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Pa. Senate officials scrub details from financial records, raising alarm among open records advocates

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is sworn in by Judge, Deborah Kunselman, during a Ceremony in the senate chambers at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.Tuesday, January 15, 2019. JOSE F. MORENO / Philadelphia Inquirer)

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is sworn in by Judge, Deborah Kunselman, during a Ceremony in the senate chambers at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.Tuesday, January 15, 2019. JOSE F. MORENO / Philadelphia Inquirer)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.

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.”

The records were requested as part of an ongoing effort to document exactly how the nation’s largest full-time legislature spends the roughly $360 million in taxpayer money it receives each year, including more than $100 million allocated to the Senate.

Donetta D’Innocenzo, the Senate’s chief clerk and open records officer, did not return calls or emails seeking comment about how or why the information was removed.

Michael Sarfert, the Senate’s open records lawyer, said in an email that the chamber removed the spending details because the news organizations did not specifically state that they wanted to know the “purpose” of the Senate’s expenditures. The news organizations asked for all expenses, from all Senate accounts.

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.”

Senate officials did not answer questions about whether they made the edits to the original documents, or just to copies of records turned over in response to the news organizations’ request.

The news organizations requested access to the entire database used to track the Senate’s spending. But officials refused, contending they are not required to give the public access to data or records that would “subject them to alteration or manipulation.”

Erik Arneson, who runs Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, said the agency has handled 25,000 appeals since the public records law went into effect. (The legislature answers to appeals officers it appoints, not to Arneson’s office.)

He could not recall any appeals involving records that have been scrubbed of information without an explanation.

“Simply leaving it out of the response is not an appropriate way to proceed,” Arneson said.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, called the move “disturbing.”

“If they are going to withhold information from a public record, they have to justify it — not just erase it,” Melewsky said.

The Caucus and Spotlight PA sent similar public records requests to the House of Representatives. The House turned over thousands of pages of documents, many containing redactions for information it claims is exempt from disclosure. The news organizations have appealed, arguing taxpayers have a right to know how and why the money was spent.

When asked for additional records, the House did not edit out details, but did continue to black out portions of the records.

Though the legislature passed a sweeping open records law in 2008, Pennsylvania still earns low marks for transparency and public accountability.

The Center for Public Integrity in 2015 gave the state an F in its 50-state assessment of laws and other systems in place to deter corruption. Researchers cited, in part, a lack of legislative and executive accountability. Meanwhile, lawmakers in recent years have repeatedly declined to take up bills that advocates say could improve transparency.

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