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Fix State Election Law

September 20, 2018

Pennsylvania election law foolishly allows politicians to do almost anything they choose with campaign funds, from covering aspects of legal defense for public corruption to travel that is only tangentially related to seeking office.

The election law also provides, however, that campaign finance records are public records, requiring candidates to provide public access to at least three years’ worth of spending records.

As reported Sunday by The Caucus, which reports on state government, many state-level politicians have complied with the letter and spirit of the law over the years, often going beyond basic requirements to make their records available upon reporters’ requests.

But then there is Republican Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati III of Jefferson County, the powerful president pro tempore of the state Senate. He responded to The Caucus’ campaign records request by charging a fee of $160 per hour merely to look at the records.

The Caucus requested the review because the campaign committee uses a credit card for some purchases and lists them as “cardmember services” without publicly disclosing the details of that spending.

Scarnati’s charge does not involve copying or transcription. Rather, it seeks to transfer to the public his campaign committee’s costs for accounting services.

According to The Caucus, the charge for its planned review of the records would amount to more than $2,000. That’s bad enough regarding a news organization. It’s worse regarding an individual citizen, who likely would be deterred by such an exorbitant fee.

To compound that hubris, Scarnati — a legislator who has a major role in deciding what is included in state laws — pointed out that campaign records are not subject to the state Right To Know Law.

Other lawmakers have found the requirement under the Election Code to be controlling. But since Scarnati seeks cover behind the Right To Know Law, legislators should amend that law to cover campaign records.

Clearly, government and campaign operations must not be separate matters since, according to The Caucus, one of the people who responded to its campaign records request was Scarnati’s Senate chief of staff — a publicly paid state employee rather than a campaign employee.

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