One night in March 2014, state Senator Leland Yee stood before a fancy dinner thrown in San Francisco by the Society of Professional Journalists to receive the Public Official Award — for a second time.
Yee, a San Francisco Democrat running for secretary of state, was saluted for “his courage to oppose his own Democratic Party leaders and the governor in 2013 with public criticism of efforts to weaken the California Public Records Act by loosening disclosure requirements for local governments.”
A week later, Yee, wearing handcuffs, appeared in federal court, accused of taking bribes from FBI agents, political racketeering and even running guns in the Philippines. On July 1, 2015, Yee, 66, pleaded guilty.
Given California’s failing grade – F – for public access to information, perhaps it’s fitting that one of the few legislators willing to stand up for open records in California was living a secret criminal life and faces the possibility of a lengthy term in federal prison.
Yet despite Yee’s troubles the overall picture suggests California takes accountability and transparency relatively seriously. The Golden State achieved a score of 73, or a C-, in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The score placed the nation’s most populous state second only to Alaska, the fourth-least populous.
Among the 13 individual categories, California had its highest scores for pensions, state budget processes and lobbying disclosure. Aside from access to information, its other failing mark was for judicial accountability, largely because the state has no system of evaluating judges’ performance or independent confirmation process system for trial court judges.
In 2012, the first go-round for the State Integrity Investigation, California scored a B- or 81 and ranked 4th nationally. Scores from the two surveys are not directly comparable, however, because of improvements and updates to the project and methodology. The 2015 survey did not include a category for redistricting, for example, which occurs once every 10 years, after each census.
In the latest survey, California’s ranked 11th among the states for legislative accountability despite the legal woes of Yee and two other Senate Democrats, Rod Wright of Los Angeles, and Ron Calderon of Montebello. Wright was sentenced to 90 days in jail for lying about whether he actually lived in his legislative district when he ran in 2008. Calderon faces a federal trial on political corruption charges.
The Senate’s image was further tarnished by disclosures that the director of human resources, Dina Hidalgo, had employed five of her family members and three members of her softball team in the Senate, as reported by the Sacramento Bee. The case broke into public view when Hidalgo’s son, a Senate sergeant at arms, was involved in a late-night off-duty shooting with his state-issued Glock pistol at his house. He tested positive for cocaine and marijuana. A man was shot dead in the gunplay, but no one was charged with the killing.
One reason California flunked on access to public information: disputes must be resolved in court – a time-consuming and expensive venture, although costs can be recovered if plaintiffs prevail.
In a small way, though, Yee and Calderon helped reporters win access to their calendars and other office records, release of which has traditionally been blocked by the courts under a doctrine known as “deliberative process,” which protects records used by state officials to reach decisions.
When the Bay Area Newsgroup sought the lawmakers’ records, the Senate refused to comply. The journalists sued and a Sacramento County Superior Court judge rejected the Senate’s claim of immunity.
“The public interest in the disclosure of the requested documents is pronounced,” the judge wrote on June 5.
A week later, the newspaper group reported: “A rare look into the legislative calendar of disgraced former state Sen. Leland Yee illustrates a harried schedule that regularly led him from the capital to San Francisco as he juggled meetings with constituents, fellow lawmakers and undercover FBI agents from whom he is accused of accepting bribes.”
The judge, however, refused to expand his ruling to include all legislators, so the “deliberative process” roadblock persists for other cases.
The California Public Records Act, enacted in 1968, looks creaky as technology has dramatically changed the way public officials can communicate. The California Supreme Court has accepted a case with sweeping ramifications for government officials who use private email and text accounts to discuss official business.
The case arose in San Jose, where a resident sued the city for refusing to disclose the contents of emails sent via private accounts held by public officials. A Superior Court judge ruled against the city, reportedly declaring “a public agency could easily shield information from public disclosure simply by storing it on equipment it does not technically own.” The district Court of Appeals overturned the ruling and the case will now be heard by the high court.
An amicus brief filed by various journalism organizations in support of the plaintiff states that San Jose’s “position would empower public officials to use ‘private’ electronic accounts and devices to thwart the disclosure to the public of vital information and records concerning their official duties and activities: to, in effect, allow government business to disappear into a black hole of secrecy.”
While the Public Records Act is showing its age, the state’s Political Reform Act, approved by voters in 1974 and supported by Gov. Jerry Brown, as part of his first campaign for governor, seems to enjoy a perpetual youth.
California scored relatively well in political finance (10th among the states), lobbying disclosure (2nd) and ethics enforcement (tied for 4th) – each of which is overseen by the five-member Fair Political Practices Commission, created by the initiative. California’s judiciary is overseen by a separate entity, the Commission on Judicial Performance, which doles out punishments ranging from private letters of admonishment to removal from the bench.
The Political Reform Act requires public officials at every level, from governor down to the lowliest bureaucrat, who makes any kind of financial or policy decision to file a Statement of Economic Interests.
The statements are designed to give the public access to the potential conflicts of interest for public officials. It is estimated that more than half a million of the statements are on file in California.
You can even find one for Leland Yee.