Lawyers for Pennsylvania governor argue his firing of open-records officer was legal

Associated Press

The attorney general's office fired back Tuesday at a lawsuit brought by the man Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf removed last month as executive director of the state Office of Open Records, saying he served at the governor's pleasure.

The lawyers filed several documents responding to the lawsuit by Erik Arneson and the Senate Republican caucus that challenges Arneson's firing from the agency that hears appeals under the state Right-to-Know Law.

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Arneson's appointment was among Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's final acts in office. Wolf moved to cancel it shortly after being sworn in Jan. 20. The open-records director does not require Senate confirmation.

Wolf has said the appointment lacked transparency, while Arneson has said Wolf's action endangered the independence of an office that has to rule on access disputes involving vast areas of state governments under the governor's purview.

The lawyers, who represent Wolf and the Department of Community and Economic Development, argued there was no basis for a judge to reinstate Arneson and called an injunction in the matter "wholly inappropriate."

"Gov. Wolf acted within his constitutional authority when he removed Arneson from his job," the lawyers wrote. "Petitioners have failed to establish that they are entitled to any relief."

They also said the Senate Republicans don't have legal standing to participate in the lawsuit, and they filed a motion asking to have the caucus removed from the case.

The filings were made a day before a court hearing that is expected to address the injunction request and whether the governor can fire the executive director without cause.

Arneson has continued to show up for work in the Capitol complex since his firing, though his computer and state ID card do not work, and Wolf has directed Nathan Byerly to run the agency while Wolf looks for a successor.

A second legal challenge to Arneson's firing was made in Commonwealth Court last week by Pennsylvanians for Union Reform, an entity led by Simon Campbell that has pursued state and local government records under the Right-to-Know Law. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Feb. 12.