As investigators aim to complete their probe of suspended UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi by Aug. 1, the university has again postponed releasing public documents sought by The Sacramento Bee.
UC Davis officials had said on May 11 that most documents sought by the newspaper under the California Public Records Act – some originally requested in early March – would be produced by June 1 at the latest.
The university backtracked on that this week, saying in an email notification that the latest date officials now believe the documents can be released is July 20.
“We apologize, but due to ongoing collection and review, coupled with the request load and staffing constraints, the new estimated date of production for all outstanding requests is on or before July 20, 2016,” UC Davis legal analyst Michele McCuen wrote in an email Wednesday afternoon.
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UC Davis spokeswoman Dana Topousis did not return calls for comment.
Public records advocates question how the university can justify withholding all the documents requested, especially when some appear to be readily accessible. They note that the Public Records Act does not contain any provision allowing for records to be withheld simply because an investigation is underway.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego. “They don’t get to rewrite the law to prevent themselves from being embarrassed, either in real court or in the court of public opinion.
“Public records don’t belong to them; they belong to us.”
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the university may have legitimate reasons to review some documents before releasing them, but that such reviews should not preclude releasing others on a rolling basis.
“I see no reason at all why they can’t be disclosing documents that you have identified very explicitly and asked for as far back as March,” Scheer said.
The controversy over Katehi erupted in early March with questions over her seats on private corporate boards. Since then, UC Davis has taken a scattershot approach to releasing public records.
The university produced one batch on April 13, one month after The Bee sought documents detailing how firms were hired that promised to scrub the Internet of negative postings related to UC Davis and Katehi over the November 2011 pepper-spraying of students.
Katehi subsequently apologized over the hiring of the firms and said she wanted all requested records released, telling Sacramento Bee editors and reporters in an April 21 meeting that her staff was working to comply with public records act requests.
The chancellor noted that the university hierarchy is “very complex” and that the release of information requires sign-off by UC officials, but that she wanted the documents made public.
“When I realized that there was this kind of backlog, I asked my staff to do the best they can, leave everything behind and collect the information,” Katehi said.
“I will try to revisit the process and maybe bring some more people to help us, because the volume is incredible,” she said. “In the past they had this process where I think they tried to do the best they can … Personally I would be the only person to be penalized if the PRAs do not come to you.”
Katehi was suspended six days later by UC President Janet Napolitano, who said she was launching an independent investigation into allegations of nepotism, misuse of student funds and misstatements by Katehi about the hiring of the internet consulting firms. That same night, UC Davis released hundreds of pages of documents requested by The Bee.
Dianne Klein, spokeswoman for the UC Office of the President, did not respond to calls and emails Thursday asking about the office’s role in reviewing and approving the release of The Bee’s public record requests.
Some additional documents were released in recent weeks by UC Davis and by the UC Office of the President, including a contract for the hiring of a top UC Davis fundraiser, the fundraiser’s financial disclosure forms and, most recently, the contract hiring independent investigators to probe Katehi while she remains on paid leave.
That contract, which was provided Wednesday, discloses that Melinda Haag, the former U.S. attorney in San Francisco, and other investigators from the firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe will be paid at $595 per hour. Team members who do document review will be paid at a much lower rate, Klein said in an email Thursday.
Other documents, however, have not been disclosed, including some requested in early March.
▪ A March 2 request for the chancellor’s travel records.
▪ A March 25 request for documents related to contracts UC Davis signed with a company seeking to conduct research projects with the university.
▪ A May 5 request for travel records involving the university’s communications staff.
Other records also have not been disclosed, including some that on the surface might seem readily accessible. A May 2 request for documents related to the hiring of a crisis communications firm still has not been provided, and UC Davis also has not released various emails and other records The Bee sought following Katehi’s suspension.
The fact that an investigation is underway cannot be used as an excuse not to produce documents that existed before the probe began, records experts say.
“There’s nothing in the act that permits them to withhold a record whose existence predates the start of any investigation,” Scheer said. “They have to turn those over. They can’t convert things to privileged documents simply because they become part of the investigation.”