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California Gets C- Grade In 2015 State Integrity Investigation

In this July 31, 2014 file photo, California state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, leaves federal court in San Francisco.
Associated Press
In this July 31, 2014 file photo, California state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, leaves federal court in San Francisco.

Second to one in combating corruption and promoting transparency

California Gets C- Grade In 2015 State Integrity Investigation
California Gets C- Grade In 2015 State Integrity Investigation
California Gets C- Grade In 2015 State Integrity Investigation GUESTS:Robert B. Gunnison, freelance reporter Livia Borak, attorney, Coast Law Group

Today the top story on midday -- Calpurnia state government only guy C- in a national evaluation of public integrity. But as the second-highest rate of all states. The results of the 2015 states integrity investigation were released today. The report looked at categories ranging from campaign finance and lobbying relations to ethics laws and public access to information. Overall state governments to not do well on the survey. 11 states got failing grades. We look at the areas were California government is shows -- scoring high in transparency and others where there is room for improvement. Joining me is Robert Dennison, freelance reporter who wrote the California section of the Center for Public integrity. 2015 states integrity investigation. And Bob, welcome to the program. Thank you very much. Livia Borak joins us talk she is an attorney with Coast log report when a areas of practice is open government laws. Libya, welcome to the program. Thinking re: Pontiac now Robbie begin the report on California's results in the state integrity survey. With an ironic story about former State Senator. Leland Lee -- can you share that with us? Yes. There was twice State Senator. Leland D was honored by the Society of professional journalists for his commitment to broadening California's public records law. And in the second time, 2014, about a week later, he was indicted on a bunch of federal political corruption charges. And he was supposed to be sentenced this week that she sorry -- last month in San Francisco, but this in the has been delayed because he will be testifying in a trial that she and other corruption trial. I used him as an example, because I thought it was so dramatic of diplomatic of the status of a new public's the public actions act that the best friend was indicted to politicians. Define the story tells us something about how fragile open government is in California? Yes. I do think it is very fragile. Of the public needs to pay attention to a. I think state government tends to get lost in people's minds. What we focus on Washington. We focus on local government. And Sacramento sort of is somewhere in the middle. And this just there's just not enough space in everybody's brains for Sacramento. But what happens here the capital city is very important to people's lives. And -- [ Audio cutting out ] these rules and laws that govern the conduct of state government have great effect on our finances and the way businesses conduct the business is conducted in the state. And they survey did -- 13 areas this year we were sort of all over the place. And I guess the overall messages we are mediocre but we're not as bad as you are. [ laughter ] Rob, one of the areas where the survey finds California lacking is access to information. Why did we fail in that category? Well one major reason is that if you have a dispute with either local government or state government over access to public record, you have to go to court to resolve it. And going to court is expensive and time-consuming. And most members of the general public are just not going to fight. So that sort of leaves it to be organizations talk big newspapers or television stations to -- or commercial operations is a major case involved in the Pacific Maritime Association. Shoup of -- group of shippers but you have to have -- big enough organization to higher a high-powered attorney -- and go to court and be prepared to spend two or three years fighting corporate And that's not particularly -- you don't information a lot of information that we. In the ideal world for the center of public integrity visions -- states would have some sort of revolution dispute Lord that is not court -- anybody could go to the state that did wellness area like Iowa, have recently created a board to -- with the -- where the public ago in challenge denial of information. Livia Borak -- has another aspect to this and I'm wondering if you have been seeing if the public access laws we have in the state have kept up with the times considering how much information is stored digitally. Yes I think we are seeing that the laws haven't kept up with the times. There were amendments to the public records act to take into consideration that a lot of the documents are produced electronically and should be given to the public electronic they. And it is actually very burdensome to make the public pay for [ Indiscernible ] costs. Said providing this documents in the format has been a change. But one of the things that is actually for the call for a public Supreme Court right now is access to text messages. Social media.-Email accounts. This kind of things have been sort of a workaround for legislators to conduct business that is the public business but@-- of the public sphere. -- But outside of the public sphere. But they want to decide whether those types of -- if they constitute public records. Livia one of the things that I know you're particularly concerned about is -- and watchdog organization to speak is that open -- open meeting laws and how they should be included in the work -- report with Apple's Mac as I think one thing that is a little bit working in this report is the open government meeting laws. I think access to the documentation in the information is very important and that is critical. But equally important to that is access to the decision-making process. The deliberative process and the actual vote. And those are -- there are equally important laws in California that I think if there had been a survey into how well those are enforced and how well those