Sacto Mayor Ordered to Release Emails to Paper

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — In a victory for government transparency, a state judge on Friday ruled that Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson must comply with a weekly newspaper’s California Public Records Act request and release dozens of emails sent from a private account.
     More than 16 months after submitting a public records request for hundreds of emails from Johnson’s Gmail account that he often uses for city business, The Sacramento News & Review will be given access to a cache of emails between Johnson, his lawyers and city employees.
     Johnson’s effort to withhold the emails from local media outlets was largely thrown out by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Christopher Krueger, with Krueger ruling that most of the contested emails didn’t fall under attorney-client privilege.
     The Democratic mayor has until July 18 to release 79 of the remaining contested 113 documents. He initially attempted to withhold more than 500 emails from the newspaper’s April 2015 public records request, the newspaper claimed.
     “The emails fall short of communicating advice,” Krueger told Scott Humphreys, Johnson’s attorney. “Every document an attorney sees does not become a legal document.”
     Johnson, a former three-time National Basketball Association All-Star and Sacramento’s first black mayor, sued the newspaper last July to stop the release of his emails and financial records.
     The maneuver is referred to as a “reverse-CPRA” and often reserved for public agencies looking to protect employee personnel records.
     The rare act of a sitting mayor suing a city newspaper prompted backlash from local and national media outlets and sparked a flood of donations to the News & Review. The independent newspaper obtained thousands in donations to help bolster the fight against Johnson in court, including a $15,000 grant from First Look Media, a venture started by eBay found Pierre Omidyar.
     At Krueger’s request, Johnson’s attorneys agreed to release a large portion of the original emails and place the rest into an attorney-client privileged log. Johnson’s pro bono attorneys from Ballard Spahr of Philadelphia then discussed the log with Krueger in a private hearing.
     The newspaper’s attorneys were not present in the judge’s chambers for the hearing and still have not seen the emails that Johnson unsuccessfully argued fell under the attorney-client umbrella.
     At issue are hundreds of emails purportedly relating to Johnson’s 2013 takeover of the National Conference of Black Mayors. Johnson has been accused of forcing city employees to work on his campaign instead of their normal duties while he was bargaining to take control of the now-bankrupt organization.
     The lawsuit dragged on over a year and on Thursday, Krueger indicated in his tentative ruling that the newspaper would finally get access to the emails it claims are public record.
     “If it is not apparent from the face of the documents themselves that they consist of confidential attorney-client communications or are internal communications concerning legal advice or strategy, and absent further argument or explanation from petitioners, the court is forced to conclude that they are not privileged,” Krueger wrote.
     Krueger’s tentative ruling separated the remaining emails into three categories: privileged, not privileged and emails that must be released in redacted form.
     The majority of the emails were deemed not privileged by the court.
     Rather than accept Krueger’s proposal, Humphreys lobbied for another private hearing with the judge in order to further discuss the emails individually. He said giving the newspaper the emails could reveal Ballard Spahr’s legal strategies.
     Krueger refused the request for another private meeting and rejected Humphrey’s repeated attempts to convince him that emails regarding employee-interview questions and meeting agendas fall under attorney-client privilege.
     “I think of these as political arguments,” Krueger said in response to one of Humphrey’s claims.
     The newspaper’s attorneys are expected to ask the court to recover attorneys’ fees, although Johnson can still appeal the decision.

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