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Governor of PA won’t disclose legal bills · Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf took office eight years ago as a champion for government transparency.

He posted his public schedule online. He prohibited members of his administration from accepting gifts. And he urged other state agencies, as well as the legislature, to do the same.

But when it comes to his office’s bills, the outgoing Democratic governor is all talk and little substance.

His office of general counsel — which refers to itself as “Pennsylvania’s law firm” — is shielding basic information about why it spends tens of thousands of dollars annually to hire private law firms, according to hundreds of pages of redacted records obtained by Spotlight PA and The Caucus.

In fact, over the past year, Wolf’s administration has actively blocked efforts by the news organizations to make those details public, sharing only records showing which firms he hired, and how much those firms charged for some of his legal work — but in almost every case, not what business or policy and other matters the work involved.

The administration has argued, among other things, that the information is sensitive and that its disclosure could jeopardize its legal strategy – thus exempt from the state’s open records law.

The lack of transparency allowed 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.

That total only includes payments to private law firms by Wolf’s office of general counsel, which typically 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.

The amount does not cover the myriad of government departments under Wolf’s jurisdiction that also regularly hire private firms to handle cases specific to their agency. In recent years, those agencies spent between $30 million and $40 million a year on outside attorneys.

David L. Cuillier, president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said he finds it hard to believe that providing general descriptions of the work a firm is being hired to do somehow reveals sensitive details about a case. will announce.

“A simple general description will do, but apparently Pennsylvanians will never know because they have to trust the government that all the blacked-out descriptions include sensitive information,” said Cuillier, whose organization advocates for transparency in state and local government and the public. institutions.

Wolf spokeswoman Beth Rementer said in a statement that the governor has made transparent government “his highest priority.” Among his first actions in office, Rementer noted, was to begin competitive bidding on legal contracts, publicly posting legal tenders and awards.

She also said that the administration prioritized working with the public and the press, and that regarding its legal bills, they had “made available hundreds of pages of documents,” only portions that “must remain legally confidential in order to protect any matters under investigation , protect or maintain attorney-client privilege.”

Records involving legal bills can be valuable guides to policies and matters that elected officials prioritize but don’t necessarily want published. For example, the decade-long — and highly partisan — process to redraw political maps is one key issue for which state officials have turned to outside law firms and spent millions of taxpayer dollars in the process.

Using Pennsylvania’s public records law, Spotlight PA and The Caucus in January requested invoices and other financial documents from the administration for spending on outside law firms from 2019 to 2021. The news organizations did so after several months of discussions with Wolf general counsel’s office about the information they sought, and the best way to obtain it.

In response to the request, officials from the General Counsel’s office provided copies of 45 invoices, totaling $367,538, detailing the dollar amounts billed by the six outside firms during that period. The subject line in each invoice is redacted, as are portions of the invoices that describe the work performed by the private attorneys. The office did not hand over contracts or other documentation that was also requested.

On each invoice, the officials edited the brief description (three or four words) of the work the private lawyers were hired to do.

In doing so, they cited exemptions under the state’s public records law that allow them to withhold information that falls under attorney-client privilege or that could reveal legal strategy or private communications between attorneys and their clients. They also claimed that the invoices do not involve cases that are in the courts and have a public docket summarizing the proceedings in the case.

Deputy General Counsel Thomas P. Howell summed up the administration’s position in a recent email to Spotlight PA and The Caucus: “The [General Counsel’s] Office does retain firms to address specific legal issues that never result in litigation. The exact legal issues/questions asked of counsel are privileged (as they reveal direct communication between client/lawyer seeking legal advice).

He added: “That said, I believe that the invoices do shed some light on the work that counsel performed (if not the exact legal question they were asked to resolve).”

The news organizations appealed to the state’s Office of Open Records, an independently run agency that resolves disputes over public records, and soon after agreed to mediate with the General Counsel’s office to resolve the matter .

But the office took months to turn over only a few of the additional records agreed to in mediation, and those it did turn over offered no further insight into why Wolf hired outside counsel.

Specifically, the General Counsel’s office made available the underlying contracts they signed with the six law firms — but those agreements were so broadly written that they effectively protected the purpose of the representation.

For example, the contract with one of the six firms, Myers, Brier & Kelly, states that the firm will provide “complex litigation services.” Another contract, with Blank Rome LLP, describes the firm’s work as providing “litigation and other potentially emergent legal services on an ad hoc basis.”

Spotlight PA and The Caucus ended mediation this fall — nearly six months after it began — because it was unproductive. Wolf’s General Counsel’s office in late September said it would provide more details about the legal bills — but did so in an email Monday at 3:57 p.m., after the news organizations reached out to the governor’s press office for commentary.

The administration provided additional information about why it hired the six firms, but in only one case was it clear what real issue the work involved. In that case, the administration hired the private attorneys to help review and organize a sudden influx of pardon applications.

In two other cases, the General Counsel’s office said the private attorneys were used for “specialized tax advice” and issues related to “federal rulemaking,” but did not elaborate.

The Office of Open Records issued a final opinion last month that sided with the administration and ruled that the redacted information was not subject to disclosure.

But the record agency also made a call for transparency, saying it acknowledged its opinion “means the public cannot fully understand why taxpayer-funded legal fees were incurred for these invoices.

“Agencies and third parties must be aware of that when preparing legal invoices so that the invoices allow the public to see how and why taxpayer funds were spent,” wrote Erin Burlew, the Open Records Office attorney who wrote the decision.

Accessing details about legal bills paid by state government agencies and the state legislature has a long and divisive history. But a landmark 2013 decision by Pennsylvania’s highest court ruled that general descriptions of legal services, and the identity of who is represented, are public information.

It’s not just the Wolf administration that seems to be disregarding the spirit of that ruling. The state legislature spends millions of taxpayer dollars each year to hire private law firms through a closed-door process that, unlike other government contracts, is made with virtually no public oversight.

And like Wolf’s Office of General Counsel, legislative leaders have also fully revised the purpose of many of their legal bills, a previous investigation by Spotlight PA and The Caucus found.

The news organizations, represented by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, sued the state House and Senate in an effort to reveal why the two chambers are hiring outside attorneys. The case is before Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, with oral argument scheduled for Dec. 12 in the case.

Gunita Singh, a staff attorney for the reporters committee who is not involved in arguing the case next week, said Pennsylvania agencies have an express duty to carefully construe exemptions from disclosure. That rule, she said, applies even when information is subject to a privilege, because Pennsylvania’s open records law contains an express presumption in favor of releasing records to the public.

Furthermore, the law does not prevent a government agency from releasing a record, even privileged ones, to promote transparency.

She said Wolf’s General Counsel’s office appears to be shielding even the most generic information about why the government spends money on private law firms. There are specific criteria that must be met to withhold records under the attorney-client privilege; if the information falls outside those specific criteria – as general descriptions likely will – it must be disclosed.

“This is especially true given the increased public interest in these records,” she said.

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