‘Pennsylvania’s Law Firm’ needs to act like it

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP.

Why has Gov. Tom Wolf’s Office of General Counsel paid nearly $400,000 of taxpayer money to several private law firms?

It’s a simple question, and there may be a simple and reasonable answer. But the administration’s failure to answer it raises questions about what causes and activities the governor has used state resources to pursue, and why he didn’t use the state’s attorneys to do it. Secrecy always raises suspicions, even if they are entirely unwarranted.

In terms of legal bills for complex institutional litigation, $367,500 spread across six firms is a pittance. The Office of General Counsel employs hundreds of attorneys working for state departments and agencies, as well as a dozen deputy general counsels in its main office. It’s hard to believe the office couldn’t handle the workload associated with those fees — unless the private firms in question provided specialized expertise the office didn’t have, or the office wanted to offload politically sensitive legal work onto private attorneys whose activities could be kept under wraps.

Gov. Tom Wolf with the William C. Goodridge statue in York on August 12, 2022.

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The first explanation makes sense, but if that’s the case, why hide it? The second explanation is also plausible, but only speculation fueled by the administration’s frustrating commitment to secrecy.

For a year now, the administration has ducked and dodged attempts by multiple news media outlets to make public basic information about the arrangements between the Office of General Counsel and outside law firms. Among other things, it has released invoices with everything but the firm’s name and the amount billed blacked out. It has also forced media to endure months-long delays for responses to simple questions, while using lengthy “mediation” proceedings with the state’s Office of Open Records that were described by news organizations Spotlight PA and The Caucus as “unproductive.”

Under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, all government records are presumed to be public, unless the government provides a compelling legal reason to the contrary. At the very least, using attorney-client privilege as legal cover for hiding basic information about public spending violates the spirit of the state’s Right-to-Know law, as well as the principles of open government. It also belies the governor’s much-touted commitment to transparency.

Taxpayers have a right to know why the Wolf Administration has spent their money on outside law firms. The Office of General Counsel bills itself as “Pennsylvania’s Law Firm.” That means the taxpayers of the commonwealth — not the governor — are its clients. They are entitled to an accounting of expenses.

As he prepares to leave office, the outgoing governor can strike a blow for transparency and open government by releasing more information about his administration’s legal spending.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP.