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Couloumbis v. Pennsylvania Office of General Counsel

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  1. Freedom of Information

Case Number: 1425 CD 2022

Court: Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

Clients: Angela Couloumbis, Sam Janesch, Spotlight PA, The Caucus

Petition for Review Filed: Dec. 21, 2022

Background: In January 2022, Spotlight PA reporter Angela Couloumbis and Sam Janesch, previously a reporter for The Caucus, filed a public records request with the Pennsylvania Office of General Counsel seeking records related to outside legal work performed by law firms or attorneys for departments under the governor’s jurisdiction. The request specifically sought those records for the calendar years 2019-2021.

A month later, the Office of General Counsel provided some responsive records but with redactions that hid important information, including descriptions of the legal matters. The Office of General Counsel claimed the redacted information was protected under exemptions included in Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.

The journalists appealed to the state’s Office of Open Records, but the agency denied the appeal. After the journalists requested reconsideration from the OOR, the agency rejected it, claiming that it was untimely.

On behalf of Couloumbis, Janesch, Spotlight PA, and The Caucus, Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney for Pennsylvania, appealed the OOR’s decision to the Commonwealth Court. In their petition seeking the court’s review, the journalists argue, among other things, that the OOR erred in concluding that the Office of General Counsel could withhold certain information, including descriptions stating why an attorney or law firm is hired.

Quote: “The lack of transparency has allowed [Pennsylvania Gov. Tom] Wolf’s Office of General Counsel to spend at least $367,500 over the past three years on a half-dozen law firms, in many cases without explaining why,” Spotlight PA reported in a story published on Dec. 6, 2022. “That total only includes payments to private law firms by Wolf’s Office of General Counsel, which usually handles litigation specific to the governor himself or other legal issues important to his office, such as disputes that may arise over his specific policies or the state budget.”

Related: In February 2022, Couloumbis and Janesch, represented by Burke, asked the Commonwealth to review two similar public records disputes after the OOR denied their appeals seeking unredacted records related to outside legal work performed by law firms or attorneys hired or retained by the House or Senate or any House or Senate employee.

Updates: After hearing oral argument on Sept. 11, 2023, the Commonwealth Court ordered the Office of General Counsel to produce a selection of unredacted records within 10 days for the court to review in private.


2022-12-21: Petition for review

2023-03-22: Principal brief of petitioners

2023-03-22: Reproduced record

2023-05-01: Respondent’s brief

2023-09-12: Order

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