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Court orders higher education board to turn over records

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Nov. 20, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Nov. 20, 2006

Court orders higher education board to turn over records

  • A state agency violated state law by refusing to disclose public records, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled.

Nov. 20, 2006  ·   The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) learned a lesson in public records disclosure from the state appeals court in a decision issued Wednesday.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, in an opinion written by Judge Doris Smith-Ribner, ruled 5-2 that the PHEAA unlawfully withheld state records, including travel expense reports, credit card statements, and performance and financial audits.

Reporters from WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, The (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News and The Associated Press brought the lawsuit under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law after the state agency denied multiple public records requests.

The court refused to recognize the PHEAA’s claims of a privilege that would have entitled the board to withhold the requested information. The agency had argued that because 16 members of the General Assembly control the higher education board, those members and the agency as a whole should be considered acting in a legislative capacity and therefore exempt from the public records law.

The court also rejected the agency’s contention that its records should be protected as sensitive business information subject to a trade secrets exemption to the public disclosure law, or that the records should be protected from disclosure as personally private information.

Teri Henning, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said that the court’s decision is an important validation for the reporters’ efforts.

“The decision emphasizes what, in our view, was already well-settled law – that expense-related records of public agencies are public documents,” she said.

According to the opinion, the PHEAA distributes money designated by the state legislature for student aid each year. The agency also purchases, services and guarantees loans similar to national student loan providers like Sallie Mae.

The court noted that the agency has at least 200 employees traveling on various assignments each month, and that the agency had more than 30,000 pages of documents responsive to the requests for travel voucher information.

Despite promises to the contrary, no one from the agency, including the agency’s President and CEO Richard E. Wiley, had turned over a single document in the nine months that had passed since the initial request.

The court agreed with an earlier determination that the PHEAA “had not made a good-faith effort to examine its records that were potentially responsive,” and that “the agency acted willfully or with wanton disregard in depriving the requester of access.”

As a result, the court awarded the reporters at least of portion of their attorney fees when the matter is finally concluded.

Henning said that the legal provision used by the appellate court to award attorney fees to the reporters had never been used before, and that other state agencies should take note.

“The decision obviously signifies a willingness by the court to sanction agencies for unreasonable denials and hopefully will result in more thoughtful consideration of these issues in the future,” Henning said.

(Parsons v. Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, Media Counsel: Craig Staudenmaier, Harrisburg, Pa.)LC

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