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Pennsylvania's open records office director says Gov. Wolf doesn't have authority to fire him

| Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, 3:10 p.m.
Erik Arneson
Erik Arneson

The first political fireworks of Gov. Tom Wolf's administration erupted about 48 hours into his term.

Wolf, a Democrat inaugurated Tuesday, announced Thursday he was removing the head of the Office of Open Records. Gov. Tom Corbett appointed Erik Arneson, a former high-ranking Republican staffer, 11 days before leaving office.

Arneson, who was sworn in last week, said the only way he's leaving is if there's a final court order “and handcuffs” — even though Wolf has appointed an acting director and will suspend Arneson's pay.

A state attorney took his ID badge and told him the administration was shutting down his state email.

“(Wolf) does not have the authority to do this,” Arneson said, calling it a “terrible day for transparency in the state.”

Wolf recalled 28 pending executive nominations Corbett made before Wolf's inauguration, including two common pleas judges, a University of Pittsburgh trustee, a Game Commissioner and two members of the Parole Board.

Wolf's move drew strong rebukes from Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature.

“Gov. Wolf shows he firmly places ideology above qualifications,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, in a statement foreshadowing a stormy confirmation process for Wolf's nominees.

“The Senate will perform our due diligence on all cabinet and other nominees — regardless of who submitted their name for consideration,” Corman said.

Arneson was well regarded among Republican leadership in both chambers.

At the time of his appointment, House Speaker Mike Turzai said, “I can't think of a better person to succeed Terry Mutchler.”

Arneson is former spokesman and policy director for Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, who was Senate Majority Leader until he lost the post to Corman late last year.

“I don't see how this can be taken as a constructive move in the relationship between the governor and the General Assembly,” Pileggi said.

Wolf criticized Corbett's “11th-hour executive nominations,” saying they were “anything but open and transparent.”

Jeff Sheridan, Wolf's press secretary, said they notified Arneson of his firing in a letter Thursday, and began the human resources process to remove him from the payroll. Sheridan emphasized the removal was about the appointment process and not the individual.

“The process that put him in place, that undercut the mission of the office,” Sheridan said. “(Wolf) was very clear two weeks ago this process was wrong, and he didn't agree with it.”

Wolf named Office of Open Records deputy Nathan Byerly acting director while his administration conducts a national search.

Asked to respond to charges of partisan politics, Sheridan said Byerly is a conservative. “This isn't someone who's our ally.”

Bill Patton, House Democratic caucus spokesman, said Arneson and Byerly are equally qualified to run the office, and Wolf's decision isn't about the individual.

“The previous governor made a number of significant nominations in the waning days of his administration, frankly when most people's attention was elsewhere,” Patton said. “We fully support Gov. Wolf's move to ensure a more open process with proper scrutiny of every person nominated when the last governor was heading for the exit.”

Pileggi was a driving force behind the state's rewrite of the open records law in 2008, which established the Office of Open Records.

“There should be a very good reason for a governor to attempt to undo that process,” Pileggi said, “especially in the area of Open Records where everyone anticipated the potential of an executive attempting to unilaterally and arbitrarily remove the director of that office for political reasons or disagreement on policy.”

Arneson said he intends on involving lawyers moving forward.

But he told the Tribune-Review Thursday night: “I'll be in the Office of Open Records tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. doing the job I was appointed to do, the job I was sworn in to do, and temporarily, apparently, I'll be doing it without a paycheck.”

Brad Bumsted contributed to this report. Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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