EDITORIAL: Lawsuit against journalists is obvious act of retaliation, intimidation

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati is seen here in a file photo.
  • A publication of LNP Media Group and two journalists are being sued.
  • The lawsuit is being brought by the campaign committee of the state Senate’s top Republican.
  • The lawsuit is asking for more than $6,000 for accounting work, attorney fees and court costs.

Open government is an ideal that folks of all political persuasions should fully support.

After all, if history has taught us anything, it’s that corruption afflicts politicians of every ideological stripe.

That’s why the recent news about a lawsuit being filed against Pennsylvania investigative journalists is so deeply troubling.

It’s a blatant attempt at journalistic retaliation and intimidation.

Top Pa. Republican’s campaign sues journalists over public records costs

The details: In case you haven’t heard, 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.

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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.

The law: State law requires campaigns to maintain vouchers of their spending and to make the information available to the public. State law also only allows campaigns to charge copying and delivery fees.

Accounting and attorney fees and court costs clearly fall outside that very narrow definition.

Deflecting attention: It is clear that Scarnati is trying to deflect attention away from the fact that the journalists discovered some very sketchy expenses on his part.

The journalists named in the suit 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.

Scarnati used vague descriptions such as “lodging” without saying that the hotel room was, for instance, in Germany, as was the case during part of Scarnati’s European trip.

Journalists should be applauded: That is the type of investigative journalism that Pennsylvanians of every political persuasion should applaud.

In fact, fiscally conservative Republicans should be cheering the loudest about the journalists exposing possible financial irregularities.

Act of retaliation: Naming the individual journalists in the lawsuit seems like an obvious act of retaliation, especially since it could result in long-lasting damage on their personal credit reports.

The lawsuit is also an obvious attempt to scare off future investigative journalism. Scarnati knows as well as anyone that these are difficult economic times in the journalism industry. Fighting off frivolous lawsuits can be costly for organizations with precious little financial capital.

Vigorous defense: Thankfully, despite the potential costs, the organizations and journalists being sued are promising a vigorous defense. There is little doubt that they will — and should — prevail.

There is also little doubt that journalists are not the most popular folks right now, especially to those on the right.

This fight for open government, however, should be a fight that we all enthusiastically support.

Partisanship should not come into play.