SACRAMENTO (CN) – California’s Legislature has been ordered to disclose any and all information about how it spends taxpayers’ money to the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee, a judge ruled Thursday. The documents must include emails and other internal documents the Assembly Rules Committee had sought to keep private, according to the tentative ruling.
The requests for information and the subsequent petition stem from the newspapers’ investigation of a ruckus earlier in 2011 between Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman John Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, over the size of the deficit within Portantino’s office.
Portantino, who had been the chairman of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, claimed his office budget was slashed and his chairmanship taken from him when he defied Perez and voted against this year’s state budget.
As part of their investigation, three different reporters for the Times and the Bee asked for records relating to Assembly expenditures. The Assembly Rules Committee, chaired by Nancy Skinner, denied all three requests, claiming that such internal documents were exempt from Legislative Open Records Act disclosure rules.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley agreed with the newspapers’ complaint and argument that the open records act compels lawmakers to accede to demands for records relating to budget and expenditures of Assembly members and has ordered the Assembly Rules Committee to make the requested documents available.
“In a somewhat ironic twist,” wrote Frawley, “the Assembly argues the ‘Open Records Act’ should be given a narrow interpretation that significantly restricts the public’s right to inspect legislative records….Having enacted the Open Records Act, the Legislature is bound to it, and this Court can and shall interpret and enforce it.”
The language of LORA “reflects a strong presumption in favor of public access to legislative records,” Frawley wrote. “The Legislature knows how to create statutory exemptions when it chooses to do so. There is no exemption for financial records in the Open Records Act. The Court rejects the Assembly’s invitation to make a new exemption out of whole cloth.”
The two newspapers are represented by Kelli Sager, Rochelle Wilcox and Jonathan Segal with Davis Wright Tremaine. The Legislature is represented by Robin Johansen, Thomas Willis and Margaret Prinzing with Rencho Johansen & Purcell in San Leandro.
Counsel for the Legislature were invited to call the court clerk by 4pm Thursday to request a hearing on the tentative ruling. No call had been made by that time, according to the clerk’s office, leaving in question the opportunity for oral argument on the tentative ruling.