Senate GOP, fired open records director file lawsuit against Wolf
HARRISBURG — Senate Republicans and the fired director of the state’s Open Records Office on Monday sued Gov. Tom Wolf in Commonwealth Court, accusing him of “an assault on the independence” of the office and “an unlawful power grab.”
The legal challenge is the first test of Wolf’s administration, less than a week after Wolf pledged bipartisanship during his swearing-in ceremony.
“What they did is illegal,” said Matt Haverstick, a private Philadelphia lawyer representing Senate Republicans.
Haverstick and attorney Joel Frank are seeking a judicial order to restore Erik Arneson, who said he was locked out of the office.
The court set a hearing for Feb. 3.
The lawsuit says that “because the Legislature expressed a clear intent to insulate the executive director from removal, the governor is forbidden from removing (him) without cause.
“By letter signed seemingly within hours of his inauguration, Gov. Wolf purported to ‘terminate’ the rightfully appointed executive director … without cause,” the lawsuit states. “The governor’s assault on the independence of the executive director offends separation of powers principles in the Pennsylvania Constitution and violates the express statutory independence of the executive director.”
Wolf fired Arneson, whom Republican Gov. Tom Corbett appointed less than two weeks before relinquishing the governor’s mansion.
One of Arneson’s first acts was to demote “a qualified chief counsel in favor of a Corbett staffer,” Wolf said in response to the lawsuit.
“By removing Mr. Arneson, I am standing up against an effort to destroy the integrity of the Office of Open Records and turn it into a political operation,” Wolf said. “These attempts to change the office, which exists to protect the public’s right to know, are the exact reasons people distrust their state government. When given the choice between protecting the public and playing politics, I will stand with the people of Pennsylvania.”
Senate Democrats believe Wolf acted within his power, but rather than join the litigation, “will let it play out,” said Minority Leader Jay Costa of Forest Hills.
Wolf told the Tribune-Review last week that he acted on principle and to gain respect with Republicans. He said the last-minute appointment bucked the “democratic process” and that he objected to the “lack of transparency.”
Wolf recalled 28 other recent nominees of Corbett’s.
Arneson, sworn in Jan. 16, did not require Senate confirmation. He is the former communications and policy director of the Senate Republican Caucus.
Corbett waited to appoint Arneson even though the term of the office’s first director, Terry Mutchler, ended in April, Wolf said.
The office oversees enforcement of the state’s Right-to-Know Law. Mutchler, appointed by former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, left this month to take a job with a Philadelphia law firm.
The lawsuit says the governor, who heads the executive branch, is attempting to remove an official from a “quasi-judicial watchdog agency.”
The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition issued a statement urging Wolf to reconsider his decision to terminate Arneson.
“If the director can be removed for any reason at any time, what will stop the next governor — or even this one later in his term — from removing him or her on the basis of a ruling of that office?” the coalition said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].