As LNP’s Junior Gonzalez reported Saturday, a “judge has granted the Lancaster County commissioners’ request to join a legal dispute between LNP and the district attorney’s office over access to documents the state has determined to be a matter of public record. Lancaster County Judge Leonard G. Brown III’s decision represents a win for the commissioners who, like LNP, are seeking access to details of how the district attorney spends cash and the proceeds of other property seized in drug cases.”
This decision by Judge Brown doesn’t just represent a win for the county commissioners. It represents a win for county residents, as the commissioners have made it clear they are joining LNP’s open-records fight because taxpayers should know how the public’s business is being conducted on their behalf.
That business, of course, includes matters in the Lancaster County Office of the District Attorney, which is led by Craig Stedman.
The commissioners have said through the county solicitor that they feel bound by their duty to county residents to examine how the district attorney’s office is using the cash and proceeds from property seized during drug investigations (the process through which such assets are seized is known as civil forfeiture).
Stedman has reacted angrily to their efforts and sought to block Commissioners Josh Parsons, Dennis Stuckey and Craig Lehman from joining LNP’s legal battle.
Let’s be honest: It’s not comfortable when others ask to check our work. Stedman seems to bristle at the notion more than most.
This has been evident since LNP reported in March that Stedman had spent more than $21,000 in civil forfeiture funds to lease and maintain a 2016 Toyota Highlander. By law, civil forfeiture funds are to be used to fight drug crime.
In a Right-to-Know request filed with the district attorney’s office last September, LNP staff writer Carter Walker had asked for records of how seized items were processed once they were confiscated and, if sold, how the money was allocated or spent.
The district attorney’s office denied that request. But the state Office of Open Records ruled in LNP’s favor Jan. 7.
So, as is his right, Stedman appealed that agency’s ruling in county court.
On Feb. 28, the commissioners filed a petition to join LNP’s legal fight to access the records. In a written statement explaining the move, county solicitor Christina Hausner asserted “that not all financial documents related to asset forfeiture are privileged or would compromise criminal investigations.” And “such information is necessary for government transparency.” She noted that it’s the county’s policy to “fully comply” with the Right-to-Know Law and “maintain open and transparent government.”
Last week, the commissioners’ request was granted. Judge Brown did indicate that certain documents and summaries of spending already made available by the district attorney office represented a “facially reasonable” response to the Right-to-Know request.
But as Gonzalez reported, Stedman’s office had offered “access to certain records with the stipulation that journalists sign a confidentiality agreement beforehand.”
That was a ridiculous proposition. What good would it do the public if LNP reporters could see the documents but not report on their contents to readers? They aren’t digging into this stuff for their own edification; their mission is in their job title — they report.
LNP obviously rejected that offer, pointing to the ruling — still being appealed by Stedman — from the state Office of Open Records requiring the district attorney’s office to provide unfettered access to the records.
We strongly believe that LNP readers — Lancaster County residents and taxpayers — are entitled to know how the district attorney’s office is using civil forfeiture funds.
LNP journalists file Right-to-Know requests not because it’s fun to do so — it decidedly is not — but because they take their watchdog role seriously. And they know that official records often play an essential part in conveying, in numbers and documented facts, the realities of government in action.
The power of a vigilant press — seeking those records so the public is informed — is tangible.
Consider a separate open-records request that LNP’s Walker made Dec. 20, 2018, for information about Stedman’s leased SUV.
On Jan. 2 — after that Right-to-Know request was filed — Stedman contacted the county controller to say he’d erroneously filed for mileage reimbursement on his leased SUV. Stedman repaid the county $1,459.94 on Feb. 21.
Perhaps the timing was coincidental — Stedman said his wife alerted him to the discrepancy “on or about January 1, 2019."
But maybe it wasn’t.
All we know for sure is that Stedman is running for a seat on the county bench in November. Should he become a judge, one wonders — and worries —\!q how he might rule on a Right-to-Know case such as the one before Judge Brown.
We’re talking, after all, about a district attorney who requires his employees to sign a confidentiality agreement that, in the view of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, violates the First Amendment and Pennsylvania’s whistleblower law.
Stedman’s actions suggest he doesn’t place much value in government transparency — at least not when it involves his handling of government business.
Thank goodness for those in government who not only understand the need for it, but help to ensure it.