Newspapers Sue California Senate for Records on Indicted Lawmakers

     SACRAMENTO (CN) - Major California newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News and Oakland Tribune, claim the California Senate unconstitutionally withheld public records on when and where indicted and suspended state Senators Leland Yee and Ronald Calderon met with undercover FBI agents.
     San Jose Mercury News managing editor Bert Robinson said in an interview Friday that for years, the Legislature has denied records requests regarding legislators' calendars, citing the 1991 California Supreme Court case Times Mirror v. Superior Court.
     "No one has challenged it," Robinson said. Until now.
     In the Times Mirror case, a Los Angeles Times reporter's request for five years of Gov. George Deukmejian's calendars and appointment schedules was blocked by the court, which ruled that those documents did not fall under the plain use of the term correspondence.
     Robinson told Courthouse News on Friday: "We've been for some time looking for an opportunity to challenge their stance on that, because we have long believed that their interpretation of Times was way broader than was justified by the language of the Supreme Court decision. Three years ago we were close to suing and we were not sure we had quite the right case."
     Robinson said that the state Senate's refusal conflicts with voter-passed Proposition 59, which amended the state constitution to allow public access to the writings of public officials for all three branches of state government.
     "When public agencies are considering whether or not to release information, they should consider interest in disclosure in the broadest possible sense and the interest in secrecy in the narrowest sense," Robinson said. "The bias is always in favor of making the information public. That is why we feel their stance is at odds with the California Constitution."
     The Mercury News, Bay Area News Group and Los Angeles News Group say in the lawsuit that they requested specific calendar entries and appointment schedules, reflecting when and where Yee and Calderon met with undercover agents. But "the SRC [Senate Rules Committee] chose to treat the calendars of its constituents as inviolate and above the public's presumptive right to know of the conduct of the Legislature's - and thus the public's - business."
     Robinson said: "The public interest in understanding what was happing there is enormous. We knew when we submitted that they were going to say no, and the reason they were going to use was the public interest in keeping this information confidential outweighs the public interest in making it public."
     But that argument, he said, "is just ridiculous on its face."
     Calderon, a Democrat from Los Angeles, is charged in a 24-count indictment with public corruption, accepting bribes from an undercover FBI agent, wire fraud and money laundering. He has pleaded not guilty.
     Los Angeles News Group reporter Rebecca Kimitch sent an email to Deputy Secretary of the Senate Sheron Violini on June 19, requesting appointment books and calendar dates "reflecting with whom California State Senator Ronald Calderon met, or was scheduled to meet, or otherwise communicated with" on dates between February 2012 and March 2013.
     The requests, made under the Legislative Open Records Act, were summarily rejected by the Senate Rules Committee, headed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
     Through a response from Secretary of the Senate Gregory Schmidt, the committee said the requested records fell under provisions of the Legislative Open Records Act that exempt records where "on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not making the record public clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record," as well as correspondence between legislators and their staff, records exempted by legislative privilege and communications between legislators and private citizens.
     Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, is charged with racketeering, wire fraud, public corruption and conspiracy to deal in firearms. He pleaded not guilty to all charges at a hearing this week.
     A 137-page FBI affidavit claims Yee offered to help undercover FBI agents buy assault weapons from suspected terrorist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, and to do political favors and vote on certain legislative bills in exchange for campaign donations.
     Investigators said Yee told undercover agents that he needed to retire a $32,000 debt from his failed 2011 mayoral bid before he could announce his intent to run for Secretary of State. At a meeting with an undercover agent in February this year, Yee allegedly said of the gun deal: "People want to get whatever they want to get. Do I care? No, I don't care. People need certain things."
     Yee also allegedly agreed to vote for several bills, including medical marijuana legislation, and allegedly helped a phony software company called Well Tech to obtain state government grants and contracts.
     The solicitations for donations were allegedly made by his political consultant Keith Jackson, a former San Francisco school board president who also was indicted for narcotics conspiracy, wire fraud, murder for hire and conspiracy to import firearms.
     Yee was arrested in March, and his offices in San Francisco and Sacramento were raided by the FBI.
     In April, The Bay Area News Group asked for records for 26 dates between October 2011 and March 2014 where Yee was noted in the affidavit to have met with undercover agents, and for travel records and expense reports for Yee's trips to the Philippines from January 2010 to April 2014.
     Schmidt sent a response citing the same exemptions it used in rejecting the Calderon requests, and added that the Senate had no expense records related to travel to the Philippines.
     Matthias Gafni, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who made requests, tried to narrow his request through an email on July 10, by asking for appointment books, schedules or calendars reflecting meetings on 29 specific dates that Yee was supposed to have had meetings related to the crimes mentioned in the indictment.
     Schmidt again denied the request on behalf of the Senate Rules Committee, for the same reasons, adding, "These exemptions apply based on the substantive nature of the requested records, irrespective of how narrow in scope the request is crafted."
     Robinson didn't buy the Senate's argument.
     "The guy has been suspended and he's termed out. It's not going to compromise his ability to be an effective legislator; no one is going to meet with this guy as a state senator again," he said.
     While both legislators are suspended, the complaint notes that they continue to draw taxpayer-funded salaries of more than $90,000 a year.
     The news groups seek a writ of mandate ordering the Senate to disclose the records.
     They are represented by Duffy Carolan with Jassy Vick Carolan in San Francisco.