HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Before she became a candidate for U.S. Senate, and after she was a candidate for governor, Katie McGinty was chief of staff to Governor Tom Wolf.
It’s that six-month time period that has caught the attention of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania and has sparked a legal fight that landed in Commonwealth Court Tuesday morning.
Fourteen months ago, shortly after she announced her senate candidacy, the party requested McGinty’s emails, hoping to dig up dirt to use against her in the campaign against incumbent Republican Pat Toomey.
“The law doesn’t distinguish whether I’m from the Republican Party of Pennsylvania or I’m just an average citizen looking for information on what my government is doing on the taxpayer’s dime,” conceded Paul Engelkemier, who initiated the right-to-know request.
The Office of Open Records has sided with the GOP, saying that the Wolf administration should turn over the emails. The administration has mostly refused. It argued in Commonwealth Court that the GOP request wasn’t specific enough and too broad. Thomas Howell, Pennsylvania Deputy General Counsel, argued that fulfilling such a request “places the agency in the position of a taxpayer-funded, political fishing expedition.”
Howell further argued that Republicans can’t say exactly what they’re looking for. He said the request needs to be more specific. The two sides tried to negotiate a compromise by agreeing to keywords that would help narrow down the search.
But Commonwealth Judge P. Kevin Brobson joked, “I don’t want to be the keyword police.”
He admitted he grapples with the concept that the requesters have to know, and therefore ask, specifically what they’re looking for. “The [Right-to-Know] law was designed to give everyone open access to government, not layering additional requirements into it.”
On Monday, Cumberland County District Attorney Dave Freed referenced a stack of 15,000 pages on a table alongside 71 pages. The party contends the administration has 15,000 McGinty emails that it hasn’t reviewed and hasn’t turned over.
“If the [Wolf] administration is as serious as they say they are about a fresh start and about transparency, they should get on the case, review these emails, and release what’s pertinent,” Freed said.
Freed believes the Wolf team is employing legal stall tactics, tying up the case, and blocking the emails until after the November election. He says Pennsylvanians deserve to see what’s in those emails, which may shed light on her performance as a public official.
“I think we’ve seen what happens when narratives are successfully pushed on voters,” Freed said somewhat cryptically.
I asked if he was referring to a lack of public vetting of now disgraced Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who beat Freed four years ago and got more votes than any candidate in the state, even President Barack Obama.
“When I talk about full information not being out there, that’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Freed said with conviction.
But the Wolf administration insists it is not playing politics with the issue.
“We’re not interested in the Senate race or what the PA GOP spin is,” Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said. “We’re following the law. We’ve released more than one thousand pages to them for this specific request.”
It’s unclear how quickly Commonwealth Court will rule following Tuesday’s oral arguments, which were held at Widener University’s Commonwealth Campus. But even if this court rules against the Wolf administration, it could appeal to the Supreme Court and that would bottle up the case until well after the election.
Engelkemier concedes that’s likely but added, “we’re hoping the governor’s office will stick to their campaign promises of being open and transparent and allowing the people of Pennsylvania to know what was going on in the office.”