Shine light on Pa. legislature’s legal slush fund

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, walks down a corridor at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, June 28, 2019.

If you’re accused of a crime in Pennsylvania and cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to you. The representation will likely be perfunctory, owing to the large caseloads court-appointed attorneys carry, and face time with your representative will be limited. But you won’t be saddled with huge legal bills.

There’s another group of individuals in Pennsylvania who don’t have to go out of pocket for legal expenses and their representation is anything but bare-bones. In fact, it’s worth millions.

An extensive review by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found that members of Pennsylvania’s state legislature racked up nearly $10 million in legal expenses in the past two years. The cases ranged from individual personnel matters to the state’s death penalty to attempts to overturn last year’s presidential election.

More:Pa. lawmakers spend millions of tax dollars on private lawyers but often don’t reveal why

But the information doesn’t get much more specific than that. While the researchers reviewed thousands of pages of invoices and legal papers, most were so heavily redacted it was impossible to determine even basic information like the reason for hiring a lawyer or the person doing the hiring.

“The public’s right to know with respect to these sorts of records is incredibly high,” Gunita Singh, a staff attorney who works on First Amendment and open records cases told Spotlight PA.

Ah, but when it comes to state legislature, the right to know and the ability to know are two different things.

And there’s a lot the public needs to know — especially when, from what scant information is available, it appears lawmakers aren’t exactly going with the lowest bidder on legal matters.

How else to explain the House lavishing $50,000 on a law firm to help former Speaker Mike Turzai write a law review article about school choice? (Despite this being one of the veteran Republican’s signature issues, it took four lawyers more than 100 hours to assist with the piece!) A second Turzai article, this one on redistricting, cost taxpayers more than $64,000.

The Republican-led effort to find non-existent fraud related to the 2020 presidential election is likewise costing taxpayers: $1.2 million and counting, including nearly $350,000 to the law firm Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, whose chief lawyer handling the election cases was — what a co-inky dink! — state Republican Party Chairman Lawrence Tabas.

Which is not to say that racking up shadowy legal fees is a purely partisan venture. Senate Democrats paid $174,000 on labor and employment matters, and state Sen. Sharif Street, a Philadelphia Democrat, paid an unknown amount for unknown services (illustrating how the extensive redactions make these records all but useless).

No one’s suggesting public officials should be on the hook personally for legal fees incurred or necessary as part of their public service. But clearly, access to a bottomless legal trough absent public scrutiny is an invitation for abuse.

“With near-limitless taxpayer dollars at their disposal,” wrote Spotlight PA and The Caucus, “legislative leaders can fund all types of legal battles, defending themselves and colleagues against allegations of wrongdoing, advancing their political interests, and going on the attack against their political opponents.”

State lawmakers’ exemptions from most state open records laws are bad enough but they’re supposed to at least provide minimal information about financial records. Their failure to do so led to a 2013 state Supreme Court decision requiring them to provide a general description of the legal services they contract, including the person being represented. Lawmakers must adhere to the few public-records rules they’ve deigned to subject themselves to.

Greater transparency on legal spending is urgently needed. Not only would it inform taxpayers how their money is being spent, it would discourage the type of overuse or abuse that leads to $64,000 magazine articles.