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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Newspapers Fight Legislature’s Stiff-Arm

SACRAMENTO (CN) - In advance of a Friday hearing on the media's right to information about legislative spending, newly filed court documents claim the Legislature routinely responds to requests for information by releasing "limited information" that is "woefully incomplete" and "misleading at best."

The Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee sued the Legislature in August, claiming that lawmakers consistently block newspapers' attempts to glean information about the Assembly's spending.

A media probe into the battle between Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman John Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, over Portantino's ballooning office expenditures led to the information requests, which the Assembly rejected, resulting in the lawsuit.

In recent filings, counsel for the newspapers flatly reject Assembly Fiscal Officer Gus Demas' declarationthat the Assembly went above and beyond the requirements of California's Legislative Open Records Act, or LORA, of 1975.

Demas claimed that LORA requires only annual expenditure reports, but the Assembly makes year-to-date reports available to anyone who requests them.

Nonsense, said the plaintiff newspapers - the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee - citing their reporters' requests for documents that the Assembly rejected.

In evidentiary objections, the newspapers said Demas "lacks personal knowledge" of the issues in the case.

The newspapers' attorneys took the Assembly to task for "reject(ing) or minimiz(ing) the entire legislative history" of LORA, by asking the court to rule that some documents should remain private, including internal correspondence and documentation about the deliberative process of allocating money to lawmakers.

"(N)o part of the legislative history suggests that in enacting LORA the Legislature intended that records such as those at issue in this petition would be confidential," the newspapers said.

The Times and the Bee said the Legislature is trying to "cloak its budgeting decisions in secrecy," violating the law, and the trust of the people of California.

"The Assembly is allocated $146.7 million[,] and a huge portion of that sum is within the control of a single individual, Speaker Perez," the newspapers said. "The facts reflected in [Demas' declaration, to which the newspapers object] - the unbelievable abuses of the public's trust committed by different government entities throughout California - provide a cogent reminder of the need for careful oversight by the public."

The newspapers claim the Legislature is interpreting LORA "in a vacuum, depriving petitioners of their proffered evidence but cherry-picking evidence that respondents find favorable."

Rejectinglawmakers' claims that internal budgeting documents are privileged, counsel for the newspapers invoked an old fable: "(L)ike the fable of the blind men and the elephant, respondents choose to show the public only one part of the beast, confident that citizens will not be able to discern the whole spending picture by looking at isolated parts."

The newspapers want to see the documentary record, including:

"Copies of each California Assembly Member's Annual Allowance and Budget Summary for budget years 2010 and 2011;

"Each member's total budget allowance for budget year 2010;

"Each member's expenses for budget year 2010;

"Each member's total budget allowance for budget year 2011;

"Each member's estimated expenditures for budget year 2011;

"The office budget and expenditure approvals for Assemblyman Anthony Portantino;

"Any documents from the Rules Committee or Speaker's Office, including but not limited lo e-mail, as well as quarterly updates on office spending, that execute changes to Mr. Portantino's budget and expenditures;

"The office budget and expenditure approvals for each member, committee and subcommittee of the Assembly for this legislative session;

"Any documents from the Rules Committee or Speaker's Office, including 20 but not limited to e-mail, that execute changes to each Assembly member's budgets and expenditures;

"Any changes - additions or reductions - to approved budget or expenditure authorizations for each Assembly member, including changes related to leadership or participation on a committee or subcommittee;

"Each Assembly member's approved budget, including any resources allocated on the basis of each member's chairmanship, vice chairmanship or participation on a committee or subcommittee;

"Additional expenditures authorized for each Assembly member, if any, including additional spending tied to leadership or participation on a committee of subcommittee, "or, in the alternative, that this Court issue an order to show cause issue why these records should not be disclosed".

The newspapers also seek declaratory judgment that the lawmakers' denials violated LORA, and costs.

A hearing on the request for a writ of mandate is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 2, in Sacramento Superior Court.

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