Burns blasts LCB decision to appeal transparency case to Supreme Court

‘I’m starting to wonder what they might be trying to hide’

EBENSBURG, July 22 – Stunned at the sheer arrogance of the state Liquor Control Board, which has lost twice in its bid to keep public information secret, state Rep. Frank Burns is lambasting the state agency’s recent decision to further drag things out by appealing to the state Supreme Court.

Burns, D-Cambria, has taken on the LCB – and by extension, Gov. Tom Wolf – in a fight to find out how many liquor licenses it has on hand to auction in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Burns has scored resounding victories at the Office of Open Records and the Commonwealth Court levels, both of which agreed with him that the numbers should be released.

But the LCB’s three-person governing board, casting aside solid legal rulings as well as common sense, decided on July 15 to continue its taxpayer-funded legal battle to maintain secrecy – a move Burns said should raise eyebrows across the Commonwealth.

“All I’m asking for is a list with two columns: one showing each county in Pennsylvania, and the other showing the number of liquor licenses available for auction in each of those counties,” Burns said. “If the LCB believes that keeping this information shielded from the public is so important that it needs a Hail Mary from the state Supreme Court, I’m starting to wonder what they might be trying to hide.”

Burns said the LCB’s contention that the number of licenses being held for auction is a “trade secret” exempt from public disclosure has been consistently shot down, most recently by the Commonwealth Court in a landmark 36-page ruling.

We fail to discern how revealing raw data regarding the total number of licenses the board could potentially select for auction in each county provides insight into any policymaking, recommendations or other deliberative processes of the board,” wrote Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon.

Burns said the Commonwealth Court decision pointedly concluded that the LCB’s license auctions are a government function – not a “trade secret” – and that the LCB undermined its own argument for maintaining secrecy by admitting it has previously released license tallies in some counties.

By clinging to its consistently losing premise and grabbing at this last legal straw, Burns said he’s starting to believe the LCB is making the issue personal and seeking to punish him, for daring to ask for the information in the first place.

“If that’s the case – and with each new legal maneuver they embrace, it appears to be – then the public should be outraged at the LCB for wasting taxpayer dollars,” Burns said. “While a pandemic is battering people, businesses and the state budget, it’s sad that the LCB has apparently made a priority of trying to teach Frank Burns a lesson, which I promise them is the ultimate waste of their time and money.”

Burns said he’s not expecting any help, or even moral support, from Wolf, who previously declined Burns’ request for a “friend of the court” brief in support of his legal battle with the LCB. Burns said that refusal doesn’t jell with Wolf’s casting of himself as a champion of government transparency.

“During a press conference just last week, Governor Wolf said, ‘I am for transparency and I will stack my record of transparency against the members of the General Assembly any day of the week,’” Burns said, referring to a quote in a July 16 Capital-Star news story. “Well, I can think of one member of the General Assembly who would relish that comparison – me.”

Burns said it’s not lost on him, nor should it be lost on the public, that one of the paid LCB board members who’s charting the prolonged court battle against him is Mary Isenhour, Wolf’s former chief of staff and senior campaign advisor, whom the governor appointed to that plum LCB position.

“If the governor truly believes in government transparency, I’m reiterating my call for him to side with me, the Office of Open Records and the Commonwealth Court, by asking the LCB to stop acting like a Wall Street firm and start answering to the people,” Burns said. “I’m also calling on his key allies to stop snubbing their noses at the people and do the same.”

Unlike the LCB, whose lawyers are paid from taxpayer funds, Burns is using personal funds to pay attorney Terry Mutchler, the founding executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, to handle his case.