By John L. Micek
For the Pittsburgh Current
Abortion rights advocates scored a major win with Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a highly restrictive Louisiana law that would have all but eliminated access to the constitutionally protected procedure in the Bayou State.
The 5-4 decision, which saw Chief Justice John Roberts again joining with the court’s liberal justices, was rightly hailed by Planned Parenthood’s political wing as reaffirming a woman’s right to “access to health care without barriers or political roadblocks.”
But on Friday, without much banner or fanfare there was another win, as the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ordered an anti-abortion group that has received tens of millions of dollars of your money over the last eight years to explain how it’s spending that cash.
Equity Forward, a New York-based reproductive rights group, has claimed that Real Alternatives, which contracts with the state Department of Human Services to provide “life-affirming pregnancy and parenting support services,” has used a portion of the taxpayer money it receives to improperly expand its operations into other states. The group has come under similar scrutiny in Michigan.
In May 2019, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that Real Alternatives did a lousy job of justifying why some of that money should be shielded from public view. The state appellate court also ordered the Open Records Office to take a mulligan on its earlier decision rejecting Equity Forward‘s request for its financial records.
The Open Records Office’s June 26 decision partly granted and partly denied Equity Forward’s request, concluding that Real Alternatives had no right to shield information about how it invoiced its service providers, ruling that “it is difficult to imagine information more relevant to the performance of a governmental function than information describing the services performed pursuant to that governmental function.”
In March 2018, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that an internal audit by the Human Services Department “flagged a practice in which Real Alternatives withheld 3 percent of all payments to service providers under a side deal they called a ‘program development and advancement agreement.’ Auditors ultimately estimated [Real Alternatives] had collected more than $800,000 over the last five years through this deal.”
In Commonwealth Court, lawyers for Real Alternatives claimed they didn’t have to show Equity Forward the money because the side deals it entered into with contractors weren’t part of the grant agreement it has with the state.
In short, the court didn’t buy it, ruling that Real Alternatives failed to meet the burden of proof to shield its documents from public view and that the Open Records office had erred by accepting that argument.
Last week, the Open Records Office changed its mind, ruling that “the reimbursement information contained within the Service Provider Monthly Invoices are not the type of information permitted to be withheld,” under existing precedent.