For immediate release
February 24, 2014
Commonwealth Court asked to decide if Right to Know Law applies where personal safety and security is in question.
Harrisburg – Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, or releasing information that could jeopardize the safety and security of some public employees, Treasurer Rob McCord today asked Commonwealth Court to resolve a conflict concerning the application of the state Right to Know Law.
“I take seriously my obligation to protect the safety and security of our public employees. By filing this motion, I hope to ensure the protection of our public employees as provided in the Right to Know Law,” McCord said.
McCord brought the matter before the court following a written threat to sue by a group calling itself Pennsylvanians for Union Reform (PFUR). PFUR said it will sue the commonwealth if Treasury does not produce an un-redacted list of personal information for all state employees. The state’s Right to Know Law exempts some of that information from public release if it would put the personal safety of the employee at risk, such as law enforcement officers, or state employees with protection-from-abuse orders.
But PFUR and its president, Simon Campbell, have requested complete employee information under another law, the state Administrative Code, arguing they do not want the Right to Know Law to apply.
“The Legislature created a comprehensive system in which requests for public records are handled through the Right to Know Law. It is absurd to suggest that the Legislature did not intend the law to apply in all circumstances involving public records,” McCord said. “PFUR appears to want to pick and choose when the Right to Know Law applies.”
With the question of whether the Administrative Code or the Right to Know Law applies in such cases seemingly destined for a court decision either way, McCord, in his official capacity, filed a Petition for Review in the Nature of an Action for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief.
“As a public official, I’m in the position of either complying with the organization’s demand and releasing information that has been deemed confidential under the Right to Know Law – for good reason, in my opinion -- or redacting the information and subjecting the Treasury Department to litigation. We thought it best to ask the court proactively to clarify the issue before we proceed,” McCord said.
On January 15, the attorney for PFUR wrote to the Treasurer, asking for a list of employees and related information. Under the Administrative Code, Treasury annually receives electronic files containing lists of all employees of each executive branch agency. Those lists have not been redacted to exclude information on employees who have active protection from abuse orders, are domestic and sexual violence victims, or are confidential undercover agents or other at-risk law enforcement officers.
PFUR’s attorney specifically stated their request was not being made under the Right to Know Law, but instead under the Administrative Code, which says the employee records furnished to Treasury are “public information.” Treasury’s legal counsel responded a week later by informing the PFUR attorney that Treasury would consider the request under the Right to Know Law. That statute and a subsequent court decision direct public agencies such as Treasury to treat all written requests for access to records as Right to Know requests.
PFUR’s attorney in turn wrote to Treasury on January 27, insisting the request be considered under the Administrative Code and giving the department until February 21 to produce the information sought. Failure to do so, he wrote, would result in him filing a mandamus action in court to enforce the provisions of the Administrative Code.
“The Right to Know Law is valuable for increasing government transparency and giving citizens access to information they deserve to have. It was never intended, however, to compromise the physical safety of law enforcement officers or victims of criminal violence, and the Legislature recognized that and included some proper exceptions when it wrote the statute,” McCord said.
“No matter how Mr. Campbell and his group intend to use the information, a determination to put it into the public domain is something I believe would be outside the scope of my duties as Treasurer, and irresponsible,” he added. “That’s why I have asked the court to affirm that the Right to Know Law exemptions should apply.”
The administrative agency employee list could contain the identity of undercover law enforcement personnel, the identity of persons who are participants in the Crime Victim Advocate’s Address Confidentiality program, the birth days and months of employees, and persons who have obtained protection from abuse orders in which their residency and work address are subject to court-ordered confidentiality.
Under the Right to Know Law, public records are exempt from disclosure if they would, for example, reveal personal identification information, personal financial information, victim information, or information that may jeopardize the safety of a victim, endanger someone’s physical or personal safety or security, or hinder an arrest, prosecution or conviction. The Right to Know Law compels an agency to consider applicable exclusions when determining whether information is exempt from disclosure.
View RTKL court filing PDF.
For more information, visit www.patreasury.gov.
Media contact: Gary Tuma, 717-787-2465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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