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Inquirer wins appeal; Chester charter school must produce records

Chester Community Charter School, the state's largest nonprofit charter, must make public a wide range of information about pay and profits going to its for-profit management company, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has ruled.

Chester Community Charter School, the state's largest nonprofit charter, must make public a wide range of information about pay and profits going to its for-profit management company, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has ruled.

The decision by the new state agency created to hear Right-to-Know Law cases came this month in response to an appeal The Inquirer filed after the Delaware County school with 2,150 students denied a request for the information.

Randi J. Vladimer, Chester Community Charter's attorney, wrote Friday in an e-mail that the school "is still exploring its options with respect to this matter," which could include an appeal to Delaware County Court.

For that reason, "it would be inappropriate for the charter school to make any statement at this time," she wrote.

The ruling was among more than a dozen recent decisions that break new ground under the state's new Right-to-Know Law, defining public access to information from private companies and other nongovernmental entities performing work for public agencies, according to Gayle Sproul, president of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The statute, which took effect in January, explicitly grants public access to records created and held by private companies and nongovernment entities doing government work, which had not been expressly covered under the old law.

The new law, Sproul said, creates "a sea change - there's a great difference."

The decision in The Inquirer case is the latest development in a legal battle over the newspaper's contention that it has the right to review the charter school's financial records.

In January, The Inquirer filed a Right-to-Know Law request with Chester Community Charter, asking among other things for names, titles, salaries, and all other payments or expenses and benefits paid to all employees of Charter School Management Inc. from 1998 to the present.

Charter School Management is a private, for-profit company owned by Vahan H. Gureghian, a lawyer and Republican fund-raiser who serves on the boards of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. His management company has a contract with Chester Community Charter to run virtually all aspects of the school.

The newspaper also asked for records showing payments to Gureghian and other top Charter School Management officers, as well as records showing the company's profits.

Because Charter School Management is a private company that hires all school employees and manages the school's finances, it has been able to keep many details of its financial operations secret.

That contrasts with most charter schools, which don't contract out all operations and typically disclose extensive information about their finances through their federal nonprofit earnings statements, which all nonprofits must make public.

Vladimer, the charter school's lawyer, opposed The Inquirer's Right-to-Know claim, arguing to the Office of Open Records that "these requests seek information regarding the salaries, benefits, expenses, and business transactions of a private management company, not a public charter school."

But the office rejected her argument, saying in a May 8 decision that Charter School Management "has contracted with the charter school to provide what is otherwise a governmental function" and "any records it maintains in performance of or directly related to that function are public records and must be provided."

The case has been complicated by a defamation suit that Gureghian and his company filed against The Inquirer in January and by the bankruptcy filing by the newspaper's parent, Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C., in February.

Gureghian alleged in the defamation suit that failed business talks between him and Inquirer publisher Brian P. Tierney motivated articles late last year that questioned the school's use of public funds.

In the articles, The Inquirer cited state records showing that of $60.6 million in public subsidies paid to Gurgehian's company since 1999, the portion going to business and administration was consistently among the highest for charter schools in Pennsylvania, and its spending percentage on instruction was among the lowest.

Inquirer editor William K. Marimow defended the paper's coverage "on an issue of public importance" and said Tierney had no involvement in the stories. Tierney's attorney, Scott K. Baker, general counsel for Philadelphia Media Holdings, called the suit baseless and denied that Tierney had been in negotiations regarding a business transaction.

For this article, The Inquirer e-mailed written questions to several Gureghian representatives, seeking comment.

A. Bruce Crawley, a spokesman for the Chester Community Charter School and for Charter School Management, did not respond.

Neither did Clifford E. Haines, a lawyer representing Charter School Management in the defamation suit.

After a hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in April, Judge Jean K. Fitzsimon agreed to suspend several lawsuits against the newspaper, including Gureghian's, pending resolution of the bankruptcy case. Her order had the effect of halting the legal discovery process in the case.

Vladimer, the charter school's lawyer, subsequently wrote to the Office of Open Records, saying that The Inquirer's information request was "a blatant and improper attempt to circumvent the discovery process" by seeking information that the newspaper wanted for its use in the lawsuit. She asked the Open Records Office to quash The Inquirer's request.

The office rejected that argument, noting that the Right-to-Know Law request had been filed before the bankruptcy and that Judge Fitzsimon had said she would not enjoin reporters from reporting on school activities.

In a later bankruptcy hearing, when the matter came up again, Fitzsimon told Edmond M. George, another attorney for Gureghian and Charter School Management, that she said did "not know why you felt compelled to send" a transcript of the earlier hearing to the Office of Open Records, "other than to serve as an interference in their reporting."

George said that was not the filing's intent.

The Right-to-Know Law dispute was not the only time the management company has claimed that the newspaper's reporters should not be allowed to look into the school's activities.

Aileen Campbell, a lawyer for the management company, tried to bar an Inquirer reporter from an April 28 arbitration hearing in Delaware County over a contractual dispute between the charter school and a former teacher.

Stephen H. Gold, the arbitration panel chairman, replied: "He has an absolute right to be here. This is an open courtroom," and rejected the request.