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.

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.

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

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