When he was running for governor two years ago, Tom Corbett’s position papers said he would provide “an open, transparent, accountable and trustworthy government.” He was committed to “100 percent transparency throughout state government,” he said.
So why did it take two weeks for the Corbett administration to acknowledge it was giving a $75,000 contract in the voter ID case to a Philadelphia law firm that had helped his campaign?
We don’t know. Despite its public commitment to transparency, the Corbett administration is not returning The Inquirer’s calls or answering emailed questions about its contract with the Philadelphia law firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP.
On August 24, a source told The Inquirer that the Drinker firm was working for the state on a Supreme Court brief to defend Pennsylvania’s new voter-ID law.
The state Attorney General’s office, which had successfully defended the law in Commonwealth Court without outside help, told The Inquirer that it was continuing to represent the state using its in-house legal staff, and did not need outside assistance.
If outside counsel was being hired by the state, the AG’s office suggested, it would be to represent the governor’s office, through the governor’s Office of General Counsel.
The Inquirer called the governor’s press office Aug. 24.
Janet Kelley, the governor’s deputy director of communications, responded with an email stating in full: “We have not entered into any agreement. However, it is not unusual for the commonwealth to seek outside counsel with expertise in constitutional law to work with the Attorney General’s Office in defending challenges to law passed in the legislature.”
Kelley did not respond to an email reply asking whether the Drinker firm was working on the case in anticipation of a formal agreement. Asked about the situation again on Aug. 27, she replied by email: “My understanding, from our Office of General Counsel, is that no agreement has been entered into with any outside law firm to assist in the Voter ID case.”
Last Friday, 11 days later, the Drinker firm filed a 46-page brief with the state Supreme Court, defending the voter ID law on behalf of the Commonwealth, Gov. Corbett and Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, the state’s top election official.
Asked for details, Kelley confirmed that the firm had been hired by the governor’s office and would be paid up to $75,000 for its work. By email, she denied any effort to mislead the newspaper.
“I checked with our Office of General Counsel on Monday, Aug. 27. (You will note the time of my email to you was 2:15 p.m. on Aug. 27),” Kelley said. “At that time no outside counsel had been retained. When I asked about the matter today, I was informed that an agreement with the Drinker firm was reached during a late day conference call with the Office of General Counsel and the matter was finalized around 5 p.m. on Aug. 27.”
So far the administration has refused to provide any further details: when they first approached the Drinker firm, who made the decision to hire them, whether any other firms were interviewed about doing the work and what hourly rates are being paid to Drinker’s lawyers.
“…I’m sure that will be in the contract,” Kelley said in an email, referring to hourly rates. “I will share it with you when it becomes available.”
By Pennsylvania standards, the Drinker firm has not been a particularly large contributor to Corbett’s campaigns. The firm and its lawyers have donated $21,000 in cash and $5,505 in legal services to Corbett’s campaigns over the past eight years, according to state campaign finance records.
But the firm has played a critical role in Corbett’s political career, dating to his first statewide campaign in 2004, a tight race against Philadelphia attorney James Eisenhower.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Corbett received $480,000 – one of the biggest donations in state political history – from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington, D.C.-based group that received the bulk of its money from corporations, which were legally barred from contributing to Pennsylvania candidates.
Eisenhower moved to block Corbett from spending the money until Corbett or the PAC disclosed the original sources of the money. The Drinker firm, representing Corbett, held Eisenhower’s lawyers at bay until the election was over and the money was already spent.
Under pressure from state election officials, the Washington group filed a report a month after the election, attributing the bulk of the donation to Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy Co., now among the biggest operators in the Marcellus shale boom.