"What's black and white and read all over?"

Monday, February 11, 2008
Posted 11:13 PM by

Who pays the cost for hiding public records in Pennsylvania?

Read this entire blog post and find out from just one example!

PHEAAHere's some irony and a valuable lesson for you.

On Monday, the same day the state House "publicly debated" and approved an update to the state's weak 50-year-old Open Records law after ironing out its kinks behind closed doors for days, the Associated Press reported that a judge ruled the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority (PHEAA) must repay three media outlets $48,000 in legal fees for refusing reporters records that were supposed to be public under the old law.

Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner ruled Friday that PHEAA acted willfully and with wanton disregard to the state's Open Records law - otherwise known as the Right-to-Know Law - in a battle over spending records, including those about PHEAA's lavish board retreats.

The judge found there was no legitimate reason for PHEAA to delay access to the records for 20 months, which the quasi-public student loan and grant agency claimed were "trade secrets."

Yawning yet? Wait. It gets better from here, much better. I promise.

Just who are these no-accounts, these trough hogs, these abusers of public trust on PHEAA'S board who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at posh resorts between 2000 and 2005 - money that could have helped worthy students pay for college?

Why they're some of the same state representatives who suddenly voted tonight - a full day earlier than expected - to send the Open Records bill back to the state Senate, where much of a 13-month delay previously occurred.

In case you didn't know, the PHEAA board is made up mostly of state lawmakers, including: Rep. William F. Adolph Jr. (R-Springfield), its chairman; Sen. Sean Logan (D-Monroeville), its vice chairman; Rep. Ronald I. Buxton (Harrisburg), Rep. Ronald I. Buxton (D-Harrisburg), Sen. Jake Corman (R-Bellfonte), former state Sen. J. Doyle Corman (Jake's father), Rep. Craig A. Dally (D-Nazareth), Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (D-Exton), Sen. Jane M. Earll (R-Erie), Sen. Edwin B. Erickson (R-Newtown Square), Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Pittsburgh), Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D-Philadelphia), Sen. Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia), Rep. Sandra J. Major (R-Montrose), Rep. Jennifer L. Mann (D-Allentown), former Rep. Roy Reinard (Holland), Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr. (D-Philadelphia), state Banking Secretary A. William Schenck III, Rep. Jess M. Stairs (R-Acme), Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson (R-Bensalem), and state Education Secretary and ex-officio Penn State trustee Gerald L. Zahorchak.

How bad do things have to get before Gov. Ed Rendell declares publicly, "It's a disaster. We have to totally re-evaluate PHEAA. I think we have to clean house and establish a new culture."

(I could say the same thing about the entire Legislature, the state Supreme Court and the governor himself, but I digress.) Rendell's threat to PHEAA came March 14, 2007.

In response, the PHEAA board issued a press release March 22, vowing it would change.

On April 20, the board issued another press release saying it had adopted a code of ethics that "formalizes longstanding policies and practices that have helped PHEAA's public service mission to always stay focused, first and foremost, on the students' best interests in all business dealings."

But on Aug. 24, Rendell again threatened to privatize the agency - or, at the very least, restrict how it spends money and consider replacing board members - after the board handed out bonuses as high as $180,857 to top PHEAA executives.

On Oct. 10, PHEAA CEO Dick Willey resigned in disgrace - two months earlier than he planned - and less than a week after preliminary findings of the first-ever state audit of PHEAA showed the board had given out $7.5 million in executive bonuses in just three years.

State Auditor General Jack Wagner also found that PHEAA had rented Hersheypark for a day in April, providing free rides and food for employees and their guests, at a total expense of $108,000. The deal to lease the amusement park was signed just one day after PHEAA's board issued its news release promising to tighten expenses.

Senator Logan, vice-chairman of PHEAA's board, claims the board members knew nothing about the staff outing and admits he demanded Willey resign immediately.

I couldn't find an explanation for why Logan simply didn't call an emergency meeting of the board and fire Willey's ass on the spot, because he didn't just walk away empty-handed.

Willey took his $370,000 annual pension with him. His predecessor, PHEAA founder Michael Hershock, retired from the authority at the end of 2002 with a $222,173 yearly state pension plus a $321,409 lump sum payment. Yet, he was also still drawing a $147,000 salary from PHEAA in 2006, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review found.

How did the board react to all this?

In October it started cutting back - on its own mission - by reducing the number of grants given to full-time students and for financial aid to adults taking job-training classes. It blamed a new federal law governing student lenders and unsettled financial markets for a projected $44.4 million reduction in spending on the aid programs in 2008-09, down from $105.8 million this year.

The board then issued a press release on Jan. 24 claiming PHEAA is now in "99.5% compliance with new, stricter spending policies."

That led Senator Fumo - who also happens to be under federal indictment for allegedly extorting $17 million from PECO Energy for a non-profit group in his district and then allegedly covering it up - to vehemently claim penny pinching by the PHEAA board was now hurting its efforts to gain funding for student loans and grants.

"I think the auditor general should be ashamed for trying to run a political campaign on the backs of the students of this commonwealth," Fumo charged.

Wagner, who is seeking re-election this year and is considered a potential candidate for governor in 2010, denied Fumo's allegation without laughing too loudly. His audit won't be complete until June.

This now bring us all the way back to that $48,000 the judge ruled PHEAA now owes to Pittsburgh TV station WTAE-TV, the Patriot-News of Harrisburg and the Associated Press.

Under the old law, PHEAA's board members cannot be held individually liable for their decision to deny the public records which sparked the 20-month legal fight and the resulting investigations. But the board was legally able to sue reporters seeking the information personally in hopes of blocking their requests.

Instead, the money to repay the media's legal costs will likely come out of PHEAA's operating budget - hurting students even more - or from errors and omissions insurance, if the board had the wisdom to take out such a policy.

I've long advocated that any change in the Open Records law must hold public officials personally liable for such denials so taxpayers don't get stuck with the bill or paying higher insurance premiums for governmental agencies.

But guess what the new Open Records bill - Senate Bill 1 - doesn't say?

S.B. 1 could be on Gov. Ed Rendell's desk by the end of the day tomorrow, even though Common Cause of Pennsylvania has withdrawn support for it, arguing the bill is too weak and has a built-in conflict of interest.

Pennsylvania Newspaper Association lobbyist Deb Musselman told the AP her organization was withholding judgment, particularly because of a last-minute addition that would deny access to records identifying the names, home addresses or dates of birth of children 17 or younger

Although legislative records would be fully covered under the Open Records bill for the first time, the reason House leaders could meet in secret over the last five days to discuss changing the bill is that the Legislature is still the only state agency exempt from the state's 34-year-old Open Meetings Act or Sunshine Law while meeting in caucus.

That's progress, Pennsylvania-style, folks.

Or as Patriot-News Executive Editor David Newhouse told the AP, "We can only hope that the new Right-to-Know Law will make it so the average citizen doesn't have to pay $50,000 and take a case to the Supreme Court to get information that they have a right to in the first place."

One final thought.

Given the revelations contained within the 13,470 pages of records the three media outlets had to sue PHEAA in appellate courts to obtain, all they've won so far is their money back, no real public thanks - and possibly a three-way share in a Pulitzer Prize.

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