By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Mike Wereschagin, Brad Bumsted, and Sam Janesch of The Caucus
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HARRISBURG — The campaign committee of the state Senate’s top Republican is suing a publication of LNP Media Group and two journalists who uncovered questionable spending by the lawmaker and other politicians.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati’s campaign filed the suit on Aug. 10 in magisterial district court in his home county of Jefferson, seeking $6,070 from The Caucus, Caucus Bureau Chief Brad Bumsted, and Spotlight PA reporter Angela Couloumbis.
Scarnati’s campaign alleges the trio owes $5,070 for work an accounting firm conducted to produce public records the journalists requested during an investigation into his and other lawmakers’ campaign spending. The campaign also wants $1,000 for attorneys’ fees and court costs.
Should it prevail, the suit could make it easier for politicians to hide their campaign spending from the public, while at the same time have a chilling effect on investigative reporting, media experts said.
State law requires campaigns to maintain vouchers of their spending and to make the information available to the public. Scarnati’s campaign chose to store those public records with the DuBois accounting firm Clyde, Ferraro & Co. His campaign and the accounting firm initially tried to charge journalists about $2,000 for the documents.
The Department of State, in an October 2018 letter to Scarnati’s then-lawyer Lawrence Tabas, said the law only allows campaigns to charge copying and delivery fees. The campaign subsequently charged $0.25 per page — the maximum set by the state’s Office of Open Records — plus the actual cost of delivery, which in total was a fraction of the amount the accounting firm had originally sought.
“The statute plainly and unambiguously does not permit a candidate or political committee to charge for anything other than copying and delivery costs,” Trisha Robinson, chief of the Division of Campaign Finance and Lobbying Disclosure, wrote to Tabas in October 2018. She called the charges “non-permitted costs.”
Naming individual reporters in the suit “appears to be some kind of retribution, some kind of nefarious attack to chill and punish and send a message that, ‘Hey, you other journalists, if you dare ask for information like this, you’re going to pay,’” said David Cuillier, a public records expert and director of graduate studies at the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism.
“That’s kind of scary,” he said. “We’re living in a weird climate today, where authoritarian practices seem to be picking up speed.”
The year-long investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found that from 2016 to 2018, Scarnati and other lawmakers spent nearly $3.5 million in campaign money that cannot be fully traced based on the information their campaigns publicly disclosed. Scarnati’s obscured spending totaled nearly $246,000, more than any of the other nearly 300 campaigns the news organizations examined. Some of that money paid for hotel rooms and lavish dinners on a 2016 trip through Europe.
State law places no limits on campaign contributions or spending, but requires candidates to publicly disclose donors and expenses. Lawmakers hid some of their spending by listing it simply as a credit card payment without saying what the credit card was used to purchase. Scarnati used vague descriptions like “lodging” without saying that the hotel room was, for instance, in Germany, as was the case during part of Scarnati’s European trip.
At the time, Tabas said the expenses were related to campaigning and Scarnati’s descriptions of his spending were “adequate.” Tabas, now the chairman of the state Republican Party, did not respond to questions about Scarnati’s lawsuit. Scarnati also did not respond to questions for this story.
Hours after The Caucus and Spotlight PA published the original investigation, lawmakers attempted to change the law to make it harder for the public to access the records it relied upon.
That effort failed, but if the new suit succeeds, it would offer politicians another way to hide their spending, said Cuillier, of the University of Arizona.
Campaigns could simply hire an expensive legal or accounting firm to maintain records, then demand thousands of dollars from any member of the public who wants to see them, he said.
“To be a public entity and to push your records onto some private firm and then force people to pay those folks to access them is really outlandish,” Cuillier said. “It’s totally contrary to the intent of the law and democracy. Essentially, you price people out of their government. It’s really dangerous.”
It could also have a chilling effect on other journalists, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. (LNP|LancasterOnline, The Caucus, and Spotlight PA are members of the organization.)
“It’s outrageous, to be quite frank,” Melewsky said. “We should not be seeing $6,000 fees as a result of a journalist seeking access to public records from a public official.”
She questioned why Scarnati’s campaign committee singled out two reporters in its lawsuit.
“Is this retaliation for the investigative journalism work that they’re doing? Is it an attempt to silence them? Is it based on the content of their reporting?” Melewsky said. “I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I think they’re legitimate questions that need to be asked and answered.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati’s campaign is seeking $6,070 from The Caucus, Caucus Bureau Chief Brad Bumsted, and Spotlight PA reporter Angela Couloumbis. Photo/Steven Falk
Tom Murse, executive editor of LNP|LancasterOnline and editor of The Caucus, said the “legal action is a clear attempt to intimidate not just reporters for The Caucus and Spotlight PA but all journalists and citizens who dare to hold candidates for public office accountable.”
“We understand Sen. Scarnati’s interest in trying to prevent unflattering details about his questionable campaign spending from becoming public. But charging thousands of dollars for documents that are required by Pennsylvania’s campaign finance law to be readily available for inspection would make those documents prohibitively expensive and represent a significant blow to transparency,” Murse said. “We intend to fight this move vigorously.”
Christopher Baxter, editor in chief of Spotlight PA, said the decision to name reporters for The Caucus and Spotlight PA individually “could inflict long-lasting damage on their personal credit reports.”
“To use such tactics as a method to chill accountability and investigative reporting in Pennsylvania only furthers our resolve to leave no rock unturned in holding the powerful to account,” he said.
Cuillier said the suit could deter other members of the public who want to dig into the ways lawmakers spend their donors’ money.
“I hope people see through it and don’t allow it to happen,” he said. “It’s these two journalists now. Who’s next?”
A hearing on the suit is scheduled for Oct. 7 before District Judge David Inzana.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Trisha Robinson’s first name.
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