Pa. legislature’s redacted legal bills flout court ruling, leave taxpayers guessing

Nelita Collins

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HARRISBURG — In May, GOP lawmakers who control the state House and Senate hired the chair of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania to represent them in legal matters at $575 an hour.

Within three weeks, Lawrence Tabas — one of the state’s top election lawyers — and his law firm had charged the chambers more than $36,000 for 78 hours of work, records show.

What Tabas did for the legislature, however, is a mystery.

Republican leaders redacted all details about his work from his contract and other public records, continuing into 2021 a stubborn pattern of secrecy surrounding the legislature’s agreements with private lawyers, an ongoing review by The Caucus and Spotlight PA shows.

In eight cases that began in 2021, or continued to be billed that year, the House and Senate wholly blacked out the reasons for hiring the private law firm, records obtained through a Right-to-Know request show. In other cases, lawmakers drafted the contract with outside law firms using language so vague that it is impossible to tell what the case was about.

In doing so, those leaders have continued to flout a 2013 decision by the state’s highest court that ruled general descriptions of legal services, and the identity of who is being represented, are public information. The Caucus and Spotlight PA are appealing the redactions.

“Where … the taxpayers are footing the bill for the legal services, they are entitled to know the general nature of the services provided for the fees charged,” a panel of Commonwealth Court judges wrote following the state Supreme Court’s decision.

Legislative leaders spend millions in taxpayer dollars each year to hire private law firms through a closed-door process that, unlike other state contracts, is made with virtually no public oversight. These contracts are regularly awarded to law firms that pour cash into legislators’ campaign coffers, a previous investigation found.

Not only do taxpayers pick up the cost for those legal battles — sometimes twice if the cases involve both political parties or separate branches of the government — but they are also paying for legislative leaders to keep details of those fights under wraps.

In 2021, the House and Senate GOP spent $34,659 to fight attempts by The Caucus and Spotlight PA, under the state’s open records law, to make public critical details in legal bills from prior years.

The top-paid firm fighting the news organizations’ appeal: Philadelphia-based Kleinbard LLC. The company also happens to be one of the eight firms whose reason for being hired is completely redacted.

In the first nine months of 2021, the legislature’s legal bills totaled $3.5 million, on par with the roughly $5 million the two chambers have spent annually on lawyers in recent years.

Some of that money covered continuing costs for litigation in cases that stretch back years, such as the landmark school-funding case now playing out in Commonwealth Court. New legal matters in 2021 included a fight over a state Senate race, a federal investigation into the state’s teacher pension fund, the drawing of new political districts, Gov. Tom Wolf’s mask mandate for schools, and the controversial review of the 2020 presidential election championed by Senate Republicans.

The redacted cases represent nearly 10% of the total spending, with the attorneys involved in the secret work receiving up to $775 an hour.

Spokespersons for House and Senate Republican leaders declined to answer questions about the newly redacted cases. They have previously defended redactions in legal documents in general by saying the blacked-out information, if revealed, would jeopardize legal strategy or reveal private legal matters that aren’t on a public court docket.

Kleinbard lawyers hired by the Senate to fight an appeal brought by The Caucus and Spotlight PA recently defended the redactions as “limited and focused.”

“All of the redactions involved legal advice outside of the realm of public knowledge,” the lawyers wrote of the cases paid for by taxpayer dollars.

The Senate paid out nearly $2 million on new legal bills between Jan. 1 and Oct. 15, according to information provided to The Caucus and Spotlight PA through a public records request.

Of that total, $232,042 went toward cases in which the Senate, in public records, redacted the explanation for the legal services.

Almost all of that was signed off on by Senate Republicans. The biggest chunk — $119,471 — went to Kleinbard, one of their go-to firms on issues like elections and constitutional fights. Matt Haverstick, one of the firm’s lead lawyers, declined to comment.

Billing records and engagement letters show that Kleinbard was first hired by the Senate GOP for one mystery case in January 2020, charging between $225 and $775 per hour for its work. In the engagement letter that Senate leaders signed with Kleinbard, they redacted the reason for the firm’s representation. They also blacked out details in billing records.

The records do give some glimpses into how Kleinbard charges for its work. Just under two hours of research cost taxpayers $531. An 18-minute phone call between two of the firm’s lawyers on the case racked up $115.50 in February.

Such granular details are also left unredacted in records involving other firms, such as Saxton & Stump; Dilworth Paxson; and McNees Wallace & Nurick — even as the Senate blacked out the reasons they were hired.

