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

Friday, March 17, 2006
Posted 6:40 PM by

Beat the press (to a pulp)

Just in time for Sunshine Week, the state's two largest newspapers have been sold and the state Supreme Court upheld the seizure of newsroom harddrives at another paper. So much for a free and independent press.Just when you thought Knight-Ridder's sale of the state's largest newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, would be the only cross an independent press would face this week, along comes word that newsroom computers can now be subpoeaned.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office has seized four hard drives in the newsroom of the Intelligencer Journal of Lancaster as part of a probe into alleged leaks by a county coroner, after the state Supreme Court denied the newspaper's challenge to the search.

State Attorney General Tom Corbett's office, which is conducting a grand jury probe, rebuffed offers to provide the information sought through less intrusive means or to search the computers in the newsroom, newspaper officials said.

Harold E. Miller Jr., the president and chief executive of parent Lancaster Newspapers Inc., said the ruling dismayed reporters and could have a chilling effect on newsgathering.

"You get to the point where sources have confidence that we'll do the right thing and that our industry's protected. They'll talk to us," Miller said Wednesday. "Without that confidence, we lose our ability to do our job."

No kidding.

That means anything on those harddrives - from notes on upcoming stories to off-the-record comments never meant for publication - can now be read by state officials.

I'm sure many of those same officials consider this turnabout as fair play considering the state's Open Records Law - combined with many court cases - gives reporters access to some agencies' public records electronically.

But even that is very limited. The law itself is a wee small pry bar, not a powerful tool for an independent and free press.

For instance:

  • If a record is maintained electronically only, an agency must make a paper copy if requested.

  • Agencies are not required to "create" a public record if none exists.

  • An agency is not required to "compile, maintain, format or organize" a public record in a manner in which it does not already do so. That means reporters must re-formate any data they get before they can suck it into a database and start sifting through it.

    Lord knows I've done enough Computer Assisted Reporting projects to know that using a database alone doesn't give you a story. It only gives you the ability to ask the right questions.

  • Even if information, such as public officials' Statements of Financial Conflicts of Interests, can be accessed via the Internet, that doesn't mean it has to be in a user-friendly format or even searchable. The state Ethics Commission's Web site is a prime example.
While some efforts are being made to update the law in New Jersey, no such effort is under way in Pennsylvania.

By the way, tomorrow is the last day of Sunshine Week, an initiative by the American Society of Newspaper Editors aimed at promoting discussion about open government and the freedom of information.

Advocates say the biggest problem in Pennsylvania is not the law itself, but that public officials ignore it. They contend there is no state agency to report potential problems, and that while lawsuits can be filed, penalties are light.


Thursday, March 16, 2006
Posted 6:31 PM by

Pa. takes a baby step on lobbyist reform

Gov. Ed Rendell took a baby step toward reform this week when he ordered most lobbyists seeking to influence the executive branch. His order, however, carries little weight and no penalties.Despite some movement in the Legislature, Pennsylvania is still the only state in the nation without a lobbyist disclosure law, let alone limits on what they can spend.

But Gov. Ed Rendell took a baby step toward one this week when he signed an executive order requiring most lobbyists who seek to influence the executive branch of state government - which includes all departments and agencies - to register and report their spending.

"It is important for the public to know and understand who is working to influence decisions. This change in the Governor's Code of Conduct will shed new light on forces that work to influence actions in state government," Rendell said. "This information and a complete database eventually will be available and accessible to the public."

This being Pennsylvania, though, there are of course a few catches:

  • Lobbyist information does not have to be made public for up to six months.

  • There's no penalties for violations.

  • Lobbyists who earned or spent less than $2,500 per quarter in the previous two years are exempt. So they can spend heavy when their bill or regulatory rule comes up for a vote and still get away with it.

  • Finally, Rendell's order does not require state employees to provide their statement of financial conflicts of interests to the state Ethics Commission for posting on its web site. That means the public still can't see them.
The question that should be asked is where has Rendell been the past four years on this issue?

The incumbent Democrat, who will likely face Republic challenger Lynn Swann in the fall, said he waited to act because he had hoped the Legislature would restore a law that applies to the legislative and executive branches.

"We've waited so long and nothing happened," Rendell said.

That's because state House Speaker John Perzel was blocking any measures from coming to a vote on the floor even though fellow legislative juggernaut, state Sen. Vincent Fumo, favors reform.

Perzel has since relented.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Posted 5:51 PM by

Slots of work still to be done

Looks like Pennslvania's slots law is fast becoming a lemon (of a) law.It's no secret I hate the idea of slot machine gambling in Pennsylvania. I hate the way it was passed. The trouble and corruption it will cause. And I don't think the money raised will ever cover the blight and social costs to putting 12 soon-to-be-casinos around the state.

