National Freedom of Information Coalition
Protecting Your Right to Open Government

Herald-Standard (PA) awarded $120K in legal fees in open records case with state DOC

In a “first-of-its kind” enforcement proceeding, the Herald-Standard was awarded nearly $120,000 in legal fees stemming from an open records fight with the state Department of Corrections.

“Requester here advocated the public interest in a matter of public health affecting a captive population,” wrote Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson.

In March, Simpson found that the DOC acted in bad faith when officials repeatedly failed to turn over information about inmate illness at the State Correctional Institution at Fayette and other state prisons, despite being ordered to so. He fined the agency $1,500.

The bad faith finding and fine were both firsts, as was Simpson’s decision to award the paper $118,458.37, a portion of the fees it took to fight the three-year legal battle.

“This is a case that will be cited for years to come,” said Herald-Standard attorney Charles Kelly.

Executive Editor Michael Palm praised the ruling and expressed frustration that the DOC tried to circumvent the Right to Know Law, a 2009 update to the Right to Know Act that expanded what public agencies have to disclose.

“We were fortunate to have the financial resources, through our ownership, to fight this legal battle,” Palm said. “Had we not, the Department of Corrections would have gone unchecked, withholding information to which not just the newspaper, but any citizen, is entitled to under the law.”

Robert Pinarski was the publisher for the Herald-Standard when the paper decided to pursue the case.

“While the funds spent were significant, I believe they were worthwhile. The Right to Know Law exists so that citizens can look at information from public agencies. Why they want it or what they intend to do with it is irrelevant,” Pinarski said. “When someone requests information they’re entitled to, they should not be refused.” (Read more…)