Breaking: state sues to conceal Freeh contracts that officials say don’t exist
Madison, Wis., Feb. 6, 2013 – The Pennsylvania Department of Education filed a lawsuit last week to block access to contracts it says it doesn’t have.
Though Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis swears he doesn’t have any agreements with the law firm of Louis J. Freeh, the Penn State trustee who co-led the oversight of Freeh’s investigation wants a judge to overturn an order to release the records.
The filing is the latest chapter in a five-month battle to obtain copies of Penn State’s contract with Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan, the law firm that conducted the university’s $6.5 million investigation into how its employees responded to child abuse allegations.
“The department is fighting awfully hard to block access to records it claims it doesn’t have,” said Ryan Bagwell, the Penn State alumnus who’s been seeking records from the Department of Education since September. “If the man who helped hire Freeh really doesn’t have the contract, why would he spend taxpayer dollars to conceal records that aren’t in his possession?”
Bagwell, a resident of Middleton, Wisconsin, sought the contracts with Freeh by filing three Right-to-Know Law requests. Tomalis, who sits on the Board of Trustees as head of the education department, was the vice chairman of the Special Investigative Committee that hired Freeh and guided the former FBI director’s seven-month inquiry.
The education department denied each request, claiming they weren’t sufficiently specific. But the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records disagreed on Dec. 28, and ordered officials to release any contracts with Freeh within 30 days.
In a last-minute response dated Jan. 28, Tomalis said he conducted a “reasonable search” and concluded contracts with Freeh’s firm aren’t in his “possession, custody or control.” The department also checked its procurement files, and came up empty.
Rather than continue looking for the records in places like computer servers, it chose to block the OOR’s order in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
“Either Tomalis is hiding behind carefully-vetted statements written by his department’s army of well-paid lawyers, or he has irresponsibly committed the Commonwealth to a costly and meaningless court battle to keep public records from the very citizens who will ultimately foot the bill.”
The state’s filing is the second Commonwealth Court challenge over access to records that say what Tomalis did as Penn State trustee. The OOR has ruled that records of Tomalis’ trustee activities aren’t public records because he doesn’t work for the state when acting as Penn State trustee.
Bagwell challenged that ruling in November. A decision is expected later this year.
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