Today begins Sunshine Week, which highlights the fight for transparency in government and access to public information. Led by the News Leaders Association and organizations including the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, Sunshine Week aims to increase public awareness of open-meetings and open-records laws like Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law and Sunshine Act.
The restrictions and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t stop the work of journalists over the past year but did make it tougher.
Pandemic-related emergencies gave the Wolf administration, for instance, some cover for holding back information.
But journalists at LNP | LancasterOnline and The Caucus — an LNP Media Group watchdog publication focusing on state government — persisted in ensuring that taxpayers knew how government officials were acting and spending money on their behalf.
They persisted because their drive to get at the truth cannot be diminished even by a world-altering pandemic.
And they did so even as other newspapers across the nation slashed staff and investigative efforts in the face of budget cuts and corporate consolidation. There are more and more news deserts across the country and an increasing number of ghost papers — those with minimal staffs and no resources to wage the kinds of expensive court battles this newspaper is waging. These news deserts lead to diminished civic engagement and costlier government.
Which is why people need to support local news. It’s now or never in too many cases.
The tedious work of probing court records and government databases and filing public records requests is not carried out by journalists for fun (though there is considerable satisfaction in unearthing information that elected officials tried to obscure).
Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law presumes that state and local government records are public unless limited exceptions apply. Nevertheless, government agencies sometimes balk at providing journalists with information that is meant to be public. So in their role as watchdogs, LNP | LancasterOnline journalists have had to press for public access in court.
Following are a few examples compiled by Paula Knudsen Burke, a former Caucus journalist and LNP | LancasterOnline editor who still is based in our newsroom but now serves as an attorney for the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, as part of its Local Legal Initiative:
— In February, the Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of transparency and good government in a long-running bid to obtain records about how the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office uses assets seized in drug forfeiture cases.
The nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice represented LNP | LancasterOnline and helped bring thousands of pages of those records into public view.
— In another win for transparency, a Commonwealth Court panel of judges ruled in February in favor of LNP Media Group, which had asked the state to provide the applications of interested individuals who sought to fill judicial vacancies.
Media Litigation Fellow Madeline Lamo of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press represented the newspaper, along with attorney Terry Mutchler, the first executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.
— Mutchler also represents LNP | LancasterOnline in an appeal in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas to obtain body camera footage from the City of Lancaster. Using Act 22, a state law that provides a mechanism for access to law enforcement video, the newspaper argues that the public interest should outweigh the government’s attempt to shield the video.
LNP | LancasterOnline’s Carter Walker previously used Act 22 to obtain footage of Judge Dennis Reinaker, then the county’s president judge, berating a police officer during a traffic stop.
— In January, Lancaster County President Judge David Ashworth ruled that autopsy records will remain sealed in the unsolved death of Jonathan Luna, a federal prosecutor whose body, bearing stabbing wounds, was found in a northeast corner of the county in 2003.
LNP Media Group, the publisher of LNP | LancasterOnline, has been seeking access to those autopsy records since they were found in county archives last year.
LNP | LancasterOnline had previously successfully argued for transparency of coroner records. In 2019, Lancaster County Judge Leonard G. Brown III ruled that county Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni must deposit, within 60 days, “all of his official records and papers” with the county prothonotary, where they would be available for public inspection.
— In pending cases, The Caucus is pursuing a Right-to-Know Law challenge in Commonwealth Court related to surveillance cameras used by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.
— The Caucus also has joined with the nonpartisan newsroom Spotlight PA and The Philadelphia Inquirer to have the records in the embezzlement case against former Philadelphia Democratic state Rep. Leslie Acosta unsealed.
Acosta was able to run for reelection uncontested, and win, because of the unusual level of secrecy surrounding her 2016 conviction. She stepped down in 2017.
“Because most of the proceedings and documents in this case were sealed, Acosta was able to keep her involvement in a criminal scheme to defraud a mental health clinic in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods hidden from her constituents until her reelection was all but guaranteed,” wrote Burke, who is representing the media organizations and working with the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic.
— In October 2020, a Jefferson County magisterial district judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by former Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati’s campaign against The Caucus, Caucus Bureau Chief Brad Bumsted and Spotlight PA reporter Angela Couloumbis. Scarnati wanted the journalists to pay his accounting firm $5,070 (plus court costs) for producing and copying public records that documented questionable campaign spending by Scarnati.
Scarnati’s campaign appealed to the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas. The case was thrown out in December, following a filing on behalf of the journalists to strike the case.
LNP | LancasterOnline and Caucus journalists also have filed scores of Right-to-Know requests that have been fulfilled by government agencies, or resolved by the state Office of Open Records.
Were it not for these requests, many public documents would never come to light.
Numerous news organizations, including Spotlight PA and The Caucus, requested copies of all applications to the business waiver program Gov. Tom Wolf established earlier in the pandemic, and documents detailing the decisions granting or denying exemptions. After significant public pressure and the news organizations’ requests, the Wolf administration released just the waiver list in May. In our view, the trust that’s essential in a crisis is fostered by transparent government.
LNP | Lancaster also asked to be present at the pre-canvass meeting held by the Lancaster County Board of Elections at 7 a.m. on Election Day. The Board of Elections rejected the newspaper’s request. So the newspaper worked with counsel at Troutman Pepper in Philadelphia to draft a letter to the board.
This caused the board to rethink its decision and pass a resolution that permits credentialed members of the media to be present in the pre-canvass meeting room on the day of a primary, municipal or general election.
As LNP Media Group Corporate Secretary Lauren Frick put it, “With record numbers of voters casting mail-in ballots this past election, our effort was particularly important for transparency and was a matter of utmost public concern. Permitting members of the media to attend and observe helps promote public confidence in the pre-canvassing process.”
Last year, this newspaper was selected for comprehensive training by the national organization Investigative Reporters and Editors to help ensure that these efforts continue and grow.
The work requires significant expenditures of money and other resources, which is why the Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund was created last year.
We are grateful to those who have donated to that fund and to our subscribers, who make this work possible.
Government unwatched is more expensive, less effective and riddled with opportunities for elected officials to abuse the public trust.
During this Sunshine Week, and every week — pandemic or no pandemic — this news organization’s journalists are shining light into the darkest recesses of government so citizens can be more confident that it is working in their interests.