Secrecy is No Friend of Freedom

Member Group : Democracy Raising PA

What is the common element among all of the high-profile scandals of the past five years? Secrecy.

The pay raise was negotiated among the leaders of all three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – for a full year before its passage in the dead of night without public hearings or public knowledge of any sort.

The Bonus Scandal erupted when a letter was leaked that told the recipient not to tell anyone about the secret bonuses for illegal campaign work at taxpayer expense.

The "kids-for-cash" scandal happened because the state’s Judicial Conduct Board operates in secret. Over several years, the JCB swept under the rug dozens of complaints against the judges who accepted $2.8 million in kickbacks for sentencing juveniles to private detention centers.

The recipients of WAMs and RACP grants worth billions of dollars are decided in secret, as is the entire $29 billion state budget. There is no real opportunity for citizens to debate whether their money is being used wisely and for the highest priorities.

Bringing sunshine to a dark state government is worth $10 to me!
So what is state government doing to improve transparency and prevent more scandals? Not much, and not enough. In fact, lawmakers are trying to hide ever more information from the public. Here are three examples.

First came the changes in the open records law that the Senate unanimously tried to fast-track with no public hearings. Objections by newspapers and watchdogs, including DR, stopped the bill in its tracks, but legislative leaders have said it will come back next year. Click here for the October 1 edition of DR News that describes the Senate’s sneak attack and what’s at stake.
Second came a bill to close coroner reports. Gov. Ed Rendell vetoed it on Saturday, but it also may return next year, having passed both the House and Senate before going to Rendell.

The reasons to keep coroner’s reports readily available to the public are not intuitive. But they are real, and to deny public access would be one more way that the administration of justice is compromised by secrecy. See this excellent Nov. 26 editorial by the Harrisburg Patriot-News: Access denied? Keeping coroner reports open to the public is literally a matter of life and death.

Note that the General Assembly passed the bill on the last day of a lame-duck session that wasn’t supposed to happen.

Third are the secret elections that determine some of the most powerful political leaders in PA. They are the elections where House and Senate leaders are chosen by their respective parties.

This year, we got a glimpse into this process when two letters from Senate Democrats surfaced. The letters to fellow Senate Democrats by Sen. Jay Costa, Allegheny, and Sen. Michael Stack, Philadelphia, laid out their agenda if elected as Senate minority leader.

Troubling are two passages, one from each senator’s letter:

Costa: "The public holds elected officials in historically low regard. Cheap shot artists among the press and public barrage us with insults and slander in an attempt to denigrate our work. We all have families to support and many others who depend on us. Let me assure you that as your leader, I will not shrink from defending your good work, your service, your integrity, and your livelihood."

Stack: "The next leader must recognize that the legal and public expectation is that campaign activities are to be conducted outside the building – not using public resources. As such, there will be a greater need to raise campaign money in order to develop a new and professional campaign apparatus that can work with each member to enhance their [sic] district presence prior to an election year."

Costa won.


• In February it will be four years since Attorney General and Gov.-elect Tom Corbett began the investigation into lawmakers illegally using tax dollars for partisan political campaigns. Why hasn’t he been able to bring a case against a single senator or staff member if this pattern of illegal activity is so ingrained that avoiding it becomes part of running for a top leadership position?

• Will state investigators interview Stack, who appears to have first-hand knowledge of illegal campaign activities?

• Are your own representative and senator trying to strengthen or weaken citizen access to information about their government?

• How long will it take Costa to learn that citizens denigrate corruption, not legitimate work? Will his learning curve determine whether Senate Democrats are anything more than an expensive appendage to the legislative process?
Having a "cheap shot artist" who fights for transparency is worth $10 to me.
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