Court affirms OOR ruling, Real Alternatives does not have to disclose service provider agreements
‘This ruling will allow Real Alternatives to continue to enrich itself at the taxpayers’ expense,’ Ashley Underwood, director of Equity Forward said
(Image AdobeStock via The Philadelphia Gay News)
A Pennsylvania appellate court agreed with the Office of Open Records on Tuesday that the commonwealth’s Right-to-Know Law does not reach all records and agreements between a state contractor and its third-party service providers.
In a 2-1 decision, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the Office of Open Record’s Sept. 2022 decision that Real Alternatives, a Harrisburg-based “crisis pregnancy” organization that counsels women against abortion and received more than $30 million in public funding between 2012 and 2017, does not have to subject its Program Development and Advancement Agreements, or secondary agreements with service providers, to public scrutiny.
Equity Forward, a reproductive rights watchdog organization, appealed the January 2018 decision by the OOR, arguing that the records should be accessible to the public through Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law because Real Alternatives is a contractor with the Department of Human Services.
In the final decision, Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon wrote that Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law “does not reach all records in possession of a private contractor that relate to the governmental function; rather, the records reached are only those that relate to performance of that function.”
In an email to the Capital-Star, Real Alternatives said that it was pleased with the court’s ruling.
“Real Alternatives is pleased that today the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court (Equity Forward litigation) agreed with what Real Alternatives has been saying for years: Private agreements among private parties are not subject to public disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law.
“The decision affirms that the life-affirming programming Real Alternatives and various service providers across the Commonwealth supply in their private time, with private money, cannot be second-guessed by strangers and out-of-state, agenda-driven entities,” the group’s statement continued.
“Real Alternatives remains committed to completely fulfilling its obligations under the grant agreement with the Commonwealth, just as it has done for decades,” the statement reads.
In the dissenting opinion, President Judge Emerita Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter wrote that she would reverse the OOR’s decision and require Real Alternatives to disclose the agreements.
“One overarching purpose of the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) is to make transparent the way in which government funds are being spent,” Leadbetter wrote. “It is, ‘remedial legislation to facilitate government transparency and promote accountability.’
A device that re-routes government money through a ‘private’ contract in order to shield it from public scrutiny subverts that purpose. Therefore, disclosure is appropriate not only under the terms of the RTKL but serves its underlying purpose as well,” Leadbetter said.
Ashley Underwood, director of Equity Forward said that the Commonwealth Court ruling does not prevent or stop Real Alternatives from concealing information.
“We are glad that the Commonwealth Court agreed in part that taxpayers deserve greater transparency into how their money is being spent,” Underwood said. “However, today’s ruling allows Real Alternatives to continue concealing information about its nefarious practice of siphoning money back from contractors that is actually meant to serve parents and pregnant people.
“Based on both court statements and Judge Bonnie Leadbetter’s dissent, there is no doubt that Real Alternatives is still engaging in the same kickback scheme that it was previously ordered by the state of Pennsylvania to halt,” Underwood continued.
“This ruling will allow Real Alternatives to continue to enrich itself at the taxpayers’ expense. Equity Forward will determine next steps and continue working to shine a light on backdoor practices that anti-abortion centers and organizations are known for,” Underwood said.
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