That said, I also find it hilarious that the Legislature still hasn't come up with a way to lower property taxes, which was the alleged point of this exercise.

First, they offered to split $1 billion in anticipated gambling revenues among the state's 501 school districts in exchange for tax reductions, strict spending limits and the imposition of a local income tax. Most of the school systems said no thanks.

Then, the lawmakers weighed a proposal to force a referendum onto local ballots, even though the idea of allowing gambling was never put to a state-wide vote by the public.

Now, with a primary election looming on the horizon, there are so many competing proposals on the table that no single measure has been unable to gain a majority of votes. Hooray for mass confusion.

It would be down right ludicrous, but not totally unexpected, for this state to allow the slots parlors to open without a clear method of the revenue would benefit taxpayers.

The worst-case scenario is the whole billion gets thrown into general fund of the state budget unencumbered and the state gets hooked on it. That happened in New Jersey, which anticipates a $4 billion deficit this year despite equally large revenues from Atlantic City.

Meanwhile, the state House took one step forward and one back Wednesday on slots-related issues in one deft move.

In a move that defies the notion that lawmakers lack taste, a bill passed 180-20 that would block the contruction of a slots parlor only a couple of miles from Gettysburg.

The thought of tourists dividing their time between pouring junior's college fund into machines and sightseeing at the nation's bloodiest and most decisive Civil War battlefield didn't sit too well with historians and enthusiasts.

The same bill, however, also strips Philadelphia's ability to enforce zoning or other regulations over any gambling facility there - a move that would probably won't sit too well with Gov. Ed Rendell, the city's former mayor.

Of course, no other city in the state has any regulatory authority either under the existing state slots law. You will just have to hope there's no schools nearby and the parlors pay attention to local fire and health codes voluntarily.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Posted 5:06 PM by

Druce is loose again

Ex-state Rep. Tom Druce is now free on parole after killing a homeless ex-marine with his taxpayer-paid Jeep. Oh, and he's free to drive too.Better stay off the sidewalk and watch your step, former state Rep. Tom Druce was released from prison this week on parole for killing a homeless guy in Harrisburg with his taxpayer-paid Jeep.

Druce, 44, was released Monday after just two intermittent years spent at the Laurel Highlands prison in Somerset, a minimum-security facility with a special unit for geriatric male prisoners, at 8:50 a.m., according to state Corrections Department spokeswoman Sue McNaughton.

The four-term legislator from Upper Bucks County was a rising Republican star in January 2000, when Harrisburg police, acting on an anonymous tip, first questioned him about the death of Kenneth Cains.

Druce will serve the next two years on parole. During that time, he will be subject to conditions that include mandatory drug testing and a ban on the consumption of alcohol.

However, he already has his driver's license back.


Monday, March 13, 2006
Posted 8:18 PM by

Perfect replacements for Habay

One candidate admits to a child out of wedlock, the other admits to illegally seeing the sealed case file.Pennsylvania sure can pick 'em. The two candidates fighting to fill out the term of disgraced and jailed former state Rep. Jeff Habay seem ready to step into his slimey shoes.

Democrat Shawn Flaherty, 46, admitted Monday he had a child out of wedlock while he and his wife were separated 14 years ago.

Flaherty and a woman had the girl in 1992 while he was separated from his wife, Debbie. Flaherty said he paid child support until the girl's mother married two years later and her husband adopted the girl. Flaherty and his wife have been married for nearly 20 years.

Flaherty said he came forward with the information because his Republican opponent, Mike Dolan, 26, obtained it through "background research" and planned to use it.

Dolan admits he saw Flaherty's court file but said he did not plan to use it. "I would never do something like that," he added.

Before you go thinking Dolan is a nice guy, please remember adoptions - as well as most family court cases like the establishment of child support payments - are supposed to be sealed in Pennsylvania and it's illegal for the public to see them.

The only time that information might have become public is if Flaherty had been a deadbeat dad, which no one here is alleging. That means Dolan probably violated the law just by looking at the court file.

So here's the choice Allegheny County voters will face - an admitted adulterer or a guy who feels nothing about violating privacy laws even before he's elected.

Lest we forget, Habay resigned from the Legislature and was sentenced to six months to one year in a halfway house on Feb. 8 for making his staff do campaign work on state time.

He used them to stuff envelopes begging potential contributors for campaign money. Habay got the mailing list from state Department of Transportation records, but was never prosecuted for their misuse.


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