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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tough Penalties for Open Records Violators

Tougher penalties could await open-record violators (From The Towanda Review)
HARRISBURG — Along with giving citizens greater access to government records, lawmakers propose to toughen penalties for public officials who violate access rules.

An open-records bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, would triple fines for a summary first offense from the current $300 to $1,000 and allow fines up to $2,000 for subsequent offenses. These fines would be imposed if a public official intentionally violates the law. Under the bill, if an official defied a court order, he would face a civil penalty of $500 a day.

The proposed fine structure in Mr. Pileggi’s bill parallels an open-meetings bill passed last month by the Senate. The open-meetings bill sponsored by Sen. Gibson Armstrong, R-Lancaster, would increase fines for a first offense up to $1,000, a ten-fold increase above the current fine of $100.

Mr. Armstrong’s bill also requires public officials to pay fines out of their own pockets and bars them from seeking reimbursement from a government agency. Senators plan to dovetail the provisions of the open-records and open-meetings bills as much as possible, said David Atkinson, spokesman for Mr. Armstong.

Mr. Pileggi’s bill is one of several pieces of open-records legislation seeking to modernize a 50-year-old law that considers government records not open to the public unless they fit a narrow definition of what constitutes a public record.

Local prosecutors justify not prosecuting open-records and open-meetings law violations on grounds the fines are insignificant, said Barry Kauffman, director of Pennsylvania Common Cause. “A prohibition with no fine is kind of scoffed at,” he added.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association supports a fine increase for open-records violations.“We believe the penalties should be increased so the law creates an incentive for people to comply,” said PNA Counsel Teri Henning. She said it’s just as important to mandate access training for public officials so they fully understand the law and avoid situations where they would be subject to a fine.

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