12 media firms join in public-records case
Outlets want release of letter in PPL outage case
February 04. 2014 10:42PM
Ten news agencies joined The Times Leader and The Morning Call on Tuesday to see the state Public Utility Commission release an anonymous letter, one that led to a misconduct settlement with PPL Electric Utilities Corp. after an October 2011 power outage.
An attorney representing the news companies filed an application to intervene on behalf of The Associated Press, Times-Shamrock Communications and the Philadelphia Media Network, which owns The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Other media outlets on the application include: Calkins Media, owner of The Intelligencer in Doylestown and the Bucks County Courier-Times; Lancaster Newspapers; PA Media Group, owner of The Patriot News of Harrisburg; Times News of Lehighton; The Pocono Record; The Reading Eagle and WNEP-TV.
The media coalition represents what is believed to be the largest group effort fighting for access to what should be public records in Pennsylvania.
PPL joined the PUC's case on Jan. 8.
PPL spokesman Paul Wirth said the 2011 incident was isolated, a management slip-up. Wirth did not reveal details — the who and where — of the case.
“(That was) a result of the agreement with the PUC that the information should be kept confidential, in our opinion,” Wirth said.
A PUC spokeswoman said she would not get into specifics as she had just received the filing and was reviewing it Tuesday afternoon.
During a telephone news conference, Craig Staudenmaier, a Harrisburg attorney representing the media, said the coalition will help streamline the litigation process, but it also sends a strong message.
“It shows the PUC and PPL that you're all speaking with one voice, which is a powerful voice,” Staudenmaier said. “This just isn't one newspaper or two out there. This is a matter of public concern. When it comes to the restoration of power … you like to think that everyone plays by the rules.”
Times Leader Executive Editor George Spohr said the coalition shows there is solidarity among varied media outlets to seek transparency from publicly funded agencies.
“The most heartening thing to me is seeing all these competing outlets recognize that the public needs to have this information,” Spohr said. “It was very clear from the start that it was important to build this coalition and that was the way we needed to go.”
The suit began when Times Leader reporter Andrew M. Seder asked for a copy of the “tip letter.” Shortly after, a Morning Call reporter asked for the same letter and all documents related to the PPL case.
Tuesday's application explains that, although the other news agencies did not press the PUC to release the letter, they are interested in keeping public utility proceedings transparent.
The document asserts the state's citizenry relies on news media to “monitor the proceedings of the PUC and the public utilities it oversees and report on those activities.”
The document also references case law that proved the general public now acquires its information primarily from print and electronic media, not first-hand observation or word of mouth.
On Oct. 29, 2011, a surprise snow storm dumped nearly a foot of heavy, icy slush on much of the Northeastern United States. Nearly 1 million electricity customers lost power, including thousands between Luzerne and Lackawanna counties.
The newspaper believes the “tip letter” was sent to the PUC by a PPL employee and explains how restoration crews shifted their efforts from a high-priority zone to a lower-priority zone while fixing power outages. This violates PUC codes and PPL standards.
A PUC investigation found the letter rang true.
Since the outage, Wirth said PPL has taken steps to ensure the error does not happen again.
Wirth said the company:
• Reinforced (its) policy for all our employees restoring highest priorities first, like hospitals, public-safety facilities, police departments;
• Reviewed (its) expectations that all our employees involved in storm restoration follow this policy;
• Strengthened and clarified (its) written procedures to make it clear we expect these procedures to be followed in all cases.
“This was an isolated incident that one lower-level supervisor made the wrong assignment for one crew,” Wirth said.
PPL settled the matter and agreed to pay a $60,000 fine in exchange for the PUC locking up the letter. The PUC has argued it cannot release it because it promised PPL officials it would remain confidential.
“Well, that's all well and good, and you can make that promise, but when it comes to the public's right to access that, that promise means nothing,” Staudenmaier said. “A settlement agreement that involved the expenditure of public funds or a public body has to be public.”
Protecting the tipster
The PUC has sided with the utility and denied both newspapers' Right-to-Know requests on the grounds the letter, though sent anonymously, contains information that could identify its sender. Michael Swindler, a PUC attorney, argued that protecting the whistle-blower's identity was important.
Both newspapers filed an appeal through the Office of Open Records for the letter to determine where the incident occurred and who may have benefited when the work crews changed priorities.
The newspapers have no interest in revealing the confidential source, Morning Call Editor and Vice President David Erdman said during the news conference.
In November, the Office of Open Records ruled in the newspapers' favor based on the PUC's own statutes, not Right-to-Know laws, and gave the PUC 30 days to produce the letter.
On the 29th day, the PUC appealed the ruling to the Commonwealth Court, using the argument that the letter is “likely to disclose the identity of the confidential informant” and could identify the person accused of directing the restoration workers.