Supreme Court sides with Burns, slaps down LCB attempt to maintain secrecy
‘Victory for the people’ led by Cambria rep.’s refusal to back down
EBENSBURG, Jan. 8 – Proving again that one person can make a difference, state Rep. Frank Burns today heralded a state Supreme Court ruling against the state Liquor Control Board -- handing a final victory to Burns in his long legal battle to end secrecy at the state agency.
"Finally, in a victory for the people, the LCB has learned that it works for us -- not the other way around," Burns said. "The Supreme Court has denied hearing the LCB's appeal, adding its legal authority to the belief that the number of liquor licenses available for action by county is not something that can be kept under wraps."
For nearly two years Burns has been fighting against the LCB’s attempt to keep records from the public in violation of the state’s sunshine laws. Specifically in May 2019, Burns asked the LCB for a listing of how many deactivated restaurant liquor licenses are available for auction in each county under Act 39 of 2016. The LCB denied Burns’ request, claiming the number of licenses was a “trade secret,” and that it was exempt from disclosure because it was part of internal deliberations of the agency.
“It really rubs me the wrong way that the LCB considers itself a protected business within government, complete with so-called ‘trade secrets,’” Burns said. “Not only did they deny my request, but they also used taxpayer resources to wage a clearly losing legal battle to keep these records out of the public eye.”
Burns appealed the LCB’s decision to the courts and won, without using taxpayer funds. He hired attorney Terry Mutchler, the founding executive director of the Office of Open Records, to represent him in the government transparency case.
In June the Commonwealth Court handed the LCB a stinging rebuke, when it ruled that the LCB’s license auctions are a government function – not a “trade secret” – and that the LCB undermined its own argument that license data is proprietary by admitting it has previously released license tallies in some counties.
The state agency subsequently appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, which this week declined to hear the case, meaning the lower court’s ruling will stand and the LCB must produce the requested documents within 30 days.
“Most everyday folks don’t have the time, effort or resources to see a case through all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” said Mutchler. “After the Office of Open Records ordered release (of the information) – and did a terrific analysis – and the Commonwealth Court said the same thing, I do think certainly taking it up (to the Supreme Court) was their right… but I think this was more a delay than deliberative.
“For the first time in history, citizens are going to get to see numbers of these licenses, thanks to Representative Burns’ perseverance,” she continued. “This will turn out to be one of the most significant cases in Pennsylvania history,” Mutchler said. “For transparency, it’s a very, very big win.”
For his part, Burns remains focused on what drove him to seek the information in the first place – the plight of mom-and-pop businesses who have been undercut by the LCB’s license auctions, which he believes have devalued licenses in rural areas like Cambria County.
“Small businesses have a right to know how many liquor licenses are available in their county so they can make sound business decisions about whether to sell or hold onto their license,” Burns said. “The bureaucrats in Harrisburg may look at this as dollars and cents, or protecting prerogatives, but to me this is about families trying to keep food on the table and doing what is right by the people I represent.
“This is a win for all Pennsylvanians and small businesses statewide,” Burns continued. “Given the LCB’s fight-to-the-death to hide these records, I’m curious to see what they will show.”