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Pennsylvania's opaque state of transparency

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
The Columbus Dispatch

HARRISBURG

Pennsylvania government has been named one of the five most transparent in the country, according to Sunshine Review's “2013 Transparency Report Card.” Given the reality, that's a shocker.

In addition to the Keystone State, the Chesterfield, Va., group also lauds California, Illinois, Maryland and Washington. The rankings are based on state websites.

Never mind that the availability of government records is not very good.

There is a new state website — PennWatch — which lists various categories of state spending and salaries. But the salaries are not posted in a user-friendly fashion. You have to know who you are looking for or call up agency employees page by page. It's quite cumbersome and incomplete.

Legislative per diems are not included. Neither is there any information about legislators' expenses.

Equally problematic is the Department of State's “new and improved” website for searching individual campaign contributions. It's worse than before.

And while the state's Right to Know law website is an improvement over the previous (hideous) version, it is plagued by two problems. First, if you don't know the exact name of the record you seek, “No record exists” frequently is the site's response. The second problem is the 30-day legal review. Under the law, a response is due in five days. But agencies routinely take the extra 30 days for a legal review or other issues, such as staff limitations. That means the information, if you get it all, might not be available for 35 days.

The Trib recently requested certain legislative expense records from the House and Senate. To its credit, the House provided the information within five days. But the Senate said it was taking additional time to decide whether to release the exact same type of records.

In a review of Right to Know cases to be decided by the appellate courts, the Nauman Smith law firm of Harrisburg, which handles First Amendment issues, cited some of the upcoming cases. Attorneys Craig J. Staudenmaier and Joshua D. Bonn write of a case in which Associated Press reporter Marc Levy was denied the opportunity to review invoices for legal services submitted by individual senators. One was former Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow, now serving 16 months in prison for conspiracy.

The Senate denies taxpayers a full accounting of the legal bills for which they paid.

Lawmakers accused of crimes receive state-paid legal help from outside law firms until they are formally charged. This is not an obscure point — eight legislative leaders have been convicted of crimes over the last five years.

In another case that will be re-argued in two weeks before Commonwealth Court, Associated Press reporter Mark Scolforo sought Gov. Tom Corbett's calendar and emails. The main issue is redacted calendars. Corbett sued Scolforo after he won a round with the Office of Open Records.

Pennsylvania supposedly is a Top 5 “transparent” state. Yet it features troublesome websites and a Right to Know law resembling a hunk of Swiss cheese.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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