Top Pa. senator’s campaign revives lawsuit against journalists over public records fees

(Steven M. Falk/Philadelphia Inquirer)

(Steven M. Falk/Philadelphia Inquirer)

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The campaign of Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati renewed its lawsuit against a Spotlight PA journalist and others Thursday, asking the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas to overturn a lower court’s dismissal of the case.

Scarnati’s campaign sued The Caucus, a publication of LNP Media Group, Caucus Bureau Chief Brad Bumsted, and Spotlight PA reporter Angela Couloumbis for $5,070. The suit claims they owe an accounting firm the money for producing public records that documented questionable spending by Scarnati’s campaign. The campaign also wants $1,000 for attorney fees and court costs.

Jefferson County Magisterial District Judge Jacqueline Mizerock ruled in October that Scarnati’s campaign — not the newspaper or the journalists — should pay the accounting firm since the firm was working for the campaign. Scarnati, who did not run for re-election and is leaving office at the end of this year, has just over $40,000 in his campaign account, according to his most recent filing.

Public records and media law experts have said the lawsuit — and in particular the decision to name two reporters individually — could have a chilling effect on the public’s access to records. If successful, the suit could allow politicians to hire private firms to maintain public documents and charge hefty fees to anyone who wants to see them. This, in effect, would price citizens out of records to which state law says they should have access.

The DuBois accounting firm Clyde, Ferraro and Co. was hired in 2006 to keep the campaign’s financial records, and accounting firm partner Lisa Zocco was named campaign treasurer. State law requires campaigns to keep receipts of spending and to provide copies of those receipts to anyone who requests them.

The Caucus and Spotlight PA requested those records during a year-long investigation into the ways state politicians in both parties hide details of their spending. The investigation found nearly $3.5 million in campaign spending that couldn’t be fully traced based on what was reported in campaign finance filings. Scarnati’s campaign had the most obscured spending, at nearly $246,000, some of which paid for hotel rooms and lavish dinners during a 2016 trip through Europe.

Clyde, Ferraro and Co. tried to charge the journalists thousands of dollars for the records, but the Department of State, which oversees elections, told the campaign it could only charge for copying and delivery costs, which amounted to a small fraction of the accounting firm’s original bill.

The Caucus and Spotlight PA paid those copying and duplication fees.

“The continued attempts by the Senate president’s campaign to charge exorbitant fees for basic public information about campaign spending is disappointing and ultimately a waste of time,” said Spotlight PA Editor in Chief Christopher Baxter. “Regardless of political party, the people of Pennsylvania have a right to know how lawmakers spend campaign cash without having to pay outrageous sums of money. This is a fight we will continue, and we will win.”

Tom Murse, executive editor of The Caucus and LNP | LancasterOnline, said the lawsuit “is clearly intended to intimidate and retaliate against The Caucus and Spotlight PA reporters who exposed the details of nearly $250,000 in spending that had been obscured by his campaign.”

“We’re confident that the Court of Common Pleas will uphold the original ruling in favor of transparency — not just for our journalists but all the citizens of Pennsylvania,” Murse said.

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