Court date set for watchdog group, anti-abortion group in years-long battle for records
Oral arguments in the court case are set to begin on March 7
This story was updated at 10:21 a.m. on 2/28/22 to correct the states in which Real Alternatives operates.
After a years-long wait, a national reproductive rights group will finally get its day in court as it seeks open the spending habits of an anti-abortion organization that receives taxpayer money to public scrutiny.
Oral arguments in the case pitting watchdog and reproductive rights group Equity Forward against Real Alternatives, a Harrisburg-based contractor that’s received tens of millions of dollars in public funding, are set to begin March 7 in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court.
Here’s what you need to know about the case ahead of oral arguments:
Background on the Case
In a reversal of a previous court decision issued in June 2020, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ruled, in part, that Real Alternatives must share its financial records with the public.
While documents shed some light on Real Alternatives’ operations, Equity Forward is continuing its legal battle with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, the state entity which oversees Real Alternatives, appealing a prior court decision to block Equity Forward from reviewing secondary agreements between Real Alternatives and its service provider subcontractors.
Equity Forward maintains the documents are “critical” in understanding how the group operates and how it is spending taxpayer dollars.
Why it Matters
While Real Alternatives also operates in Indiana, the group’s largest operation is in Pennsylvania, where it contracts with 28 anti-abortion service providers (90 sites) located in 33 counties across Pennsylvania, according to 2020 data from DHS.
From 2012 to 2017, Real Alternatives received more than $30.2 million in taxpayer dollars, according to state contract documents.
Additionally, in the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020 and ending June 30, 2021, the most recent year for which data are currently available, Real Alternatives collected more than $7.2 million in state taxpayer dollars.
Equity Forward has previously called on state officials to “reexamine” Real Alternative’s contract, citing past troubles, which are detailed in a 2017 report from then-Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, and transparency concerns.
“Real Alternatives is funded almost entirely by taxpayer dollars, and has been found to have abused the public trust and misused this money in the past,” Equity Forward’s director, Molly Bangs, told the Capital-Star in an email.
“The group has refused to be open with how it spends state funding, fighting transparency requests at every turn, including battling our public records request out in court for more than four years,” Bangs continued. “We are hopeful that the Commonwealth Court will agree that the public should be able to see records that show how public money is being spent.”
In a statement to the Capital-Star, Real Alternatives accused Equity Forward of “weaponizing” Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law.
“Equity Forward, headed by a former Planned Parenthood Vice President from New York, has weaponized the Commonwealth’s Right to Know Law to continue to request from Real Alternatives documents it’s not entitled to under the law,” the statement reads. “This five year continuous attempt by them continues to fail in the courts.”
Additionally, Real Alternatives maintains that it has followed state-mandated transparency requirements, but noted that some aspects of its business are not commonwealth related and are therefore off limits to public record requests.
The statement reads:
“Real Alternatives has always followed the transparency requirements of Right to Know Law in our contract with the PA Department of Human Services. In fact, thousands of pages of program performance documents, financial documents and service provider monitoring reports are provided annually to the Department of Human Services by Real Alternatives for the public to see the accountability and effectiveness of how their hard earned tax dollars are spent.
“Real Alternatives, the non-profit company, has many and varied contracts, programs, projects, and missions that it handles. One such program is the only subject of the aforementioned contract that Real Alternatives has with The Commonwealth. It is known as the Pennsylvania Pregnancy and Parenting Support Services Program. Real Alternatives administers that Program through The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. This positive program has reached out and provided life-affirming support to 334,000 women the last 25 years.
“All of the other contracts, programs, projects, and missions handled by Real Alternatives have absolutely nothing to do with The Commonwealth. A massive number of other companies also have contracts with The Commonwealth, but they also have many other contracts, programs, projects, and missions that do not involve The Commonwealth at all.
“The business records, contracts, and materials of those other companies referenced immediately above that have nothing to do with The Commonwealth, are their own private business records. Neither The Commonwealth, nor individuals or entities seeking to obtain those private records through the Right To Know Law, have any right whatsoever to obtain those records. The same holds true for Real Alternatives’ private business records, including contracts it has with other, non-Commonwealth entities.”
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