Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner has ordered the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency to pay almost $50,000 in the attorney fees of three media organizations. The student loan agency stalled for 19 months in a drawn-out battle to delay the release of records regarding travel expenses of employees.
The Patriot-News, the Associated Press and WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh all sought records of employees’ retreats that detailed $100 facials, $175 falconry lessons and $491 limousine rides.
Previous decisions maintained that the documents were public records, but the most recent ruling found the state agency willfully acted in disregard of the Right-to-Know Law in delaying access and therefore must compensate for the attorney fees.
The court decision comes on the heels of the state Legislature’s efforts to update Pennsylvania’s open records act, which has passed both chambers and is waiting for Gov. Rendell’s signature. The new act would place the burden of proof on the government to justify why information would should not be open.
This case is important in showing why the state needs reform of its open records act. PHEAA is a state agency that operates with tax dollars. When PHEAA pays fines or compensation, it is state money that they are using. If the average person suspected corruption in an agency and attempted to retrieve the records through the courts, they would not have the means to pursue it.
Gov. Rendell is expected to act on the bill by the end of the week.