Watchdog group sues to force UC Davis to turn over public records

A consumer group filed a lawsuit against the regents of the University of California on Wednesday alleging UC Davis is withholding public records the group needs for research, according to a complaint filed in Yolo Superior Court.

The complaint by U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit group “pursuing truth and transparency in America’s food system,” according to its website, alleges that UC Davis staff members haven’t fulfilled its California Public Records Act requests, some sent as long as 18 months ago.

California law allows citizens, as well as the media, to obtain or inspect records from state agencies without unreasonable delays or obstruction.

“These are public records with taxpayers paying for them,” Gary Ruskin, U.S. Right to Know’s co-director, said Thursday. “There is no excuse at all for delaying replying for a year and a half. What are they hiding and why are they hiding it?”

Specifically, U.S. Right to Know is asking for correspondence between 10 UC Davis professors and businesses in the agrochemical industry. The group has sent similar requests to universities across the country, Ruskin said. The organization is trying to uncover collusion between the agrochemical industry, the food industry, universities and faculty members, he said.

U.S. Right to Know has also requested public records it says will show how the World Food Center at UC Davis is funded. It received some records, but the documents arrived more than two months after the promised date, Ruskin said.

University spokeswoman Dana Topousis said UC Davis staff members were unaware of the lawsuit Thursday.

“As is our normal practice, we have been working diligently on their PRA requests, in addition to responding to a higher volume of other PRA requests over the last year,” Topousis wrote in an email.

The lawsuit claims the university repeatedly pushed back the dates that U.S. Right to Know would receive documents. UC Davis released 751 pages of documents in response to the group’s 17 requests for public records, but the university has only fully completed one California Public Records Act Request about the soda industry, according to Ruskin.

“I filed these all over the country and each one comes back with thousands of pages,” he said. “It cannot be true that they’ve sent everything.”

Ruskin said it’s impossible to know for sure how many records are still pending, but he believes his organization has received only “a teeny, tiny micro-portion” of the documents requested.

“I just got back from the University of Nebraska 5,300 pages from one request,” he said.

The complaint asks the court to rule that UC Davis must produce the requested documents and pay for the cost of the lawsuit.

UC Davis has also been slow to respond to Public Records Act requests from The Sacramento Bee, with university officials blaming a long backlog. The Bee has more than 10 requests pending with UC Davis, including one sent nearly six months ago. The Bee has been investigating a number of allegations against former UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.

In June, UC officials said they would delay releasing public records involving Katehi because they did not want to interfere with witness interviews being conducted as part of an official probe of Katehi.

Katehi resigned Aug. 9 after a UC investigation found she had violated university policies for filing travel expenses and serving on corporate boards. The investigation also found Katehi had personally and repeatedly sought out ways to enhance her online reputation by hiring consultants – even though she told the media and UC President Janet Napolitano that she hadn’t.

On Thursday, Topousis told The Bee that its records requests are “still being reviewed.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

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