Watchdog Furious at Missing L.A. Documents

     LOS ANGELES (CN) — In a lawsuit against Los Angeles, a free-speech group claims that documents and records from former City Councilman Tom LaBonge are missing or have been destroyed.
     LaBonge left office last year and when his replacement David Ryu took over his office he found everything cleared out, including records created during LaBonge’s 14 years in office.
     The Los Angeles Times reported that LaBonge said the city told him to clear out his office but did not direct him to keep the files.
     But in response to the Aug. 24 complaint last week in County Superior Court, LaBonge told the Times that no public records were destroyed.
     In a Feb. 9 editorial this year, the Times reported that LaBonge’s office sent 113 boxes of documents to be shredded, but the City’s Attorney’s Office recovered 35 of the boxes.
     The city’s records management officer Todd Gaydowski told the Times in January that he did not know if the other 78 boxes had been destroyed.
     Several of LaBonge’s missing emails, memos, letters and notes concerned documents related to Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the California Film Commission, and a proposed housing development in Sherman Oaks, the First Amendment Coalition says in its public records lawsuit.
     According to the Times’ Feb. 9 editorial, Ryu was “highly critical” of how LaBonge had managed his office, during Ryu’s runoff election against LaBonge’s former chief of staff Carolyn Ramsay. “Ryu complained LaBonge had used ‘secret slush funds’ to bankroll pet projects and to pad staff salaries, and he pledged to make discretionary spending more transparent,” the Times wrote.
     When the coalition learned through news reports that the city had failed to keep LaBonge’s records, its president Peter Scheer sent a public records request to City Council President Herb Wesson. On March 3 this year, city official Edward Johnson said Los Angeles had no responsive records, the group says.
     “Petitioner First Amendment Coalition believes that responsive records do or did exist, and the City of Los Angeles has either failed to do a reasonable search for responsive records or has illegally destroyed the responsive records,” the lawsuit states.
     Scheer said his group wants to know how many records, if any, have been destroyed and asks the court to order it not to happen again.
     “Public records laws, which are state versions of freedom of information laws, are fundamental to modern society and to democracy,” Scheer said in an interview. “It should go without saying that they become meaningless if it’s OK for government agencies to destroy the records that citizens have the right under the law to request.”
     State law prohibits officials from destroying records less than two years old.
     The coalition seeks injunction ordering the city to make a reasonable effort to search for the missing records and maintain public records for at least two years.
     It is represented by Kelly Aviles, of La Verne.
     The city did not immediately respond to a request for comment by phone and email on Friday.

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