HAZLETON – City officials are breaking the law by refusing to identify all donors who made contributions to the city’s Legal Defense Fund, an attorney says.
Hazleton’s Legal Defense Fund, which had a balance of $32,152.60 as of Friday, is a city account set up to help defray legal costs associated with defending the Illegal Immigration Relief Act and English Only ordinances that catapulted Mayor Lou Barletta and the city into the national spotlight in June.
Times Leader attorney Ralph Kates said city officials should provide a list of the individuals who contributed to the fund.
The immigration ordinance punishes landlords who rent to and companies that employ illegal immigrants. The other ordinance prohibits the use of any language other than English for official city business, except in certain circumstances.
The Times Leader on Oct. 24 requested to review the financial records for contributions the city received to the defense fund.
In addition to the total amount contributed to the fund, a reporter asked to review “any list of contributors and the amounts of their individual contributions to the defense fund account,” and “any legal bills (received) in relation to defense of the Illegal Immigration Relief Act.”
Jarrod Tranguch, an attorney working for city solicitor Chris Slusser, responded in a letter dated Nov. 1 that the city would provide a list of the amounts of all donations received, and the city/town and state of each donor.
The city would also include the names of organizations, elected officials and public officials that made contributions and the amounts, Tranguch wrote.
The city is compiling this information, and Tranguch anticipates it will be available on or before Nov. 10, he wrote.
But Tranguch maintains that the state Right to Know Law excludes mandatory release of any record or document, access to or publication of which would prejudice or impair a person’s reputation or personal security. He cited case law he said defines “personal security” as “freedom from harm, danger, fear or anxiety.”
“If the names and other identifying information on the checks were accessible or publicized, those people would be expected to be subject to harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse and possibly physical harm from those who oppose the Ordinance or the City’s position on illegal immigration,” Tranguch wrote.
Tranguch said disclosing the names of donors could prejudice or impair their reputations because “those who have been in favor the Ordinance and the City’s position on illegal immigration have been improperly labeled by opponents as racists and bigots.”
Tranguch added that allowing access to “the requested checks” would be disseminating “private information including: individuals’ names, addresses, phone numbers, financial institutions and checking account numbers.”
Kates said the newspaper did not ask to see the checks people sent to the city, and that Tranguch’s letter “was not responsive to the request.”
Kates said the Right to Know Law guarantees that municipal accounts are open to the public.
“The names of contributors to this fund are public because the account is a fund of the city of Hazleton, and municipal accounts are public under Pennsylvania law,” Kates said.
“The public has a right to know who puts money in, who takes it out and what it’s used for.”
Kates noted that the law allows for information such as bank account numbers to be redacted from any list of contributors the city has, or if no list is available, from the checks themselves.
Kates said the newspaper would file exceptions to the city’s denial of the names of private contributors within 15 days, as provided for by state law.
Tranguch also noted that city administrator Sam Monticello was unaware of the city receiving any legal bills in relation to the defense of the immigration ordinance lawsuit.
The suit was filed by private individuals and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.