The public has the right to know
The Pennsylvania Senate is extremely persistent in trying to hide how much taxpayers' money it spent on legal representation for former state Sen. Robert Mellow and some Senate staffers. But, fortunately, so is the principle that the public has the right to know how the government spends its money.
Monday, the Commonwealth Court emphatically rejected the Senate's claims, some of which were preposterous, that it does not have to publicly release invoices for outside legal services relative to a federal criminal investigation of Mr. Mellow. The former Senate minority leader pleaded guilty in 2012 to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and filing a false tax return. He has completed a federal prison term.
Included among the Senate's claims rejected by the unanimous court is that if it legally can withhold any part of a requested document, it need not produce the entire document. That idea turns on its head the idea that, in limited instances, parts of public documents may be redacted by government agencies. If the Senate position were valid policy, any government agency easily could contrive not to release almost any document.
That was a "Hail Mary" desperation argument, which the Senate did not make until after it lost its first several efforts to hide the data.
The Commonwealth Court also rejected the Senate's arguments that the information was shielded from disclosure on the grounds of attorney-client privilege, the attorney work product doctrine, grand jury secrecy rules and the criminal investigation exception of the state Open Records Law.
But the records sought by the Associated Press are, basically, law firms' billing records identifying charges for particular clients. There was no request for any actual work product, such as memos outlining strategy or even the known facts of the case.
As the court put it: "Disclosure of the general tasks performed in connection with the fee charged reveals nothing about litigation strategy. They simply explain the generic nature of the service performed and justify the charges for legal services rendered. Where, as here, the taxpayers are footing the bill for the legal services, they are entitled to know the general nature of the services provided for the fees charged.'
That is not a complicated concept. Now that the Senate quite justly has lost yet another secrecy gambit, it should forgo further appeal and release the records.