PHEAA Spent $409,413 On Fight To Shield Expenses

(Harrisburg Patriot) Keeping secrets can prove costly. The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency spent $409,413 on legal bills to try to keep records detailing travel expenses incurred by its employees and board members private. PHEAA released its legal bills yesterday. Read more...

Makes one wonder if the PHEAA has legal council that actually understands the state’s Right To Know law.


The Unseen One said...

Huh! And with they way they screwed up my loans back in 1988, why is this no surprise to me?!?

Anonymous said...

Jan Murphy's article is rather amusing. She claims to be concerned for the students financial situation, yet, she and the 2 other media organizations are asking PHEAA to pay for their legal expenses. Interesting, isn't it?

Jim Powers said...

Interesting - I’m not sure if the news organizations asked the PHEAA to pay for their lawyer fees court, as the judge “ordered” the PHEAA to do so. The judge may have done so as punishment to the PHEAA for not following the Open Records law. I guess the only way to know for sure is to see the actual court filing.

In addition, I did not see Jan Murphy expressing concern over the amount spent by the PHEAA in the article, she just reported the story. However, John Kirkpatrick, editor and publisher of The Patriot-News, expressed his concern.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I thought that the article from the PN today was about the amount spent on legal bills that could have been used on scholarships?

The fact of the matter is, PHEAA initially asked for the court to advise them on this matter to help protect trade secrets. Which PHEAA was granted. The lawyers representing the media organizations chose to drag the legal proceedings out -- running up legal bills. PHEAA wanted a quick and low cost resolution to this.

And how much more can the PN use this story to sell papers? PHEAA's Board of Directors has set stricter spending and travel policies.

The issues have been corrected. And PHEAA has intentions of keeping an open door with the public. There is nothing more to discuss.

Jim Powers said...

I hope that I can respond since there is nothing more to discuss. :-)

I think the concern expressed in the story regarding the money spent on legal fees was done by those interviewed, not by the reporter. I would think that if you would be upset with anyone, it would be John Kirkpatrick, editor and publisher of The Patriot-News, along with the AP and WTAE, and not the reporter, Jan Murphy.

Also, is it not true that the PHEAA sued Jan Murphy and two other reporters and two other reporters to block their public records requests? It appears to me that the PHEAA was the first to resort to court action.

Since the initial story regarding the release of these PHEAA records was reported in virtually every news outlet in PA, so I’m surprised that you feel that this follow up story was designed to simply sell more newspapers for the Patriot News. I suspect that we will also see this story in one form or another in other news outlets tomorrow.

While I appreciate the PHEAA tightening up their travel rules, this was only done when very embarrassing abuses were made public following the PHEAA’s loss in court. Someone, somewhere had to approve these expenditures, and as far as I know, the names of those individuals responsible were as never made public.

Anonymous said...

I believe you are wrong when you say that Jan Murphy doesn't have an aleterior motive within her story. She has continually attacked PHEAA and its services. Her stories are not fair and accurate, they are purely one-sided. Jan is a small-town reporter seeking a big-town name.

It is absolutely not true that PHEAA sued the reporters to block access to its records.

PHEAA did initially seek the courts advice to respond legally and accordingly to the media's request. It was not PHEAA's intent to keep informtation from the public, just to protect propreitary information, from its competitors.

And yes, the initial story was picked up from the newswire. But only certain newspapers, like the Patriot News, continue to beat the dead horse -- so to speak.

I have worked in the media and understand the concept of fair and accurate. As a reporter you have the responsibility to get both sides of the story and report on both sides as well. This is not the practice of Jan Murphy. Many of the news outlets are reporting the story, the question is, are they telling a story or reporting it.

PHEAA did not lose in court, PHEAA was granted the right to redact data that could have been used by its competitors.

Names were made public of those who were responsible for the spending -- published in news articles. Even the board of directors chairman apologized.

I understand it is hard to forgive and forget, but we can't continually focus our energy on the past's mistakes, when there are students who need help affording college. Rather than rally against, let's find a way to work together to find new solutions. But hey, maybe I am just an optimist.

Jim Powers said...

Anonymous, I appreciate your input, but your assertions seem to be at odds with what has been reported.

