- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A state court Wednesday widened a ruling that bars the Pennsylvania Senate in most cases from withholding information about employees’ legal bills paid by the taxpayers.

A Commonwealth Court panel sided with The Associated Press for the second time in the case, which originated with a 2010 request filed by an AP reporter under the state Right-to-Know Law.

The AP sought bills, contracts and payments records for lawyers hired to represent former Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow and Democratic caucus employees dating back to 2009. The Senate responded by providing records on five clients but with the names and descriptions of services blacked out, citing lawyer-client privilege. The AP appealed.

The court sided with AP in 2011, ruling that clients’ names and general descriptions of the services are usually not shielded by attorney-client privilege, and the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decision.

Wednesday’s ruling rejected Senate claims that the redacted information is covered by secrecy protections for such activities as grand jury proceedings or criminal investigations. Another spurned claim was that confidentiality is necessary to protect an attorneys’ “work product,” which includes their opinions, notes or legal theories, court papers said.

The court said a general description of legal services would not compromise any of those activities.

“Where, as here, the taxpayers are footing the bill for the legal services, they are entitled to know the general nature of the service provided for the fees charged,” Judge Robert Simpson wrote in the opinion.

Mellow, a Lackawanna County lawmaker who served many years as the Democratic floor leader, retired in 2010. Prosecutors said his staff worked on political campaigns on state time in 2006. He pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud in 2012 and is serving a 16-month prison term.

Gayle Sproul, who represents the AP in the case, called the opinion “extremely thorough and persuasive and appears to us to be correct in every aspect.”

Senate lawyer Matthew Haverstick said he was reviewing the decision and suggested that an appeal of the court’s analysis of grand jury secrecy is possible.

“We think we may need guidance from the Supreme Court” on that issue, he said.