One month ago, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority (PHEAA) was ordered by a Commonwealth Court to release various documents after being found guilty of violating the state’s Right-to-Know Law in a 5 to 2 ruling. Now PHEAA has appealed the verdict and plans to take the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The case began when three reporters separately filed Right-to-Know requests for access to PHEAA’s records. PHEAA was targeted by news organizations that were seeking credit card spending and travel records from their employees and board members who attended meetings held at posh resorts in several states. Reportedly, PHEAA has spent almost $900,000 on seven board retreats since 2000.
The Commonwealth Court’s judgment came after more than a year of accusations. In September 2005, PHEAA filed suit in a Commonwealth Court, naming the reporters as respondents and asking the court to explicitly allow the agency to refuse to release the requested documents. This incited the news organizations to file countersuits, and both sides agreed to nonbinding arbitration.
In June, a retired county judge who served as hearing examiner during that process recommended that PHEAA make its spending records public, but the agency insisted that it would keep its documents undisclosed. PHEAA attempted to form a rebuttal to the reporters’ demands for disclosure.
The first claim was based on the fact that all but four of the 20 board members are legislators and argued that certain documents in question ought to be considered “legislative recordings,” which would make them exempt from the Right-to-Know Law. The second claim pointed out that the records contained “trade secrets” that divulged PHEAA’s success in the marketplace. To PHEAA’s dismay, the court rejected both claims. After PHEAA’s stubborn reaction, the news organizations appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which ruled in their favor.
When the Commonwealth Court’s decision was made, the judge spoke firmly in support of the court’s conclusion. “Although it competes with private lenders and others, PHEAA is subject to the Right-to-Know Law [...] and it may not conduct its affairs precisely as a private entity does,” Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner said.
The court will allow PHEAA to redact, or black out, personal information such as home addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and bank account numbers.
When the Commonwealth Court’s verdict hit the Associated Press, Patriot-News Executive Editor David Newhouse made these conclusive remarks: “This is not our victory; it’s a victory for the public who has a right to know how their money is spent. I only regret that PHEAA spent so much time, effort, and, I’m sure, legal fees to fight our attempt to report the facts.”
As the case continues, more time, effort, and funds will be spent. However, as both sides feel strongly about their viewpoints, the decision is in the hands of the court.
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