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The Capitol

How the legislature gave itself special privileges when writing Pa.'s open records law

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When the legislature wrote Pennsylvania’s open records law in 2008, it was hailed as a win for the public, greatly expanding access to a wider array of government records.

Less noticed at the time was that lawmakers largely exempted themselves from having to reveal many records that other government agencies routinely have to make public.

Want access to a legislator’s emails? A log of who lawmakers meet with and why? Who they talked to on the phone? You’re out of luck.

Aside from voting calendars, bills, and public hearing minutes and transcripts, financial documents are among the few records the legislature is required to disclose.

But as The Caucus and Spotlight PA have recently discovered, lawmakers are trying to shield portions of those records as well.

» RELATED: Pa. House drops ‘legislative privilege,’ will release lawmaker spending details

The news organizations are fighting those redactions through the appeals process, one of the few options the public has when a government agency denies a records request, or there is disagreement over what’s blacked out.

But the legislature gave itself special privileges in that area, too: Unlike in the executive branch, lawyers for the House and Senate do not have to make their case to the state’s Office of Open Records, an independently run agency that is the first stop in deciding appeals.

Instead, the two chambers designate appeals officers from within their own ranks, which critics believe allows them to effectively act as their own judges in public records disputes.

If the public doesn’t like the decision of the legislature’s appeals officer, they have to sue in court.

The Caucus and Spotlight PA are in the early stages of the appeals process. It has been a long one — the first round of public records requests were filed in November of last year — and it is far from over.

It could be months before all of the records are turned over. But we will continue taking a hard look at how the Pennsylvania legislature spends money. If you have tips or an idea for other records to pursue, contact me or send Spotlight PA a tip.