Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s campaign renewed its lawsuit against The Caucus and two journalists on Thursday, asking the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas to overturn a lower court’s dismissal of the case.
Scarnati campaign committee sued The Caucus, a publication of LNP Media Group, Caucus Bureau Chief Brad Bumsted and Spotlight PA reporter Angela Couloumbis for $5,070. The campaign claimed the defendants owed it accounting firm the money for copying public records that documented questionable spending by Scarnati’s campaign. The suit also seeks $1,000 for lawyers fees and court costs.
Jefferson County Magisterial District Judge Jacqueline Mizerock ruled in October that Scarnati’s campaign — not the newspaper or the journalists — should pay the accounting firm since the firm was working for the campaign. Scarnati, who did not run for re-election and is leaving office at the end of this year, has just over $40,000 in his campaign account, according to his most recent filing.
Public records and media law experts have said the lawsuit, and in particular the decision to name two reporters individually, could have a chilling effect on the public’s access to records. If successful, the suit could allow politicians to hire private firms to maintain public documents and charge hefty fees for anyone who wants to see them, in effect pricing citizens out of records to which state law says they should have access.
Scarnati hired the DuBois accounting firm Clyde, Ferraro and Co. in 2006 to keep his campaign’s financial records, and named accounting firm partner Lisa Zocco his campaign treasurer. State law requires campaigns to keep receipts of their spending and to provide copies of those receipts to anyone who requests them.
The Caucus and Spotlight PA requested those records during a year-long investigation into the ways state politicians hide details of their spending. The investigation found nearly $3.5 million in campaign spending that couldn’t be fully traced based on what politicians reported in campaign finance filings. Scarnati had the most obscured spending, at nearly $246,000, some of which paid for hotel rooms and lavish dinners during a 2016 trip through Europe.
The Clyde Ferraro firm tried to charge journalists thousands of dollars for the records, but the Department of State, which oversees elections, told the campaign it could only charge for copying and delivery costs, which amounted to a small fraction of the accounting firm’s original bill.
“The continued attempts by the Senate President’s campaign to charge exorbitant fees for basic public information about campaign spending is disappointing and ultimately a waste of time,” said Spotlight PA Editor in Chief Christopher Baxter. “Regardless of political party, the people of Pennsylvania have a right to know how lawmakers spend campaign cash without having to pay outrageous sums of money. This is a fight we will continue, and we will win.”
Tom Murse, executive editor of The Caucus and LNP | LancasterOnline, said the Scarnati campaign’s lawsuit “is clearly intended to intimidate and retaliate against The Caucus and Spotlight PA reporters who exposed the details of nearly $250,000 in spending that had been obscured by his campaign.
“We’re confident that the Court of Common Pleas will uphold the original ruling in favor of transparency — not just for our journalists but all the citizens of Pennsylvania,” Murse said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained the wrong figure for the amount of funds remaining in Sen. Scarnati's campaign account. The version above has been corrected.