Pennsylvania open records legislation has stalled

PENNSYLVANIA — Legislation that would bring four colleges in Pennsylvania under the same open records laws as other government agencies has stalled as the state legislature’s session nears its close.

Following the Jerry Sandusky case, two bills to make state-related colleges more transparent made it to the Senate committee on state government. Several bills with a similar push were introduced in House committees. Sara Ganim, The Patriot News reporter who won a Pulitzer for her work covering Sandusky’s actions and Pennsylvania State University’s response, has spoken publicly about the difficulty of covering the story due to the lack of access to records.

Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Lincoln University and Temple University are considered state-related colleges and are required to release less information than other universities under the state’s open records law.

State-related colleges only receive partial funding from the state. At present, they do not have to disclose the same information as community colleges or fully funded state colleges in Pennsylvania.

They only records state-related colleges are required to release are their IRS Form 990s, which include the salaries of officers and directors and the 25 highest paid non-officer and director positions. This requirement, which applies to fully private nonprofit universities as well, is in federal law.

The Senate has five days left to its session, and there’s little chance it will consider the bills.

“At this point, it looks like we’re not going to be seeing any activity before this session ends,” said Deborah Musselman, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association’s director of government affairs. “Nothing’s gone to the governor. Nothing’s moved in over a year.”

Musselman also said there are bills in the House that would also affect the open records law but it’s unlikely any vote will happen before the session ends. If the Senate did decide to take action, the House could call in an additional two days to their session, but Musselman said that was unlikely to happen.

State Sen. John Blake (D-22nd District), who introduced a Senate bill that would reclassify the colleges as state-affiliated, said discussion to amend the open records law to allow access to the colleges’ police records continues.

Though Penn State is not required to release certain records, Department of Public Information Director Lisa Powers said in an email that the school is focused on accountability and has chosen to release some financial information beyond what is required.

Powers said Penn State is concerned that if state-related colleges are required to fully follow public records laws, the school will lose leverage in contract negotiation, will gain added costs to retain faculty and will have a negative impact to research expenditures.

In the last year, Penn State has made contracts and other information associated with the Sandusky case public, but reporters still have access to less information than they would if the school was required to comply with the open records act, said Casey McDermott, The Daily Collegian’s editor-in-chief.

“We don’t have access to records with Penn State’s police department in the same we would have access to records with our local police department,” McDermott said..

The school’s police department keeps a daily crime log as required under the Clery Act that provides bare-bones information about arrests and criminal incidents on campus, but nothing else, McDermott said. Pitt News Editor-in-Chief Amy Friedenberger said she faces a similar situation at the University of Pittsburgh.

The limited access to information sometimes leads to a story not being pursued because reporters know they won’t be able to get the documents they need, Friedenberger said.

“We can’t do good journalism here because we can’t get information,” she said.

By Jordan Bradley, SPLC staff writer. Contact Bradley by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.