Stetler support letters released after public-records request

Right after Steve Stetler was sentenced on public corruption charges in September, court reporter Rick Lee asked Dauphin County court for the letters that were written in support of Stetler and sent to the judge.

No, the judge said.

Rick had a pretty good idea that letters like that had been made public in other cases, and that they should be public in this one.

He crafted a letter of appeal to the judge. He cited case law that held letters of support in a trial were public records.

In the Commonwealth v. Martinez, 917 A.2d 856 (Pa Super. 2007), considering the appeal of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as an intervenor, the Pennsylvania Superior Court was asked “whether the news media enjoys a common law right of access, after sentencing in a criminal case, to letters presented to the sentencing court by defense counsel on defendant’s behalf.”

The answer was affirmative.

The Post-Gazette had petitioned the Martinez court to release the letters after the court characterized them in open court as “a number of letters that were filed on your behalf from everybody from family to government officials.”

The Post-Gazette’s position was “the public has a paramount right to evaluate the activities of its officials and there is a public interest in knowing whether any elected or appointed officials wrote to the court in an attempt to excuse or minimize Mr. Martinez’s breach of the public trust….”

The public has the same rights and interests in the Stetler case.

Rick noted, “The facts surrounding the submission of the letters in the Martinez case and the Stetler case are nearly identical.”

He asked the judge to consider the case law, and release the letters in the Stetler case.

The judge agreed. Rick’s story about the letters appears today on ydr.com and in the York Daily Record/Sunday News’ print edition. The letters themselves are online, embedded in the story.

We’ve known for months that some of York’s community leaders have supported Stetler since he was charged; for example, some have contributed to his legal defense fund. But the release of the letters reveals the roots of that support and helps people who live in York County understand the connections between some of the county’s prominent politicians and businesspeople.

One interesting bit of news that came out of reviewing the letters: Two public officials — York Mayor Kim Bracey and Greg Fajt, the commissioner of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board — wrote to the judge on the city’s and gaming control board’s letterhead, respectively. Is that appropriate for a public official? Rick reported to answer that question.

About Scott Blanchard

Sunday editor at the York (Pa.) Daily Record/Sunday News. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.
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