Westmoreland County rowhouse candidates employ open-records law to learn comings, goings of opponents

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Political parties in Westmoreland County are deploying a new weapon in the weeks before the Nov. 5 general election.

Since Oct. 1, Democrats and Republicans have been filing dueling public records requests with the county in fishing expeditions to determine whether elected officials and their staffs engage in political activity while they should be on the job.

“This is a tactic started by Republicans. It was one that was borne out of desperateness,” said Jesse Walker, executive director of the Westmoreland County Democratic Committee.

The Right-to-Know Law — which went into effect in 2009 — requires that public records be made available to the public, said Melissa Bevan Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association.

In the past four weeks, the county Department of Records Management, which processes Right-to-Know Law requests, received 46 inquiries seeking records of a political nature.

Up until September, the county fielded 200 inquiries. Only one sought political information, according to the records.

“In the last 10 days, we've done nothing but this,” said Lucy Yakulis, the open records officer. “This is the first year I've seen political requests.”

Campaign supporters and committee members want to see if records show political activities on the office computers of elected officials and their staffs; key card data from officials who enter and exit the courthouse; and even information left on computers used by politicians no longer in office.

In the election next week, voters will elect a clerk of courts, prothonotary, coroner and district attorney. Democrats hold three of those offices.

Records reveal that Republican committee member Patti Campbell launched the first strike on Oct. 4, seeking records about Prothonotary Christina O'Brien. Campbell is a campaign staffer for O'Brien's challenger, Mike Powers.

Three days later, Walker submitted similar requests on Republican officeholders.

Throughout the month, the two parties have countered with escalating requests. Most were denied. Some are pending.

Many requests were rejected because specific records were not requested, records show.

Clerk of Courts Bryan Kline and O'Brien initially challenged the release of computer data that would show who enters and exits the courthouse complex and when they do it, Yakulis said. Those requests were granted on Tuesday, and the records were released.

Both are running for second terms. Kline, a Republican, is running against Democrat Dan Blissman, a jury commissioner. Blissman's swipe-card records were released to a Republican committeeman last week.

Officials concede that Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law appears to be a new campaign tactic in Westmoreland County.

“I've not seen it before on such a broad scale,” said Joseph Sabino Mistick, a political analyst and law professor at Duquesne University School of Law. “Once people realized this is an option, it will be requested.”

Mistick said the Right-to-Know Law was not to be used as a political weapon, but the inevitable development came because information obtained can be used to assist campaigns.

“The one problem I see is that in most municipalities it can bring an entire Right-to-Know operation to a grinding halt,” Mistick said.

Bevan Melewsky said the law specifically states that requesters don't have to declare what they intend to do with records they ask to see.

“You can use public records however you see fit,” she said.

Republican Committee Chairwoman Jill Cooper said records requests are a viable tactic in gathering information against Democratic incumbents but that it's more problematic as it relates to officeholders not up for election.

“To me, it's a distraction to take people off their active duties,” Cooper said. “Our guys are not afraid of Right-to-Know requests. The Democrats are not happy because they've lost seats in Westmoreland County.”

The Democrats' Walker filed 15 information requests this month.

“The public has a right to know this information. I found it odd that a Republican political operative was only asking for a Democratic row officer's information,” Walker said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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