CALmatters' Capitol columnist Laurel Rosenhall

Open Reporting: Inside the Capitol

This post is part of our Open Reporting at CALmatters, in which we share progress on stories as we’re developing them, while also inviting you to share thoughts and comments to help inform our research. Our goal: more transparent and effective journalism. We welcome your feedback.

Open Reporting: Capitol

Dec. 19, 2017 5:05 pm

Making it personal: A different kind of public records request

Asking the government to release public records is a standard part of being a journalist.

Typically we make these requests with a formal letter using boilerplate legal language to explain what we want and why it’s public information under California law. We send the letter off to a government administrator who decides whether to release the documents, and then replies with an equal dose of legalese. It’s a dry and impersonal exchange.

I’ve done it this way dozens of times in my 15 years as a reporter. But recently, I tried something different: Instead of making a legal argument to a bureaucrat, I made a moral appeal directly to the Legislature’s elected leaders.

How California policy affects you, straight to your inbox

The moment seemed right for a different approach after nearly 150 women signed an open letter this fall complaining of rampant sexual harassment in the state Capitol. Legislative leaders responded by pledging to address the problem, yet their staff quickly began rejecting reporters’ requests for documents that would help the public assess it. Will politicians’ promises to change an institutional culture that has allowed harassment to fester include exposing misconduct the Legislature is aware of in its own ranks? I am making the case that it should.

For decades, the Legislature has shielded evidence of its own misbehavior because it’s allowed to under the open records law it passed in 1975. In writing California’s Legislative Open Records Act, legislators actually protected themselves from the same scrutiny they impose on other government officials. Most other government agencies must release information about investigations of officials who are found culpable of wrongdoing. The law for California lawmakers, though, says they are not required to release “records of complaints to or investigations conducted by” the Legislature.

But the law doesn’t say the Legislature is prohibited from releasing the information—and that’s the argument I made in letters last month to the leaders of the Senate and Assembly. I asked for complaints, investigative reports and disciplinary records in a narrow set of cases—only those in which investigators determined that the complaint was substantiated. In other words, just the cases in which a government official was found to have done something wrong. Other reporters have requested similar information, too.

In my letter to Senate leader Kevin de León, I contended that transparency was vital to build public trust. “Senator de León,” I wrote, “you have said that the Senate ‘is a sacred place of public service and it must also be a safe place for everyone who works here.’ As you take steps to protect victims and increase public confidence, don’t you want to show Californians specifically where the problems lie? Truly making the Senate a safe workplace requires publicly holding to account any Senate employees or elected members whose actions have been shown, through investigation, to be harassing or fear-inducing.”

I made a similar appeal to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, noting that his wife, a former legislative aide, was among the dozens of women who signed the original letter condemning the Capitol’s pervasive culture of sexual harassment.

I haven’t received any documents yet. But at a recent press conference, Sen. de León said he would release information I and other reporters had requested. “Laurel, I read your letter,” he said, looking at me. “And that’s when I made the decision. We’re going to do something. We’re going to break away with the tradition in this institution.”

Watch his response below. De León uses the phrase “LORA,” which is shorthand for the Legislative Open Records Act—the law that has long allowed the Legislature to keep its investigations secret.

Senator De León Press Conference 12/14/17

Uploaded by California Senate Democrats on 2017-12-14.

De León said he would provide the information within the next month. I’m still waiting for a response from Speaker Rendon.

Political Reporter
Open Reporting: Capitol

April 19, 2018 10:01 pm

We’ve updated our spreadsheet with the latest harassment investigation

The state Senate has released results of an investigation finding that Adam Keigwin, the former chief of staff to Sen. Leland Yee, likely engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct with a female employee when they both worked for the Senate, including unwanted touching and exposing himself. Keigwin, now a lobbyist, said in a statement that the allegations are “absolutely untrue.” Read further coverage in  the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times.

This is the latest in a series of harassment investigations that have been made public by the Legislature in the wake of the #MeToo movement that has exposed sexual misconduct in many workplaces. I’m keeping track of the cases coming out of the California Capitol with this spreadsheet, which we created when the Legislature released a first batch of records on Feb. 2. You can scroll to the far-right column to seek a link to the source documents for each case.

How California policy affects you, straight to your inbox

Political Reporter
Open Reporting: Capitol

April 9, 2018 9:55 am

Track the Legislature’s sexual harassment records with our spreadsheet

#metoo sexual harassment
Photo via Pixabay

The latest sexual harassment investigation released by the Legislature shows a former chief of staff “more likely than not” made sexually suggestive comments to staff members and leered at employees in a way that made them uncomfortable. Rodney Wilson, who was the top aide to Assemblyman Tom Daly until he resigned in January, said in an email to CALmatters on Friday that he disagreed with the report’s conclusion, but he apologized “to those who may have been offended by their perception of the way I looked at them or what they believe they might have heard.”

In releasing the records, legislative administrators wrote a letter saying they are not required by law to make them public. However, facing intense pressure from the media amid a national reckoning over sexual harassment, legislative leaders agreed to release a subset of records—those detailing sexual harassment complaints against elected lawmakers and high-level staff that were substantiated by an investigation or for which a settlement was paid.

At this point the Legislature has released all records from the past that are likely to be made public. However, numerous investigations are currently under way; I and other reporters have asked the Legislature to release them as they are completed.

How California policy affects you, straight to your inbox

To keep track of the cases and make the source documents available to the public, I’ll continue updating this spreadsheet, which we created when the Legislature released a first batch of records on Feb. 2.

Political Reporter
Open Reporting: Capitol

April 5, 2018 4:25 pm

Legislature releases details on 5 older harassment cases

The Legislature has released another swath of harassment records—this time detailing five cases it substantiated or in which a settlement was reached—involving elected members and high-level employees between 1992 and 2005.

Only one case involved an elected official, and he is not named in the records released by the Legislature. News accounts have described allegations against then-Sen. Richard Polanco, a Los Angeles Democrat, that resulted in a $117,200 settlement payment of taxpayer funds to Karri Velasquez in 1998, and those details match the date, amount and victim name in the documents released today.

The records also describe four cases of harassment by high-level legislative staff, only one of whom, Ronald Jackson, was terminated. The other three—David Commons, Bob Biddle and Josephine Figueroa—were given warnings, allowed to resign, or granted an unpaid leave of absence.

How California policy affects you, straight to your inbox

Read the Assembly records here.

Read the Senate records here.

Political Reporter

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest