Opinion

California prison agency’s attempt to evade transparency only worsens scandal

Some people never learn, and many of the people who never learn seem to work for the State of California.

Case in point: The California Prison Industry Authority has made the mindboggling decision to “withhold spending records related to its former general manager’s retirement party,” according to a story by Wes Venteicher, The Sacramento Bee’s State Worker reporter.

Interest in the spending records stems from a retirement lunch the state catered for CalPIA’s former general manager in January. The farewell meal for outgoing CalPIA boss Charles Pattillo featured lasagna, salad and water. Inmates from the Folsom Women’s Facility prepared the spread.

Pattillo told The Bee that the expenses for his retirement lunch were “appropriate.” Yet CalPIA’s lawyer has denied a Sacramento Bee reporter’s request to obtain spending records related to the farewell party.

“After reviewing records the agency gathered to respond to the request, its current manager, Scott Walker, referred the records to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Office of Internal Affairs for investigation, CalPIA attorney Jeff Sly told The Bee in August,” wrote Venteicher. “Sly denied The Bee’s records request in the same email, citing an exemption in the California Public Records Act for records related to investigations.”

Opinion

Let’s get this straight: CalPIA launched an internal affairs investigation after The Bee started asking questions. But CalPIA now refuses to release the public records that are apparently so troubling they triggered an investigation?

The absurdity of CalPIA’s position is even too much for the man whose farewell party is apparently now under investigation. Pattillo, CalPIA’s former manager, supports releasing the records.

“That’s kind of stupid; release the records,” he told The Bee.

It’s bad enough that the use of taxpayer dollars for a state worker’s farewell lunch was egregious enough to trigger an investigation. But CalPIA’s desire to cloak the records in secrecy only worsens the scandal.

The California Public Records Act exists to make public records accessible. By law, CalPIA should have turned over the documents in question when The Bee requested them. Instead, it appears CalPIA decided to shield the records from public view by launching an investigation after the fact.

CalPIA’s stance appears to be a gross abuse of state law.

“This interpretation would close off a pretty wide swath of records from public scrutiny that shouldn’t and can’t be closed off from such scrutiny,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “It would allow agencies to withhold a broad range of records that the Legislature did not intend for agencies to be able to withhold when they passed this law enforcement exemption.”

“You can say almost any type of record might become part of an investigation. I think this is a pretty significant overreach in trying to withhold records that should be public,” Snyder added.

The coverup is usually worse than the crime, as the old saying goes. Government officials who try to withhold information and hide scandals from public view often end up creating a worse problem for themselves. We don’t know exactly what about Pattillo’s seemingly routine farewell lunch triggered an investigation, but CalPIA’s decision to hide public records has created a bigger problem.

CalPIA’s position represents both an abuse and a violation of the California Public Records Act. We hope this isn’t how Gov. Gavin Newsom plans to run his administration.

It’s time for someone with respect for the law to step in. Hopefully, CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz will have the good sense to overrule CalPIA and release these records immediately. But it will likely fall to Gov. Newsom to force his employees to do the right thing.

If you think it’s time to see what CalPIA is hiding, call Gov. Newsom at 916-445-2841 to demand that CDCR comply with the law and release the records.

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