Centre County challenges judge’s orders regarding phone records

Are the phone records of the Centre County District Attorney’s Office county documents or judicial records?

In documents filed in Commonwealth Court this week, attorneys for Centre County argued that they belong to their client.

The filing, a brief submitted on the appeal of two separate but related lawsuits in the ongoing drama between the county courthouse and the administrative offices at the Willowbank Building, challenges two earlier orders by Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz, specially presiding over the cases in Bellefonte.

At issue are injunctions that were put in place in May, putting special rules in place for Right to Know Law requests that ask for information relating to the DA’s office.

It all started in 2014, when a defense attorney asked for phone records amid allegations that Judge Bradley Lunsford was participating in ex parte text communications with members of the DA’s office. There were other requests made about communications with Judge Jonathan Grine and District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker.

Those records were turned over by the county, which provides the DA’s office phones and pays the bills.

DA Stacy Parks Miller argued that was inappropriate, claiming her office should be exempt from those requests as a judicial agency. Kurtz agreed, directing that any RTKL requests regarding the DA’s office be directed to a designated officer and the county not respond.

County attorneys Mary Lou Maierhofer and Joshua Bonn say that ruling is a mistake, claiming that because the records were part of a county contract with Verizon, paid with county taxpayer money, they should be considered public records.

Parks Miller, Grine and Gillette-Walker have also called the move an invasion of privacy. The DA’s attorney said in May that Parks Miller’s cellphone number was made available to the nonprofit group Pennsylvanians for Union Reform, which publicized it on the Internet, leading to the DA receiving threatening phone calls.

“The fact that the district attorney is embarrassed by the fact that she and members of her office communicated with members of the judiciary in this manner does not give her a clear right to enjoin the disclosure of financial records documenting the county’s expenditure of funds resulting from the district attorney’s use of the county-funded telephone service,” they wrote.

In addition to the contract and payment issue, the county’s attorneys also argued that, based on the state’s constitution and other legislation, the DA’s office is not considered part of the judiciary.

“The language of the Pennsylvania Constitution that provides that a district attorney is a county official remains unchanged” since a 1967 Supreme Court ruling, they wrote. They also pointed out that the RTKL itself calls the Office of the Attorney General a “commonwealth agency” rather than a judicial one.

“Since the (OAG) and district attorneys perform similar functions, it would be an absurd result if all records of the (OAG) are subject to the RTKL, but only financial records in possession of district attorneys are subject to the RTKL,” the county attorneys wrote.

They also said Kurtz’s injunction subverts the RTKL, which requires an agency to respond the request, whether it can be accommodated or not.

“By enjoining the county from providing ‘any response’ to certain RTKL requests,” they said, the ruling required the county to violate the law, and should thus be vacated.

Maierhofer defended the filing Thursday.

“We’re not playing political games,” she said. “We are trying to take the least costly avenue to make a determination on whose documents these are and what we can and can’t do with them.”

Parks Miller’s attorney was contacted for comment but did not respond.