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.
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.
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.
De León said he would provide the information within the next month. I’m still waiting for a response from Speaker Rendon.
Both leaders of California’s Legislature have agreed to release records about certain investigations of sexual harassment in the state Capitol.
“The Senate and the Assembly will release documents related to sexual harassment claims that have been substantiated against a high-level legislative employee or legislator for which discipline has been imposed or allegations have been determined to be well-founded,” Senate leader Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said in a joint statement released Friday.
“The documents to be released will be the claim filed and the letter provided to the accuser or the accused wrapping up the investigation and providing information about the final outcome of the investigation. All documents will redact the personally-identifying information of the accuser and any witnesses for privacy reasons.”
De León has instructed his staff to release the records within the next two weeks, his chief of staff said. Rendon’s office gave a less precise timeline, saying they are working to compile the information and will release it in the coming weeks.
The announcement comes as a wave of sexual misconduct allegations roils the statehouse, leading two assemblymen to resign and a state senator to take a leave of absence. Since October, when nearly 150 women signed an open letter complaining that California politics is rife with a pervasive culture of harassment, reporters have been requesting documents held by the Legislature about its investigations into workplace complaints.
The Legislature initially refused to release such information, arguing that the law does not require disclosing it. But the law does not forbid the Legislature from releasing the records, a case I made in letters to legislative leaders in November. Transparency about substantiated cases of abuse, I wrote, is in the public interest.
Taking a different tone from his counterpart in the state Senate, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon on Wednesday would not yet commit to releasing information reporters requested about sexual harassment investigations held by his house.
“We are formulating a response to your letter,” Rendon said when I asked him during a meeting with reporters if he would release records I and other reporters had requested about harassment investigations.
“Our attorneys are trying to figure out how we make sure there is proper transparency. And also that we are abiding by our HR protections,” Rendon said, adding that the issue will be examined by a newly formed committee of senators and assembly members looking at the Capitol’s response to sexual harassment complaints.
On Nov. 27, I sent letters to Rendon and Senate leader Kevin de León, both Democrats from Los Angeles, requesting records on a narrow set of harassment complaints: those that had been investigated and determined to be substantiated.
The public has access to similar information from other government agencies such as city councils under the California Public Records Act. But the Legislature exempted itself from that law, instead writing its own open records act that does not require it to release investigations.
The discrepancy is under new scrutiny as allegations of sexual harassment rock the California Capitol. Two legislators—Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh—resigned at the end of 2017 following accusations that they had harassed or assaulted women. A third legislator, Sen. Tony Mendoza, announced Wednesday he is taking a leave of absence while harassment allegations against him are investigated. The legislators have disputed the allegations.
All of that comes after nearly 150 women signed onto a letter in October complaining of what they called the Capitol’s pervasive culture of sexual harassment.
On Dec. 14, Senate leader de León said he would “break away with the tradition in this institution” and release information reporters had requested on the Legislature’s investigations of sexual harassment complaints. He pledged to release the records within 30 days.