Pennsylvania appeals court denies media access to records about PPL's response to 2011 storm

Media organizations aren't entitled to see documents that detail how PPL crews responded to an October 2011 snowstorm that left hundreds of thousands without power, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.

A Commonwealth Court panel overturned an Office of Open Records decision, saying both the Public Utility Code and the Right-to-Know Law provide the legal basis for the Public Utility Commission to withhold the records.

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The Morning Call of Allentown and the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader requested records that include a PPL employee tipster's anonymous letter to the Public Utility Commission that said a crew was diverted away from restoring power in a higher-priority area. The Associated Press and other media groups joined the papers' legal effort.

Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter wrote that many of the documents at issue were created or collected as part of an informal PUC probe, meaning they fall under a Right-to-Know Law exception for noncriminal investigations.

"Further, requiring the PUC to disclose the requested documents could lead to public utilities and employees being less likely to cooperate and provide relevant information out of fear of retaliation or public embarrassment, frustrating the purpose of PUC's investigations and lessening the effectiveness of the PUC in monitoring the utilities' compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements," Leadbetter wrote.

Heavy, wet snow that fell on autumn leaves on Oct. 29, 2011, resulted in about 388,000 customers losing power, and about a third of them were in the dark for at least 24 hours. Power was not fully restored for a week.

PPL settled with the PUC, paying a $60,000 fine, but details about the incident weren't disclosed. A PPL Corp. spokesman said this year that the power restoration incident amounted to "a misunderstanding that led a lower-level supervisor to make the wrong assignment for one repair group."

Craig Staudenmaier, a lawyer for the media groups, said the decision effectively will allow the PUC and the utilities they regulate to decide which documents they want to shield from public view.

"It's the equivalent of giving the court and the DA and the criminal defendants the ability to decide what documents are going to be on the public docket in a court case," Staudenmaier said. He said a decision about an appeal has not been made.

PUC spokeswoman Jenn Kocher said the commission was pleased with the result.

"With it, utility employees can continue to feel comfortable coming to us with information," Kocher said. "Those employees and that information plays an important role in the PUC's ability to protect the public interest."