The public's right to know
If there's anything worse than lawmakers and their staffs violating the public trust through criminal corruption, it's forcing the public to pay for their legal defense. If there's anything worse than that, it's the Legislature's refusal to disclose the identities of the public servants receiving the free legal assistance.
Fortunately, the Commonwealth Court this week completed shredding the veil of secrecy the state Senate had erected around its members and staffers receiving publicly funded legal help.
The case arose from a case against former state Sen. Robert J. Mellow of Lackawanna County. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and to defraud the federal government by filing a false tax return, and is close to completing a prison sentence he began about a year ago.
Marc Levy, a reporter for the Associated Press, sought from the Senate financial records relative to any publicly funded legal services for Mr. Mellow and staffers for the Senate Democratic caucus. The Senate refused, under the farcical claim that revealing whether the public employees received publicly funded legal representation would violate attorney-client privilege.
Last year the Commonwealth Court found and the Supreme Court upheld that the Senate's financial records are public records that do not jeopardize attorney-client privilege.
This week, a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel found that the Senate can't hide the records behind grand jury secrecy rules, the Right-To-Know Law's exception for criminal investigations or the attorney work-product doctrine.
The public is not entitled to know the specific legal strategy or advice offered by lawyers to senators or their staffers, the judges found, but taxpayers are entitled to the identities of legislative personnel they are paying lawyers to represent and, generally, the nature of the services.
"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," Judge Robert K. Simpson wrote.
That the Senate considers that a novel concept demonstrates how far the Legislature has to go before it can call itself transparent.