Anti-abortion group must explain how it’s spending million of dollars of your money, Open Records Office rules | Tuesday Morning Coffee

June 30, 2020 7:11 am

Abortion rights supporters rally at the Pa. State Capitol on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 as part of a national day of action (Capital-Star photo).

Good Tuesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

First up, some hearty thanks to Capital-Star Associate Editor Cassie Miller, who filled in on Monday while we took some badly needed R&R. We’re rested and ready for whatever the rest of this holiday week holds.

Now, down to business …

Abortion rights advocates scored a major win with Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a highly restrictive Louisiana law that would have all but eliminated access to the constitutionally protected procedure in the Bayou State.

The 5-4 decision, which saw Chief Justice John Roberts again joining with the court’s liberal justices, was rightly hailed by Planned Parenthood’s political wing as reaffirming a woman’s right to “access to health care without barriers or political roadblocks.”

But on Friday, without much banner or fanfare there was another win, as the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ordered an anti-abortion group that has received tens of millions of dollars of your money over the last eight years to explain how it’s spending that cash.

Equity Forward, a New York-based reproductive rights group, has claimed that Real Alternatives, which contracts with the state Department of Human Services to provide “life-affirming pregnancy and parenting support services,” has  used a portion of the taxpayer money it receives to improperly expand its operations into other states. The group has come under similar scrutiny in Michigan.

(Patrick Feller/Flickr)

In May 2019, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that Real Alternatives did a lousy job of justifying why some of that money should be shielded from public view. The state appellate court also ordered the Open Records Office to take a mulligan on its earlier decision rejecting Equity Forward‘s request for its financial records.

The Open Records Office’June 26 decision partly granted and partly denied Equity Forward’s request, concluding that Real Alternatives had no right to shield information about how it invoiced its service providers, ruling that “it is difficult to imagine information more relevant to the performance of a governmental function than information describing the services performed pursuant to that governmental function.”

In March 2018, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that an internal audit by the Human Services Department “flagged a practice in which Real Alternatives withheld 3 percent of all payments to service providers under a side deal they called a ‘program development and advancement agreement.’ Auditors ultimately estimated [Real Alternatives] had collected more than $800,000 over the last five years through this deal.”

In Commonwealth Court, lawyers for Real Alternatives claimed they didn’t have to show Equity Forward the money because the side deals it entered into with contractors weren’t part of the grant agreement it has with the state.

In short, the court didn’t buy it, ruling that Real Alternatives failed to meet the burden of proof to shield its documents from public view and that the Open Records office had erred by accepting that argument.

Last week, the Open Records Office changed its mind, ruling that “the reimbursement information contained within the Service Provider Monthly Invoices are not the type of information permitted to be withheld,” under existing precedent.

Kadida Kenner, a progressive activist, leads a crowd in chants in front of the Pennsylvania Capitol in support of abortion rights Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

In a statement, Mary Alice Carter, a spokesperson for Equity Forward, said the organization was “thrilled that the public will finally get insight into how their tax dollars are spent.”

But the reproductive rights group were “shocked” to learn through the OOR ruling “that anti-abortion centers in Pennsylvania are sharing the names of people who have visited them. People’s health, sexual, and medical history should always remain highly confidential and this is a major violation of trust.”

Real Alternatives could not immediately be reached for comment by the Capital-Star. The OOR opinion gives Real Alternatives and the Human Services Department 30 days to comply with the ruling. We’ll add comment if and when it rolls in.

In a media FAQ posted to its website that does not reflect the earlier Commonwealth Court ruling, Real Alternatives denied Equity Forward’s claims that it has been an “irresponsible steward,” of the taxpayer money it has received. It also argues that Equity Forward “refuses to accept the fact that it is the Service Providers, and not Equity Forward or anyone else for that matter, who gets to decide how they choose to spend their EARNED money from services they provided.”

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
Stephen Caruso
 leads our coverage this morning with this update on the latest on election law tweaks in the state House, and where the Wolf administration stands on the matter.

Summer intern Jordan Wolman looks at the state of play in Pennsylvania’s environmental regulatory efforts, finding ‘bubblegum and Band-Aids’ are keeping things together.

Capital-Star Washington Reporter Allison Stevens has the full story on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on that Louisiana abortion law mentioned up above.

On our Commentary Page this morning, two IUPUI scholars look at how racism in the U.S. health system hinders care and costs the lives of African-Americans. And Marc Stier of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center enumerates all the ways Republicans are dead wrong about reopening.

(Capital-Star file)

The Inquirer
 details the challenges facing low- and moderate-income home buyers in Philadelphia.
Protesters injured by police during a protest in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood have filed a class action lawsuit against Mayor Bill Peduto, city police, and others, the Tribune-Review reports.
Two staffers at a Cumberland County nursing home have tested positive for COVID-19, the Sentinel of Carlisle reports.
The ‘Burg profiles the Black developers who are helping to revitalize Harrisburg’s neighborhoods.
Activist Carol Kuniholm says redistricting reform efforts have collapsed because lawmakers failed to act in time, the Morning Call reports.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

A company whose principals include longtime Philadelphia political operative Ben Waxman has started selling PPE out of a vending machine in Suburban Station with more to come, BillyPenn reports.
Gov. Tom Wolf says he’s not ready to shutter bars statewide as COVID-19 cases increase, the PA Post reports.
Police reform legislation has passed in four states and is under consideration in 12 more — but will it be enough? takes up the question.
Joe Biden leads Donald Trump 46-41 percent in Pennsylvania, according to a new FOX43/Susquehanna Polling poll (via PoliticsPA).
U.S. House Democrats will roll out a suite of environmental reforms today that include investing in low-carbon industries, and getting the United States to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The Senate comes in at 11 a.m. There’s also a full slate of committee action on for the day. As always, all sessions are live-streamed.

In the Senate:
8:30 a.m.: 
Majority Policy Committee
9:30 a.m.: Legislative Budget & Finance Committee
10:30 a.m.: Judiciary Committee
Call of the Chair: Appropriations Committee
Call of the Chair: Banking & Insurance Committee

In the House:
9:30 a.m.:
 Legislative Budget & Finance Committee
2 p.m.: Democratic Policy Committee

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition):
8 a.m., Harrisburg Hilton: Breakfast for Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie. Admission runs $500 or $1,000.

Gov. Tom Wolf 
and others hold a 2:30 p.m. Zoom news conference to celebrate 35 million cases being sealed on the first anniversary of Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Law.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out to stalwart Capital-Star opinion contributor Anwar Curtis, who’s celebrating another full trip around the sun this Tuesday morning. The Capital-Star wouldn’t be the place it is without his unique voice.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s a favorite from The Bluebells, from their singles collection, it’s the oh-so-jangly ‘I’m Falling.’

Tuesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
With play slowly resuming, continues its training camp previews. Today, inside the New York Rangers’ return to play.

And now you’re up to date.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.