Saying the state’s student loan agency behaved with “wanton disregard” in refusing to release records to The Patriot-News and two other media organizations, a judge has ordered the agency to cover almost $50,000 in media attorney fees.
Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner said the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency “unquestionably behaved willfully and with wanton disregard” of the law by failing to produce records as ordered by the court.
The battle for the records began in 2005 and continued for 19 months. PHEAA spent $409,413 on its own legal bills trying to keep private the records detailing travel expenses of its employees and board members.
The records that PHEAA fought to keep under wraps showed payments for $100 facials, a $95-a-person buffet, $175 for falconry lessons and a $491 limousine ride to shopping outlets.
In her order, handed down Friday, Smith-Ribner told PHEAA to pay legal fees totaling $48,233.77 to attorneys for The Patriot-News, The Associated Press and WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh.
One of those attorneys, Craig J. Staudenmaier of the Harrisburg law firm Nauman, Smith, Shissler & Hall, said he was “extremely pleased” by the judge’s decision because it “helps put teeth in the state’s Right-to-Know Law.”
The law calls for payment of legal fees if an agency “willfully or with wanton disregard” deprives someone of access to a public record or bases its refusal to share a public record on something other than “a reasonable interpretation of the law.”
PHEAA spokesman Keith New did not return calls for comment.
“We’re grateful that the court recognized, not only that PHEAA should have released the information, but that it was outrageous for them to withhold it,” said David Newhouse, executive editor for The Patriot-News. “The public has a Right-to-Know how public money is spent, period.”
The Patriot-News began seeking the records in an effort to determine how PHEAA spent nearly $900,000, starting in 2000, at seven board retreats at resorts.
The Associated Press sought the expenses from the 2005 board retreat. WTAE-TV requested travel expenses from 2003 to 2005 and an assortment of other records.
In its fight to withhold the records, PHEAA claimed they were not public because they contained trade secrets and because some PHEAA board members are legislators.
Eventually, the state Supreme Court dismissed PHEAA’s appeals of a Commonwealth Court decision ordering the records to be released. The agency was allowed to redact information that would reveal trade secrets.
Since the records’ release, PHEAA’s board has tightened its reimbursement policies.
The Legislature also is fine-tuning a new open-records law, and Gov. Ed Rendell has indicated his support for one.
“This whole case,” Newhouse said, “and especially this final ruling, underline how important a new open-records law will be. Obviously, the average citizen doesn’t have $50,000 to spend trying to get information that they have a right to see in the first place.”