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PA doesn't put judges' gift disclosures online

Plus, top lawmakers took $30K in travel perks last year.

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May 16, 2024 | spotlightpa.org

Top Pennsylvania state legislators accepted nearly $30,000 in travel expenses in 2023, often from groups that have interests before the state, newly filed ethics reports show.

That includes trips to political conferences and other events bankrolled by campaign groups, organizations pushing alternatives to public education, and more, Spotlight PA reports.

Also this week: Amid protests over the war in Gaza, Gov. Josh Shapiro has quietly revised his administration’s code of conduct to bar state employees from engaging in “scandalous or disgraceful” behavior — actions that could lead to discipline or termination.

Finally, Shapiro has thrown his weight behind an incarcerated man’s petition for medical release from Pennsylvania state prison. During a hearing this week, the Allegheny County district attorney's office fought the request


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Docs that show whether Pa. judges took perks aren’t posted online

Every year, thousands of officials in state government must fill out annual reports by May 1 that disclose their sources of income, creditors, and business interests, as well as any gifts, hospitality, or other perks they accepted.

Those reports, called statements of financial interest, are then made publicly searchable and available online. The forms are a key way for the public to gain a deeper understanding of their elected officials’ financial ties, as well as discover which outside groups may be trying to influence public policy decisions.

Pennsylvania’s judges, however, play by somewhat different rules.

Though they too must file annual disclosures, theirs aren’t posted online. The public must ask for copies — provided they know where to go for that information.

Some good-government advocates say this creates an unnecessary inconvenience for anyone trying to quickly access fundamental information about Pennsylvania’s judiciary, a critical branch of government with great power over civil and criminal matters. 

“Judges are public officials, and there are many special interests trying to influence the courts,” said Michael Pollack, executive director of March On Harrisburg, a group that pushes for transparency in government, as well as a ban on gifts to elected officials. 

“When you erect barriers, you are denying access,” he said.

Stacey Witalec, spokesperson for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, did not answer a question about why the courts do not post financial interest statements for judges online. “While not posted on our website, the Court makes the statements of financial interest available upon request,” she said in an email. 

She did not elaborate.

Statements of financial interest are at their core a tool to increase public trust in government. But they also can act as deterrents, the thinking being that disclosure makes it less likely a public official will engage in any conflicts of interest. The importance of a robust reporting system was amplified following media investigations last year that revealed several U.S. Supreme Court justices had not disclosed certain gifts and travel. 

In Pennsylvania, elected officials including the governor, state legislators, and row officers file annual statements of financial interest with the state Ethics Commission (municipal officials file their forms with their local jurisdictions). The commission makes those reports available on its website, which last year housed 11,693 such forms, according to officials there.

Judges, in contrast, submit their annual disclosures to the AOPC, the administrative arm of the state Supreme Court. They fill out a form unique to the judiciary — even though they too have to disclose many of the same things as non-judges, including outside income, real estate and business interests, and any outside reimbursement of expenses (such as comped trips or transportation).

Anyone who wants a copy of a judge’s annual disclosure has to ask the AOPC for one.

A recent report compared access to statements of financial interest for state Supreme Court justices across the country, and gave Pennsylvania an average grade. Among other things, the report found that 24 of the 48 states that require annual judicial disclosures don't post justices' reports online.

“It’s 2024, and there’s no valid excuse,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, in a news release announcing the study. Roth’s nonprofit organization advocates for accountability in federal courts.

Philadelphia lawyer Terry Mutchler, a former head of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, said she would be more troubled if judges weren’t required to file disclosures at all.

Still, she said, “Anytime you can create ease and post things online, it is better for transparency … It’s the difference between a B-plus and an A.” Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

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