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State lawmaker's phone records deemed inaccessible

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         PENNSYLVANIA         Freedom of Information         Jun 20, 2001    

State lawmaker’s phone records deemed inaccessible

  • A state appeals court concludes that a legislator’s phone bills, paid by taxpayers, are legislative activity and are therefore exempt from the state open records law.

A state appellate court has rejected a reporter’s request for the phone records of a state lawmaker, saying there is no common law right of access to the records.

The five-judge Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court panel ruled that state Rep. Larry Roberts (D-South Union), does not have to turn over taxpayer-paid bills from his cellular phone, residential line and office phone to the Uniontown Herald-Standard.

Charlie O’Brien, a Canonsburg, Pa., attorney who is representing the Herald-Standard, said the paper would appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Roberts released the billing records to selected media outlets on the condition that they respect the “objectives of privacy and confidentiality of the communications.” He refused to give the statements to Paul Sunyak, a Herald-Standard reporter. Roberts offered the records to the newspaper if it would put another reporter on the story, a request the paper rejected.

In an opinion filed May 31, President Judge Joseph Doyle wrote that legislative immunity protected Roberts from disclosing the records. “Consequently, the act of Rep. Roberts denying access to his business telephone records is likewise within the sphere of legislative activity,” Doyle wrote.

The court held that legislative activity includes the time lawmakers spend on the phone talking with constituents.

(Uniontown Newspapers Inc. v. Roberts; Media counsel: Charlie O’Brien, Sinclair, Jackson, Reinhart & Hayden LLC, Canonsburg, Pa.) CM

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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