What began as a push by two California newspaper groups for the calendars of indicted former Democratic state Sens. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee may ultimately broaden public access to legislative business and change the way lawmakers operate at the Capitol.
In a preliminary ruling handed down last week, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ordered the release of calendars, appointment books and meeting schedules requested by the Bay Area Newspaper Group and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group after repeated denials by the Senate. The records relate to criminal allegations against Calderon and Yee, who were both indicted last spring on separate corruption charges.
If Kelly upholds the decision in his final ruling, and it is affirmed in subsequent appeals, open government advocates are hopeful it will unlock a window in the Legislature’s tight public records protections. The law for legislative records provides far less access than the one governing local agencies and the state bureaucracy.
“We’re dealing with a law, the Legislative Open Records Act, which is highly protective of legislative confidentiality,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition. The ruling “could force them to live with a degree of visibility and transparency that they don’t want … but of course, that everybody else has to deal with.”
The Legislature counters that opening lawmaker schedules to the public would have a “chilling effect” on the protected deliberative process they engage in beyond the public spotlight. Documents that might reveal how a lawmaker arrived at their vote on a particular bill are exempt under the Legislative Open Records Act, to allow for more candid debate behind the scenes.
Calendars provide insight into legislators’ thinking on critical issues by showing whose opinions they are consulting, lawyer Fred Woocher argued at a hearing last Friday.
“Those are quintessentially the types of materials,” he said, “that relate to the motivations of the Legislature, to their thinking, their reasoning, and their mental processes to performing their job.”
Fearing that their appointments could eventually come under public scrutiny, people will be more reluctant to meet with lawmakers and the deliberative process will suffer, Woocher added.
“It has caused great consternation, even on the tentative, over in the Capitol,” he said, “because there are 120 legislators who have been under the assumption that their calendars are confidential.”
Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, predicted that lawmakers would hear from a less diverse set of opinions if their calendars were made available to the public, because they would be reticent to openly consult with certain sources, especially on controversial legislation. But he added that he understood the necessity for transparency in how the Legislature functions.
“It’s an interesting tension in the democracy,” he said. “It’s one of the toughest aspects.”
Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff was not as certain the ruling would change business at the Capitol. He guessed that some legislators might start relying more on memory for appointments with people who want to meet off the record.
“Time will have to tell on that,” he said.
He expressed more concern about lawmakers having their security threatened or having personal matters, which are often included on official calendars, forced into the open.
“If I’ve got a colonoscopy scheduled, I doubt people care,” Huff said.
Perhaps not. But with the lawsuit for Calderon and Yee’s calendars, the newspaper groups see an opportunity to gain further insight into “serious allegations of criminal conduct of a historic nature,” as lawyer Duffy Carolan put it at Friday’s hearing.
Calderon, a Democrat from Montebello, and his brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, were indicted by federal authorities in February 2014 on charges of bribery and money laundering. A month later, the FBI raided the Capitol office of Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, as part of a sweeping investigation into organized crime. He was arrested on allegations of corruption and conspiracy to deal weapons.
By requesting Calderon and Yee’s meeting schedules for a number of dates mentioned in their indictments, reporters hoped to search through their appointments for other connections to the senators’ alleged criminal activities.
There “is profound public interest in this case,” Carolan said. “It’s wrongdoing that undermines entirely our whole system of representative government.”
Such incidents may be rare, but they could end up setting precedent for lawmakers to turn over a whole category of documents they previously held privileged.
“Any interpretation of that act that would lead to a great deal more disclosure than they’re used to would and should cause consternation,” Scheer said.
Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.