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News outlets fight for release of PPL document

Published February 05. 2014 12:49PM

A coalition of 12 media companies on Tuesday asked Commonwealth Court to allow it to join with two newspapers in court cases to force the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission and PPL to release details of why crews were diverted from a high priority area to a low priority area during an Oct. 29, 2011, ice storm, delaying restoration of power to 1,400 PPL customers.

The eight-page petition to intervene argues, "The members of the public most directly affected by this event and PPL's actions and/or omissions with regard to it are the Pennsylvania citizens who rely on the investigation services and news reporting of the news entities, and thus these news entities have a vital interest in participating in this proceeding on a matter of such important public concern."

The PUC found PPL in the wrong for the diversion, revealed by an anonymous letter, and fined the utility. PPL settled with the PUC for $60,000.

"This was a result of a misunderstanding that led a lower level supervisor to make a wrong assignment for one repair crew. It should not have happened. It was contrary to our long-standing policy on prioritization, and we have taken steps to make sure it does not happen again," PPL spokesman Paul Wirth said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon.

Wirth, as part of the civil settlement agreement with the state Public Utilities Commission over the diversion, would not disclose details of where the crew was sent.

The company has "reinforced" its policy of first restoring higher-priority customers, such as hospitals and those outages affecting the most customers, and codified it in writing, he said.

"We regret that this misunderstanding led to a restoration delay for some customers," Wirth said.

PUC press secretary Jennifer Kocher said "At this point, we have just received the filing and we have it under review."

How thematter unfolded

Despite PUC's own statute requiring public disclosure, the commission refused requests filed under the state's Right To Know Law by The Morning Call and the Times Leader to release details, including who ordered the diversion and who benefitted from it.

The PUC said it refused the requests because making the documents public would mean identifying the PPL employee who wrote the anonymous letter alerting PPL to the diversion. Identifying the employee might lead to "economic retaliation" or damage that person's reputation, the PUC said.

The newspapers argued that they wanted information about the diversion, not about who wrote the anonymous letter. They appealed the PUC's refusal to the state Office of Open records, which ruled in the papers' favor.

The OOR said the letter must be given to the papers because it is deemed a public document under the PUC's own statutes. The PUC could redact information that would identify the letter writer, OOR said.

The PUC appealed the order to Commonwealth Court, arguing that its reasons for not releasing the letter should remain private. PPL later joined the appeal.

"Once again, the PUC's action represents yet another case of a public agency using tax dollars to limit the public's access to information," said David M. Erdman, editor and vice-president of The Morning Call.

Coalition asksto be involved

The Commonwealth Court petition to intervene was filed at 2 p.m. Tuesday by attorney Craig J. Staudenmaier on behalf of the coalition, which is composed of the TIMES NEWS; the Pocono Record; WNEP-TV; The Morning Call; Civitas Media, publisher of the Times Leader; PA Media Group: PennLive/ The Patriot News; the Philadelphia Media Network; The Associated Press; Lancaster Newspapers; Calkins Media; the Scranton Times; and the Reading Eagle.

The Pennsylvania Freedom Of Information Commission, the Pennsylvania News Media Association and the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors Group are expected to file documents supporting the petition.

The media coalition is the largest ever formed around a public Right To Know issue in Pennsylvania, Staudenmaier said.

Legal precedent

The matter of the anonymous letter surfaced in Aug. 30, when the PUC asked for public comment on the PPL settlement. The PUC released only scant information about the settlement, saying that both sides had agreed to keep the details confidential, including the identity of the letter writer, the PPL employee who ordered the diversion, and the locations of the diversion.

However, Staudenmaier pointed to a 1992 case involving The Morning Call and Lower Saucon Township.

In that case, as reported in The Morning Call, Northampton County President Judge Robert A. Freedberg ruled that the township was required to make public information about how much it paid a resident to settle his claims that he was beaten by two former township police officers.

In his ruling, Freedberg wrote that "We hold that a settlement agreement between a private party and a public agency which concludes civil litigation must be disclosed pursuant to the Right To Know Law and the Sunshine Act."

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