Senate Democrats also redacted the purpose of cases handled by two law firms: Myers, Brier & Kelly, whom they paid $2,000, and Greenberg Traurig, whom they paid $1,140.

In the House, leaders redacted fewer cases. And in one case, they revealed details they had wholly obscured in years prior.

A previous Caucus and Spotlight PA investigation into the legislature’s legal bills in 2019 and 2020 showed that the House blacked out 140 pages of bills it paid to Dilworth Paxson. Through other records, the news organizations found the firm was hired to represent the House GOP in the high-profile education-funding case now being heard in Commonwealth Court.

The case, brought by several low-income and rural school districts that contend they have been underfunded by the state for decades, could have a monumental impact on future public school funding.

When the news organizations requested bills for the same case in 2021, the House turned over 60 new pages of invoices that did not redact the purpose, revealing that the chamber had previously obscured this simple phrase: “education funding litigation.”

The most glaring redaction in the new legal records provided by the legislature involves Tabas, one of the most prominent figures in state politics, and his firm, Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel.

Records show Tabas represented both House and Senate Republicans in a matter that is blacked out in public records provided by the two chambers.

An engagement letter dated May 12, 2021, explains the firm will represent each of the Republican legislative leaders — Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman of Centre County, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward of Westmoreland County, House Speaker Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff of Centre County — and the members of their caucuses “to provide advice and counsel.”

But all details about what that advice is in regards to are labeled “redacted.”

Invoices show three lawyers handled the matter starting May 7, with Tabas as the lead lawyer racking up 27.4 hours over three weeks at his $575-per-hour rate. Those invoices refer to the lawyers’ work reviewing case law in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, strategizing, and making calls — though many details are also heavily redacted.

One week after that May 12 letter, Senate Democrats hired the same firm to represent State Sen. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery) in her role as a board member on the Pennsylvania School Employees’ Retirement System. But the letter, in that case, was not redacted, revealing the firm was hired to represent Muth as PSERS was under federal investigation.

Senate Republicans also had not obscured details when they hired the Obermayer firm and paid it $348,000 in 2020 for election matters, according to unredacted documents The Caucus and Spotlight PA previously obtained.

Tabas is one of the state’s preeminent election lawyers. Since 2019, he’s also headed the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, which raises campaign money and crafts strategies to elect more Republicans to the legislature and other statewide offices. The party also typically endorses candidates in statewide primary contests, support that carries significant weight in races such as that for governor — which in 2022 is shaping up to be a crowded field.

Among those represented by Tabas in the mystery case is Corman, a leading candidate in a group of more than a dozen people who have announced they will run for governor.

Tabas did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment.

While it is unclear whether Tabas’ representation involves an election case, records show the legislature continued to spend thousands of dollars in 2021 on election-related matters.

In 2020, the Senate spent at least $1.2 million on election matters in the lead-up to and aftermath of the presidential contest. Between January and October 2021, the legislature continued to pay bills related to those same cases, adding $319,111 to that total.

For instance, Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate lawyered up in early 2021 after GOP leaders threatened not to seat State Sen. Jim Brewster (D., Allegheny). Brewster’s narrow edge over his Republican opponent in the 2020 election was being challenged in the courts, and he eventually prevailed.

That fight cost taxpayers more than $48,000, records show.

Separately, the two chambers spent at least $241,506 on legal advice and work regarding the decennial process of drawing legislative and congressional districts, which is ongoing and could likely cost taxpayers thousands of dollars more.

Redistricting is a hotly contested process — and in decades past has led to years-long legal fights — because it helps determine the balance of power in Harrisburg as well as in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation for the next decade.

Lawmakers are also expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a controversial review of the 2020 election spurred by falsehoods that the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. Corman has said the review is necessary to restore public faith in the electoral process.

In September, Senate Democrats challenged a subpoena issued by their Republican counterparts to gather detailed voter information, such as partial Social Security numbers.

Democrats are paying $450 per hour to the firm Dentons Cohen & Grigsby, while Republicans pushing for the subpoena are paying Kleinbard up to $775 per hour in ongoing litigation, records show. In the end, however, taxpayers are picking up the entire tab.

Invoices for that work are not yet available, so it is not known how much has been spent on lawyers. The legal expenses are separate from the cost of the review itself, which GOP leaders have pegged at $270,000. The spending comes despite numerous audits confirming the results of the election and finding no widespread fraud.

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https://www.inquirer.com/politics/pennsylvania/spl/pennsylvania-legislature-legal-bills-hidden-spending-20220111.html

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