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Pa. Senate defends ‘legislative privilege’ claim, rejects appeal for redacted expense details

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Some individual senators expressed concern about the redactions and began posting their own office expenses online.
JOSE F. MORENO / Philadelphia Inquirer

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The top open records official in the Pennsylvania Senate has struck down an appeal by The Caucus and Spotlight PA that sought to uncover details about some of the chamber’s expenses that it shielded from public view.

In siding with the Senate, the official affirmed the chamber’s decision earlier this year to claim what they said is a constitutional right to “legislative privilege” in order to prevent the release of details in official expense reports about who legislators and their staff met with and why.

Both the Senate and House had cited the privilege to redact parts of thousands of pages of expenses provided through Right-to-Know requests in recent months.

House Republicans later reversed course and released all the information without redactions made under the obscure “speech and debate clause” of the Constitution.

They also vowed to change their practice of redacting such information, and this week House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler officially proposed an internal rule change to never again produce expense records with “excessive redactions.”

“We should always err on the side of public transparency. We all answer to our constituents for every vote we make and every dollar we spend,” Cutler, a Lancaster County Republican, said in a statement Wednesday.

In the Senate, however, officials continued arguing against releasing all the information — even after some individual senators expressed concern about the redactions and began posting their own office expenses online.

Megan Martin, the appeals officer for the Senate who is also appointed by its leaders, wrote the final determination for the latest appeal rejection. She is also the secretary and parliamentarian of the Senate, paid $186,418 per year, according to the state’s PennWatch website.

The Senate’s redactions, she wrote, were “limited in scope — limited to the legitimate legislative activity of meeting with individuals to discuss legislative matters, conversations that could ultimately result in the drafting and passage of legislation.”

Denying the protection, Martin wrote, “renders the privilege meaningless and arguably dilutes the effectiveness of the legislature.”

The news organizations had argued the “privilege” was applied too broadly in this case and to financial records that are considered public under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.

The specific records request at issue was a 27-page expense report for the office of the Senate president pro tempore, the highest ranking legislator in the chamber.

Responding to a separate, broader request for all Senate expenses from 2017-19, the chamber last month provided upwards of 6,200 additional pages. But instead of making similar redactions, officials simply withheld all detailed explanations. They were scrubbed without explanation, as if those parts of the records had never existed.

Facing another appeal, the Senate provided those records again this week, this time with more than 500 additional pages of details it had withheld. And, once again, blacked-out details were scattered throughout.

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Sam Janesch