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LCB shows reluctance to share public records

| Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, 7:57 p.m.
Tim Holden
Tim Holden

Emails obtained by the Tribune-Review show state Liquor Control Board officials tried to hinder the release of information to a reporter, even though they readily admitted the information was a matter of public record.

The agency's board members directed a press secretary not to provide basic information about a former employee, such as dates of service, job title and salary, unless the reporter filed a formal request — a move that could have delayed the release by more than a month, the emails obtained under the state's Right to Know law show.

“We have to watch what we ‘give' her regarding employees without going through the Right to Know channels, even if it is public information,” board member Michael Negra wrote in a Sept. 23 email.

“Agree,” Chairman Tim Holden responded the same day.

When the same reporter asked for a financial breakdown of how much the agency paid top alcohol vendors for various products, board member Joseph “Skip” Brion again directed the press secretary to tell the reporter to file a formal Right to Know request, giving the agency up to 35 days to decide whether to release the data.

“She can get it by RTK,” Brion wrote in a Sept. 24 email.

“I agree,” Negra responded. “Make her go thru the system.”

“I agree,” Holden replied.

The information was requested for a not-yet-published story about activities at the agency responsible for more than $2.3 billion in sales at more than 600 state wine and spirits stores.

LCB spokeswoman Elizabeth Brassell said the agency “fully respects and supports the release of public information to interested parties.” The agency provided the documents a week after the Trib requested them.

Brassell said the board “prefers requests for detailed or in-depth personnel information be put through the Right to Know Law process to ensure all appropriate ... legal evaluations are completed prior to (the) release of information.”

But Erik Arneson, head of the agency charged with overseeing the state's open records act, said the board members' actions were not in keeping with the intent of the law.

“The Right to Know Law was not designed to be a tool used by agencies to delay access to clearly public information,” said Arneson, director of the state Office of Open Records.

“In the vast majority of cases, requiring formal Right to Know requests for clearly public information does no good for anyone,” Arneson said. “What it does is add a completely unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, increasing work for the agency and frustrating the requester.”

Melissa Melewsky, a media lawyer with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, agreed the LCB's approach doesn't follow the spirit of the open records law or Gov. Tom Wolf's call for government transparency.

It is “disturbing to hear public employees discuss the need to ‘watch' and ‘be careful' with access to public records,” Melewsky said. “Public records are public records for anyone who wants them, and the fact that a member of the press asks for them makes them no less public.”

As Gov. Tom Wolf was elevating Holden this year to chair the board, the issue of transparency was front and center.

At the time, Wolf said he was “confident in Chairman Holden's ability to continue to make the LCB more transparent.”

And it was Brion who said two years ago when releasing the agency's first annual report in years that: “this is a state agency; we should be as transparent as possible.”

All three board members — Negra, Holden and Brion — were nominated by former Gov. Tom Corbett and confirmed by the state Senate.

In recent years, the agency has been criticized for failing to honor the intent of open government laws.

The Trib reported in 2012 that the board had taken what officials termed “notational votes” outside board meetings at least 18 times in a two-year period and then “ratified” those actions during subsequent public meetings.

At the time, the agency provided vague meeting agendas that did not list the items or actions under consideration.

The LCB now posts detailed agendas online several days in advance of meetings, but the recent emails show a lingering reluctance to provide information without formal legal reviews.

The governor's office would not specifically address the LCB situation, instead speaking in general terms.

“If (information) can be provided without having to file a request, we will do that,” said Jeffrey Sheridan, spokesman for Wolf.

“I think the governor's been very clear this is a priority of his — making sure that government is open and transparent to the public and working to restore the public's trust in government,” Sheridan said.

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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