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Lancaster County judge orders district attorney to release some drug forfeiture records, but not all

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Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman at a press conference Sept. 5, 2019.

A Lancaster County judge has ordered District Attorney Craig Stedman to comply with LNP’s open-records request for spreadsheets and ledgers tracking property seized during drug investigations, but denied a request for him to release receipts and vouchers.

Judge Leonard G. Brown III’s split ruling Thursday came in Stedman’s appeal of a state Office of Open Records ruling in January that the forfeiture information LNP sought is public information.

Stedman had refused to release financial records for July 2017 to September 2018, citing a guideline by the state attorney general. But the judge ruled that the guideline didn’t prohibit the release.

Judge Brown, however, denied the release of receipts and vouchers, saying that reporter Carter Walker’s “overbroad and insufficiently specific” request didn’t mention those items.

Despite ruling against LNP’s request, the judge said vouchers and receipts are public information that can be released if specifically asked for in a Right-to-Know Law request.

As a result, LNP intends to file a new request for detailed receipts for items purchased through the district attorney’s forfeiture fund, according to the Institute for Justice, a national public-interest law firm representing LNP in the open-records dispute.

Walker testified last month that he made the request with the intention of obtaining vouchers and receipts, but said he did not use the words “receipt” or “voucher” in his request.

“If (a journalist) wishes to seek receipts, vouchers, reports and other specific financial records to review, he may request them,” Brown wrote, “but the court is wary to impose upon any agency producing documents an additional layer of evaluation to comply with a (Right-to-Know Law) request.”

New request

Kirby West, an Institute for Justice attorney, said the decision sets a “good precedent for members of the public to get the information they deserve about how local governments are spending the millions of dollars taken in every year through forfeiture.”

“It’s disappointing that it will take more time for LNP to receive this information,” she added, “but we are confident that a more detailed request will reveal the records that they have been seeking for months.”

Stedman described the judge’s order as a “clear ruling in our favor” because it “halts any suggestion that our office has tried to stonewall a (Right-to-Know) request or concealed documents attached to forfeiture spending.” Stedman had released documents totaling 352 pages.

Bidder information

Also in his ruling, the judge denied release of registration forms filled out by bidders at the drug task force’s annual auction of seized property. The forms contain bidders’ names, addresses and driver’s license numbers.

“The court holds that the privacy interest of the individual bidders outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information contained in the bidder registration forms,” Brown wrote.

In an email, Stedman said he made an offer in March “to all media outlets and the (county commissioners) to review our forfeiture documents unredacted, to include six boxes of receipts.”

“Had LNP and the (commissioners) accepted our offer, we believe their ‘watchdog’ interests would have been fulfilled, thus eliminating a need for litigation,” Stedman said.

“Additionally, we provided numerous forfeiture-related documents to LNP, much more than neighboring counties provided in response to nearly identical (Right-to-Know) requests,” he said. “As for the cash records and spreadsheets, we previously agreed to turn over those items (prior to this opinion), and intend to do so.”

Commissioners respond

County Commissioner Josh Parsons, on behalf of the board of commissioners, called the ruling a victory for government transparency. The county commissioners had joined LNP in its request for forfeiture records.

Parsons in an email said the county’s intervention “was necessary given Stedman’s questionable use of forfeiture funds, such as his secret lease of a $44,000 SUV for himself with money that was supposed to be used to fund the Lancaster County Drug Task Force.”

Parsons said “citizens own their government rather than District Attorney Stedman’s view that government is unaccountable to anyone or anything.”

“Given that his initial position was that none of these records should ever be released, the public is now in a much better position to know what he is spending money on,” Parsons said.