You mentioned that “It is absolutely not true that PHEAA sued the reporters to block access to its records. However, today’s Tribune Review’s article on this subject states: “PHEAA sued the Harrisburg Patriot-News, The Associated Press and WTAE-TV after the news outlets sought the documents.” Today’s Post Gazette reported” The agency sued after the records were requested in the summer of 2005, and the state Supreme Court earlier this year ordered the spending records to be disclosed.”

You mention that the PHEAA did not lose in court, but from the same Tribune Review article: “The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency lost a 19-month legal battle in February and was forced to release records showing that its board, composed mostly of state lawmakers, spent $860,000 on expenses such as facials, pedicures, culinary classes, fly fishing, expensive wine, falconry lessons and a $491 limo ride to shopping outlets.”

You mentioned that Jan Murphy’s “stories are not fair and accurate, they are purely one-sided.” I’ve talked with Jan Murphy a several times and she has always been open, honest and fair with me. Until there are some concrete examples given of these claimed inaccuracies or demonstrated unfairness, I see no reason to change my opinion of Jan Murphy.

The bottom line is that in order to accept these defenses of the PHEAA, all of these news reports would need to be false.

Bastet said...

What would a blog be without something or someone to ruffle your feathers…allow me to first get this out an in the open, I am a PHEAA employee.

The Patriot News has published several articles regarding PHEAA and it’s practices. Respectfully they also published PHEAA’s counterpoint. I believe it is important to show both points of view…I am copying the editorial that was posted in today’s Patriot News.

Published in the Patriot News on Wednesday June 06, 2007.
PHEAA guarded data from competitors
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Your recent article and editorial concerning the legal costs incurred by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency in the litigation caused by the unprecedented Right to Know Act request by several media outlets, including The Patriot-News, was factually misleading.
These overly broad requests necessitated the production of over 50,000 documents, tying up over 30 employees for weeks. Interestingly, only 300 of 50,000 documents requested were copied by The Patriot-News and the other media.
Your contention that we were trying to shield the costs of board workshops that occurred years ago is erroneous and reference to your files would show that the full cost of these workshops had been published long ago. What these requests actually involved was a shotgun approach that would have led to disclosure of proprietary competitive information concerning PHEAA’s marketing efforts with its business clients. In addition, the request sought personal information, such as credit card, telephone and even Social Security numbers, the disclosure of which would have been improper under the law.
The disclosure of this proprietary competitive information would have helped PHEAA’s for-profit competitors steal PHEAA’s business clients by knowing its marketing plans. Commonwealth Court, in an opinion that noted in its first sentence that this case involved questions of law that had never been decided in our state, rejected this attempt to obtain proprietary competitive information and is exactly why PHEAA sought the court’s guidance immediately by asking for a Declaratory Order. Unfortunately, it was your position that this matter should be drawn out and go through a full evidentiary hearing at a lower level, only to return to the court whose guidance PHEAA originally sought.
PHEAA is running a multibillion-dollar, self-funded proprietary business as a publicly sponsored enterprise and returns more than $200 million a year in public benefits and programs, including zero fee loans, military loan forgiveness, programs to address our critical nursing shortage and an unprecedented level of support — this year $75 million — for our State Grant Program.
We would have preferred to spend the costs and staff time caused by the scattershot Right to Know Act requests on providing access to higher education instead of copying 50,000 documents. However, we fully recognize our responsibilities under the law and have always sought to meet them in a reasonable manner.
The Patriot-News doesn’t seem to realize that we also have legal rights and responsibilities to protect both proprietary and the personal information that was sought in these excessive requests. The constitution of our commonwealth mandates that our courts be open to resolve disputes. In this case, the position of The Patriot-News seems to be that, however unreasonable their actions may be, no one has the right to challenge requests by the media.
While I am a strong believer in the First Amendment, I would note that there are other rights established by our Constitution, including the right to due process of law. PHEAA availed itself of its constitutional right to fair adjudication, sought immediate guidance, and has fully complied with the court’s direction in this matter. At the same time, PHEAA was careful to protect our vital enterprise that produces the enormous public benefits and opportunities our citizens expect.
At a time when we read of layoffs and plant closings in central Pennsylvania every week, your unceasing attack on a public enterprise that has added over 600 family-sustaining jobs to the area in the past three years, and has even been praised by other states who are clients of ours, seems misguided and unfair.
RICHARD E. WILLEY is president and CEO of PHEAA.