offensive behavior.

Late last year the left-leaning group Common Cause and the conservative Commonwealth Foundation united in outrage over the excessive spending by certain legislative leaders on lavish meals and luxurious travel. Unfortunately, the abuse of taxpayer dollars does not end with legislative leadership, it extends to some back benchers as well.

A good example of this is the ongoing legal battle between State Representative Larry Roberts of Fayette County and the Uniontown Herald-Standard. Roberts represents a district in rural Fayette County, an area noted for its bucolic landscape and hard working, but often economically disadvantaged people.

The problem began when a Herald-Standard reporter named Paul Sunyak asked Roberts to provide billing records for calls he made from his home and cellular telephones. Roberts had been reimbursed for the calls from his legislative expense account. That, of course, is an acceptable and proper business practice. What wasn’t acceptable and proper is that the state representative denied Sunyak copies of the records. Roberts then demanded the newspaper assign a different reporter to the story, and – according to an Associated Press account – asked the “newspaper’s lawyer (to) first absolve him of any wrongdoing”in connection with the records. To add insult to injury, while still denying the Herald-Standard access to the records, Roberts turned them over to other news organizations.

Perhaps the most interesting point in this entire exchange is Representative Robert’s asking to be “absolved” of any wrongdoing by the Herald-Standard’s attorney. Since wrongdoing has not yet been alleged, the Shakespearean warning of “thou doth protesteth too much” comes into play – but that is the subject for a different commentary.

Of foremost concern here is the ability of a state representative, or any public official, to deny any news organization – or any taxpayer for that matter – access to records involving the expenditure of tax money. That is just plain wrong. Further, it feeds the public perception of the legislature of setting itself above the law – which it often does.

The Herald-Standard has taken the Larry Roberts case all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which has taken an interesting position. It has agreed to hear the newspaper’s complaint over Robert’s playing favorites with public information. However, the high court, blew it on the larger issue. It ruled that Pennsylvania’s public records laws do not give journalists automatic access to legislative records.

Say what? To any person with half a working brain (obviously the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is not in this category of candle power), access to the expense records of public officials would be a basic, unalienable right. Clearly Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court justices need to go back to Political Science 101 and reread the portions of the Bill of Rights that provide for freedom of the press in this country for they have severely trampled on the rights of the Herald-Standard, and in fact trampled on the rights of all the citizens of this commonwealth.

The legislature itself should step up to the plate and adopt rules making their records more open to the media and to the public. The justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who have taken an oath to uphold our rights, should hang their heads in shame for violating them. And the voters of Larry Roberts legislative district should hold him accountable in this election year for his blatant disregard for their right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.

As for the Herald-Standard, it deserves laurels for shouldering the costs of fighting this fight which will have a dramatic impact on news organizations throughout Pennsylvania. But, like all news organizations, the right to freedom of the press comes with the responsibility to report fairly, and Robert’s objection to their coverage should be given due airing to make sure his position is respected as well.