There are times — far too often we would argue — where transparency is a myth in Harrisburg’s Capitol. Lawmakers like to talk a good game, but when push comes to shove, the curtain goes up and voters are left in the dark.
That isn’t the way good government should work. That’s not government “for the people,” which they often tout in a holier than thou pitch.
As part of an ongoing review by Daily Item partners The Caucus and Spotlight PA, it was learned Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg hired the chair of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania to represent the GOP in legal matters. According to limited information made available, the House and Senate were charged $36,000 for 78 hours of work by Lawrence Tabas’s law firm.
What Tabas — one of Pennsylvania’s top election lawyers according to Spotlight PA — did for the state legislators is unknown. The documents provided to The Caucaus and Spotlight PA were heavily redacted. The two news organizations said they are appealing the redactions.
These latest attempts at hiding public information follow a troubling trend reported last year, where lawmakers “wholly blacked out” reasons for hiring private law firms.
Less than a decade ago, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled general descriptions of legal services, and the identity of who is being represented, are public information. “Where … the taxpayers are footing the bill for the legal services, they are entitled to know the general nature of the services provided for the fees charged,” a panel of judges ruled in 2013.
Not be overlooked is the fact that taxpayers are often double-, and occasionally triple-charged for legal representation. As Spotlight and The Caucus report, if a case involves the two major political parties or multiple branches of government, taxpayers are stuck with the bill for both sets of legal representatives. And if the case goes to the Office of Open records, taxpayers could get hit with another charge to fight the release of the information. In 2021, the House and Senate GOP spent $34,659 to fight attempts by The Caucus and Spotlight PA, under the state’s open records law, to make public vital details of previous legal bills.
There is a time and place for appropriate legal representation and confidentiality. Perhaps these latest bills are justifiable, but only those behind the curtain know for sure.
State lawmakers are well beyond the “trust us” stage. Pennsylvanians are growing tired of inconsistency in COVID mitigation orders and business shutdowns, weary of the continued push of the big lie and attacks on election integrity.
Hiding what is clearly public information does nothing other than raise more questions and create more doubt.
That isn’t how good government is supposed to work.
NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Managing Editor Bill Bowman.