Pennsylvania Senate hides some of its expenses

Pennsylvania State Capitol Senate Chamber

The Pennsylvania Senate is hiding detailed explanations about its expenses from officials’ records under public record requests.

It was reported they are allegedly hiding information about how they spend taxpayer’s money.

Spotlight PA reports that before handing over the documents, Senate officials edited out explanations, making it looks like they never existed. It was reported that officials did not disclose the removal of information.

It was reported that lawyers who specialize in public records said that public officials are not allowed to erase parts of public records. However, officials need to clarify why they chose not to release certain bits of information in public records.

“You can’t just delete things from public records,” Terry Mutchler, the first director of the state’s Office of Open Records and a prominent First Amendment lawyer, told Spotlight PA.

Mutchler added, “It is absolutely flabbergasting. It’s a new level of anti-transparency. We are now in the anti-transparency Olympics.”

Spotlight PA reports that records were requested to document what precisely the legislature spends its $360 million in taxpayer dollars on.

Pennsylvania’s open records law requires government officials to search records, relevant to requests. It was reported that laws exempt certain records, which allows government agencies to redact or block out certain areas of the documents.

However, it was reported that the law doesn’t allow agencies to do that without disclosing it.

Spotlight PA says information deleted from Senate documents include: travel, meetings, conferences and other outings that senators and their staffers went on.

Senate officials said that blacking out these details was a “legislative privilege,” and that disclosure of these items to the public was not mandatory by law. However, Spotlight PA found officials were sometimes erasing information, instead of redacting it.

Spotlight PA requested access to the databases used to track spending but were denied. Officials stated that they are not required to give the public access to records or data that would “subject them to alteration or manipulation.”

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told Spotlight PA that, “If they are going to withhold information from a public record, they have to justify it — not just erase it.”

An example of this reported by Spotlight PA was a staffer’s $27.27 lunch charge on Aug. 2018. This was described as “Legislative meals, Lunch, Bellefonte, to attend the [REDACTED].” However on updated documents this same item was listed only as “Legislative meals,” showing a clear example of document deletions.