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Scarnati’s uncalculated risk

The lawsuit filed by the campaign committee of Pennsylvania’s top state senator against two journalists who wrote articles questioning some of his campaign spending is the basis for more speculation and suspicion than the articles themselves.

The lawmaker in question, President Pro Tempore Joseph B. Scarnati III, from Brockway, Jefferson County, has been well aware during his long tenure in state government that voter and media scrutiny are as much a component of public service as the time any lawmaker spends in session under the capitol dome.

Why Scarnati seems to have abandoned his long-held understanding — Scarnati has been a state senator since 2001 and pro tem since 2006 — is anyone’s guess. However, the fact that he has done so cannot be viewed as anything other than troubling and an incentive for more information-digging.

For media to back off, because of the lawsuit in question, or voters not to be concerned, would undermine the principle of public service built upon maintaining public trust and confidence.

If Scarnati’s lawsuit proves victorious, Pennsylvania will lose in the long run, since other current and future state lawmakers would likely opt for a similar strong-arm tactic anytime they felt aggrieved over something written or spoken.

The bottom line: Scarnati, who plans to retire from the Senate at the end of this year, could — and should — defuse the spending issue by simply replacing his current secrecy with transparency.

Not all actions that might seem questionable in the realm of public service end up being proven illegal, just like every household deals with uncomfortable realities, most of which are not a basis for criminal or civil complaints in a court of law.

But what happens under a family’s roof is much different than the broader obligations public servants shoulder when they decide to pursue a public service position, either elected or appointed, where they work on behalf of many thousands, if not millions, of people.

In all cases, officials should want to answer the public’s questions to put to rest quickly any bases for misunderstanding or doubts about their efforts, honesty or specific decisions or choices made.

Rather than doing that, Scarnati, through his campaign committee, has jumped aboard the litigation bandwagon that, by the attention it generates, could end up eroding the strong record he otherwise has compiled in working for the people during his Senate career.

If he has done something that he regrets, he would be best served by owning up to it.

Dragging reporters into court to try to divert attention from what is at issue could end up causing him more embarrassment than what he apparently already is experiencing.

The targets of the Scarnati lawsuit are The Caucus, a publication of Lancaster-based LNP Media Group; Brad Bumsted, a Caucus reporter; and Angela Couloumbis, a reporter for Spotlight PA, which covers Pennsylvania government and urgent statewide issues.

Spotlight PA and The Caucus reported on nearly $3.5 million in campaign spending by Scarnati and other lawmakers over 2016 to 2018 that the publications said could not be fully traced based on what information the campaigns made public.

Unfortunately, Scarnati, through his campaign committee, is attempting to prove that he is above transparency.

Hopefully, a hearing in the case scheduled for Wednesday in Jefferson County will begin cementing the reality that he is not.

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