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Home » DR News » DR on the Record » DR News archives » February 11, 2008

February 11, 2008 - Former Lawmaker Pleads Guilty

In this Edition:

  • Reality Check
  • Former Lawmaker Pleads Guilty
  • New Open Records Law Still Not Settled
  • Penn State Intern Begins Records Blog

Reality Check
949 - Days since the Pay Raise of 2005. See the ticker.
1 - Law enacted to improve government integrity. See the cartoon.
0 - "Best-in-America" laws enacted. See the campaign.
See the full February edition of "Reality Check" on the web.

Former Lawmaker Pleads Guilty
Former state Rep. Frank LaGrotta, D-Lawrence, last week entered a guilty plea to charges of hiring his sister and niece for no-work jobs. For a previous story about this, see the November 20, 2007 of DR News. Here's a full report about LaGrotta's sentencing by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

LaGrotta's sentence includes:

  • A $10,000 fine
  • An order to repay taxpayers more than $27,000 (the amount received by his sister and niece)
  • Six months of house arrest with an ankle bracelet followed by 30 months of probation
  • A requirement to perform 500 hours of community service

The sister and niece each pleaded no contest to lying to the grand jury about the scheme and were ordered to pay a $3,000 fine. The sister also will serve 18 months probation, and the niece will serve 12 months probation.

Prosecutors spared LaGrotta up to seven years of prison time and allowed him to keep his pension in exchange for cooperation in ongoing grand jury investigations into public corruption. Senior Deputy Attorney General Anthony J. Krastek said that LaGrotta's cooperation was key to the light sentence. "This would have been a much different proceeding if there was not cooperation. Charges would have been different, today would have been different," he said. He did not describe the investigations with which LaGrotta is cooperating.

LaGrotta's crime came to light when one of his former staff members alerted the state Attorney General's office about the arrangement. Following the tip, investigators discovered a damning email exchange between LaGrotta and his niece, along with other evidence to make the case.

New Open Records Law Still Not Settled
The acronym says it all for Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records: POOR. This is the agency that Senate Bill 1 proposes to create. Now in its ninth version and second year of consideration, SB 1 may finally give PA citizens some - but not all - of the rights to public documents that citizens in other states have had for decades.

An expected vote in the House last week on Senate Bill 1 was delayed until Tuesday, Feb. 12 at the earliest when House members fell to bickering about amendments and delays in voting on the measure. Technically, the bill is in the House "on concurrence" in Senate amendments. If the House does not agree to what the Senate did after the House changed the previous version of SB 1, the stage is set for a conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate.

The majority House Democrats, looking for a win after having their property tax proposal amended beyond recognition the previous week, were hoping for quick action on the open records bill. To get it, they had to shoot down Republican attempts to suspend the rules to consider several changes that Republicans said were needed to protect individual privacy and the real estate industry. None of the Republican amendments sought to remedy the glaring weaknesses of the bill described in last week's edition of DR News.

This POOR approach to open records provides ambiguous answers to questions that should be easy to answer. For example: Would the POOR law allow citizens to have prompt, cheap and easy access to the documents that proved Frank LaGrotta's crime? The answer is, "It depends," which is not nearly good enough.

Notice that the question asks about citizen access. POOR is not good enough if access is possible only for reporters, who are paid to spend the time necessary to ferret out information that public officials want to conceal. POOR is not good enough if access is possible only for newspapers, TV stations and wire services, who have the deep pockets for lengthy and costly court challenges or expensive copying charges. And POOR is not good enough if access is possible only for law enforcement officers acting under their investigating authority.

The right of access is a citizen's right, and the best open records law in America will accommodate and realize that right.

Penn State Intern Begins Open Records Blog
One citizen who has begun testing her right of access to public records is Claudia A. Vergara, a journalism student at Penn State. After spending a semester as an intern for DR, Claudia recently began Our Right to Know, a blog in cooperation with the Centre Daily Times. Continuing her internship this semester, she will continue to ask public officials for information and report the responses she receives.

Take a look. Maybe your own local media would be willing to start something like this for lawmakers and public officials in your area.

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