Is UC Davis delaying access to public records during student protest?

As UC Davis officials grapple with how to address controversy swirling around Chancellor Linda P.B Katehi and a nearly monthlong sit-in outside her office, one approach appears to be limiting release of public documents, salaries and calenders involving Katehi and others.

Seven requests for documents filed with UC Davis and the University of California president’s office by The Sacramento Bee remained largely unanswered for weeks as controversy has built over Katehi’s participation on outside corporate boards.

The requests, filed under the California Public Records Act, generally require a response within 10 days. UC officials have responded within that time frame – but mainly just with promises that the actual documents will be available weeks later.

The requests seek a variety of public information from UC Davis, including the hire dates of certain employees, emails, salaries and contracts with outside vendors. University officials have responded that some of the requests are overly broad or that they will take weeks to provide.

“We are within the legal time frame required to respond to you,” said Dana Topousis, UC Davis spokeswoman via email Thursday. “As I’m sure you can appreciate, our PRA office works on numerous requests on any given day, and they respond to The Sacramento Bee and all requests in as efficient a time as possible.”

At 4:31 p.m. Thursday, hours after The Bee asked for comment on the delays, UC Davis officials emailed some of the materials being sought and said searches for others still are underway.

The university’s responses to public records requests note that “there is no requirement for a public agency to actually supply the records within 10 days of receiving a request, unless the records are readily available.”

First Amendment advocates questioned why such materials were so difficult for the university to supply.

“The whole thing smells of a cover-up,” said Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego and a public records expert. “It is not very difficult for the University of California or Chancellor Katehi to locate her calendar. It’s not difficult for the university or Chancellor Katehi to finally do the right thing and come clean about how this ever could have happened.”

Howard said the university needs to be completely forthcoming and candid if it wants to reassure the public and the Legislature “that it is serious about preventing scandal like this in the future.”

Karl Olson, a San Francisco media attorney who has battled in court for access to public documents, said his experience is that UC officials have “an abysmal record” on responding to requests for documents filed under the state’s Public Records Act.

“They really are hostile to the Public Records Act,” Olson said. “They seem to have reinvented the motto of UC dating back to 1868, which says ‘Let there be light.’ In this, their attitude is, ‘Let there be darkness.’ 

The lack of disclosure comes as Katehi faces challenges at the Capitol and on campus.

On Monday, legislative leaders conducted an oversight hearing into how UC and California State University officials receive and disclose outside compensation. Four lawmakers have called on Katehi to step down.

Students have occupied the reception area outside her office since March 11 and said they will remain until Katehi resigns because of her outside board appointments, which have included participation on the board of textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons.

Katehi, who earns $424,360 in salary annually, was paid $420,000 in salary and stock for serving on that board from fiscal years 2012 through 2014, an appointment that was approved by the UC president’s office.

She also has come under fire for accepting a board seat with DeVry Education Group while the for-profit company was under scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly overstating the success rate of its students following graduation.

That decision, which Katehi has called a mistake and for which she has apologized, helped spark calls for her resignation, as did revelations in The Bee about her involvement with the textbook publisher.

The resulting controversy follows numerous calls in 2011 for Katehi to resign after campus police pepper sprayed students during a peaceful protest over tuition costs. The recent revelations about her board appointments have created a split at UC Davis over whether she should remain.

Students occupying the fifth floor of the Mrak Building on campus have received support from some other students and faculty. A “Fire Katehi” Facebook page created last month has recorded 2,212 “likes” as of Thursday and includes postings and videos by student protesters taking part in the sit-in.

A separate Facebook page – “We support Linda Katehi UC Davis Chancellor” – recorded 44 “likes” as of Thursday and includes testimonials for the chancellor as well as accusations that UC Davis staffers are being bullied by protesters when they move through Mrak.

The Bee’s public records act requests seek a variety of documents that may shed light on activities and expenses incurred by public officials, as well as some materials related to UC Davis’ response to the pepper spray incident.

A public records request filed on March 3 to UC Davis, for instance, seeks copies of Katehi’s calendar between August 2015 and March 1, 2016. The records have not yet been produced.

Another request filed March 3 seeks all emails and correspondence between university staff members and Katehi regarding her decision to accept a board position with the DeVry Education Group.

UC President Janet Napolitano has said Katehi accepted the board seat without permission from her office and that she would not have approved the move.

No emails or correspondence regarding DeVry have been released under the public records act request.

A March 22 request sought the names, salaries and hire dates of all current employees of Katehi’s office and her strategic communications and news and media relations departments. The university responded to that request April 1 with an email notice that the information would be produced within six weeks “due to the nature, complexity, and/or length of the request.”

The request was streamlined by The Sacramento Bee on Thursday to ask for the total number of full-time employees in each of the departments and the total payroll budgeted for each department between 2007 and 2016. UC Davis released a partial response Thursday afternoon.

In some cases, the school cited the difficulty of searching for emails and correspondence as a reason for delay.

A request filed March 14 sought records of contracts and payments to three firms or individuals and copies of any reports produced as a result of the contracts.

UC Davis responded March 24 asking that the request be modified to allow for easier searching of its files. An April 1 email from UC Davis sought further clarification and estimated some materials might be available “on or before May 1.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert