The city of Sacramento must release more than 50 emails relating to Mayor Kevin Johnson’s controversial takeover of an embattled black mayors group in 2013, a judge ruled on Friday.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Christopher Krueger said the contested communications should be considered public records and must be turned over within 10 calendar days.
Scott Humphreys of law firm Ballard Spahr argued on behalf of Johnson and the National Conference of Black Mayors that the emails, many between city staff working for Johnson, should be covered by attorney-client privilege.
Krueger admonished that attorney-client privilege required more than “talismanic citation of those words,” and that after a close review, the emails and attachments did not meet the standard of communicating legal advice, opinions or analysis. In some cases, he pointed out that they did not appear to be legal in nature at all, such as one memo suggesting exit interview questions for an employee that Humphreys argued had been reviewed by his firm.
“Every document an attorney has ever seen does not become attorney-client privilege,” Krueger said.
Johnson and the black mayors’ group sued the city and the Sacramento News and Review last year, arguing that about 160 documents should be withheld in response to the newspaper’s records request. After an April ruling, Johnson and NCBM asked the court to review a smaller group of 113 documents that they said were protected.
The News and Review argued that all of the documents should be considered public record. Krueger determined that only 38 of the remaining 113 documents had a legitimate attorney-client protection. Johnson must release 75 documents contained in more than 50 emails.
“The unequivocal ruling today is that these are public records that must be produced,” said Dan Laidman, an attorney representing the News and Review. “It’s a good development for News and Review and public access.”
Krueger also suggested that the paper may be able to recoup legal fees it has incurred.
The legal case stems from Johnson’s bitterly contested seizure of power at NCBM and its subsequent bankruptcy. An investigation by The Sacramento Bee, including more than 6,100 pages of emails and 16 documents obtained through the Public Records Act, outlined years of work by Johnson’s paid city staff and volunteers to solidify Johnson’s leadership of the organization after years of mismanagement had diminished its stature.
A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said he would not fight the ruling. “Since the beginning we’ve always contended that whatever emails the judge ruled were not privileged should be released,” said spokeswoman Crystal Strait.
Editor’s note (July 11): This story has been updated with more information about the lawsuit.