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.