Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s greatest victory during his first year in office was, indisputably, clinching a City Council vote to enact a sugary drinks tax. But since June 2016, city officials have taken unusual measures to prevent the release of public records linked to the colossal lobbying push behind legislation that has funded many of the mayor’s campaign promises.

A Right-to-Know request filed by this news organization nearly one year ago is now headed to court after city lawyers declined to release emails between top mayoral staffers and a key lobbying firm involved in that effort.

In December 2016, City&State PA obtained emails through a separate public information request that showed the mayor’s office had worked closely with the Washington, D.C.- and Brooklyn-based lobbying firm Hilltop Public Solutions. In the exchange, Hilltop lobbyists coordinated with mayoral staffers to stage protests against a lawmaker opposed to the soda tax legislation

In February 2017, City&State PA filed a wider Right-to-Know request seeking additional emails sent or received between numerous mayoral staffers and the lobbying firm.

But city lawyers rejected the second request in March of last year as “insufficiently specific.” City&State PA appealed the denial and, in May 2017, the state Office of Open Records sided with the news outlet. The city, in turn, went to Common Pleas Court to dispute the OOR findings. 

After months of mediation, in which City&State PA eventually agreed to narrow the email search from several hundred city employees to a few dozen, the city maintained that the request was still not specific enough. A judge scheduled a May trial date last week.

“It’s clearly stonewalling,” said lawyer Wally Zimolong, who has represented City&State PA in the case since last year. “It’s a simple, basic email search that someone with little to no technological intelligence could run using a tool that's embedded in every email program.” 

Although not all internal communications are subject to the state’s Right-to-Know laws, requests for city emails by journalists are fairly routine. State Open Records director, Erik Arneson, declined to comment on specific cases but noted that it was rare for municipal officials to challenge OOR opinions.

“Only about 10 percent of our opinions are appealed, either by the requester or by the government agency, in court,” he said.

In Philadelphia, the city appealed just two cases in 2017, according to spokesperson Mike Dunn. Dunn reiterated that the request was “too broad,” but said the Mayor’s Office would not comment on “the substance of ongoing litigation.” He insisted that Kenney remained “fully committed to openness and transparency.”

Hilltop Public Solutions has an unusually close connection to the Mayor’s Office. Kenney paid the firm, managed by political consultants Bill Hyers and Jessie Bradley, to help run his 2015 mayoral campaign. After his election win, Kenney continued to pay the firm out of his campaign. His former campaign manager-turned-chief of staff, Jane Slusser, is a close associate of Bradley’s. Former Kenney spokesperson Lauren Hitt recently left her post to join a Hyers-led bid to unseat US House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Once in the Mayor’s Office, Kenney launched the 501(c)(4) “Philadelphians for a Fair Future,” a purportedly grassroots coalition of stakeholders pushing for the enactment of a soda tax. The group paid to run ads and favorable polls to counter a big-money push by the beverage industry and its lobbyists to kill off the soda tax and marshaled volunteers to demonstrate in favor of the tax. 

Bradley would eventually take a central role in this lucrative, multimillion-dollar effort to run interference on the fight over the soda tax, registering as a PFF lobbyist – along with staffers from PR firm Bellevue Communications Group – last April. Emails obtained by City&State PA in December 2016 showed Bradley and mayoral staff involved in conversations with Philadelphia nonprofit ACTION United, arranging a protest against Councilwoman María D. Quiñones-Sánchez as apparent punishment for publicly opposing the soda tax.

The prolonged legal battle over emails is not the only aspect of the mayor’s fight for the soda tax to cast a shadow over the effort. A Daily News report last year uncovered that Mayor Kenney had quietly paid NAACP president Rodney Muhammad as a consultant to push for the tax, using the name “Rodney Carpenter” to obfuscate the arrangement. A dark-money group, PFF eventually released a list of funding sources after several media outlets scrutinized the group's close ties to the mayor. More recently, local politicos have grumbled that the Board of Ethics was reportedly investigating other entities that had participated in the lobbying effort.