The California Assembly spent nearly $200,000 in public funds fighting against release of member-by-member budgets allocating tens of millions in public funds, records show.
Assembly administrator Jon Waldie said the sum does not include hundreds of hours, perhaps more than a thousand hours, consumed by Capitol employees in gathering records ultimately ordered released by a Sacramento court.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley ruled in December against the Assembly in the public-records suit filed by The Bee and Los Angeles Times.
The Assembly paid up to $300 per hour for services rendered by the Remcho, Johansen & Pursell law firm, records show.
The Assembly paid $123,945 in legal fees to fight the suit and because it lost the 80-member house was ordered by Frawley to pick up the $73,707 tab for The Bee and Los Angeles Times as well.
Waldie said the issue needed court adjudication.
"I think it was important for us because we had been operating under 35 years of precedent," he said. "We felt that a judge would take that into consideration, would support that. This judge decided not to."
The Assembly had characterized member budgets as preliminary drafts because they can change throughout the year; as correspondence because they are sent to members; and as confidential documents because they can contain personal information, such as whether an employee will take a leave of absence.
The Bee and Los Angeles Times had argued that the public has legal right and a profound interest in monitoring how the Assembly allocates its $146.7 million annual budget.
Frawley agreed, ruling that member-by-member budgets are not exempt from disclosure under California's Legislative Open Records Law.
California law "reflects a strong presumption in favor of public access to legislative records" and exemptions "should be narrowly construed to ensure maximum disclosure of the conduct of governmental operations," the judge ruled.
"The court is persuaded that the strong public interest in disclosure outweighs any reason for keeping the records secret," Frawley's 12-page decision said.
For more than three decades, the Assembly's practice had been to withhold member budgets and not to release member-by-member expenditure data until 12 months after the legislative year had ended.
Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez took some steps to loosen Assembly disclosure policies even before the court fight. In 2010, the house started posting staff salaries online, and last summer it began releasing up-to-date expenditure reports on its Web page.