Tuesday, February 12, 2008

PHEEA Paying for Hiding Records

Hours before a vote in the state House of Representatives to open up government records to the public, three media outlets won legal costs from a state agency that denied access to its paperwork.

A Commonwealth Court judged awarded $48,000 in legal fees incurred by a Harrisburg newspaper, the Associated Press, and a Pittsburgh television station to be paid by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.

The outlets fought PHEAA for nearly two years in court over access to financial records. Ultimately the journalists prevailed - and discovered the agency spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on board retreats, including cigars, alcohol, and falconry instruction.

Deborah Musselman with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, which advocates for access to government records, says this is a win for all state residents. "It's got to be a victory for access because the agency was found to be in violation of the open records act. So it's appropriate that they would pay those costs."

Meantime, Musselman says her organization continues to support Senate Bill 1 - which was approved by the House Monday night. If enacted, proponents say, it would take the state's record access law from being one of the worst in the nation to perhaps one of the best.

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