are being followed, by local agencies and state agencies, we would have seen some low-grade. Similar grades to the was a very poor. From another area which California score badly is judicial account ability. Can you explain why? Yes -- some of that is a big, Katie. But one major -- a bit complicated. One major areas we have no value systems for judges -- particularly for trial court judges for the public to see. And that is the highest standard of -- Stacy did well with some sort of ability system for judges. The only time we have a public evaluation of a judge is for a pellet -- pellet judges of the Supreme Court. And there are about somewhere between 12 and 1500 trial 12 and 1500 Trial Court judges and there is no uniform system for evaluating the performance. This is a tricky area that's a bit like judges because they don't like the decision. In many cases. And that can become very politicized. So it's a tricky area. The California does not have any kind of evaluation system. We also fell down because we don't have a lot that she absolutely requires that all judicial decisions be in writing. But most judges have the decisions in writing. Most judges do a very good job with this. But there is not a law that she absolutely requiring every case. And that was one of the ideals in a report. And thirdly, some of the disclosure requirements are not in an open data format. This affected many categories that the Center for Public integrity would like to see. Everything and open data for fully disposable to the public. And PDFs and Excel. And other formats are not considered open data by the Senate. As an attorney Livia, what does this sort of lack of transparency or lack of accountability in the judiciary, which is -- what effect does it have a legal system? I think it has huge repercussions. We have a political process to elect our trial court judges throughout the state. And I think in general the electorate does not have the information necessary to evaluate what takes a good judge. It is different than going to vote for an elected official where you may look for somebody who has the same political views or has the same values as you in a judicial officer we are looking for the in officer that has command of the law. Without an independent commission or independent board petering out and determining where these people have the qualifications to be a judicial officer the first place. It is very difficult to know that our judges are being -- candidates are the appropriate ones to be elected. I think when we rely on outside group such as County Bar Association's to do that evaluation for us, it becomes a little more objective -- subjective and I think also for the attorneys who will be practicing for those judges to evaluate the judges and potentially get some people that she could somebody a score that they are self-confident -- in competent to be a judge and potentially appear before [ Indiscernible ] [ Indiscernible - low volume ] I would like to add one but think. Alfrey does have a really highly regarded commission on performance. Which has been in business and apparently sets a standard for the United States and many countries. But that fell into the category ethics enforcement agencies are not traditional -- judicial account ability. I just wanted to note that. The culprit has a very good system of disciplining judges. Now rub your background is in journalism and some -- so might say that issues like public access to information and transparency laws are more important to journalists. Than they are to the general public. So why should people care about these public integrity [ Indiscernible ] [ Indiscernible - low volume ] I would like to know I think it if he survey government agencies more in the quest for public information comes from non-journalism agencies then due from journalism agencies. It has been traditionally -- traditionally true. Everybody wants access, needs access. On many levels. Industry, lawyers. Ulcers of activist groups. Everybody needs information. To make informed decisions. And so journalists I think we are the most vocal. And perhaps best-known figures of users of public act -- and freedom of information act on the federal level Poppa to support everyone at misinformation the local groups that monitor school boards, and city councils and so forth. They need this. And there is an area of public records act called the deliver bit -- deliberate process which was mentioned before and it was particular part of the local level and it is very tough not to the net to crack for groups are seeking public information. And finally Livia, wife open government important to the states legal system For think that is very important just to every citizen to know what laws they are being held accountable to. I think whether you are an activist or just a general business owner who wants to know how to engage with the public and obtain a permit, whether you are taxpayer -- or see how many was spent. There is cronyism. I think all of that information is important and also it will prevent enforcement through the litigation. I think that was one of the things that was negative about covering a. There is not an independent agency to review whether access to records is being denied appropriately. So we do have to have recourse in the courts. And by getting information timely, by seeing that the agencies are deliberating in the bodhi -- voting public is required by law. That avoids litigation every the courts to do other things and it is important to every citizen's right to be informed about the government. It is just a fundamental right. While you can find our listeners can find the California rankings in the 2015 states integrity investigation on our website. At K PBS.org. And I would like to thank our guests Robert Addison and attorney Livia Burke. Thank you so much.

One night in March 2014, state Sen. Leland Yee stood before a fancy dinner thrown in San Francisco by the Society of Professional Journalists to receive the Public Official Award — for a second time.

Yee, a San Francisco Democrat running for secretary of state, was saluted for “his courage to oppose his own Democratic Party leaders and the governor in 2013 with public criticism of efforts to weaken the California Public Records Act by loosening disclosure requirements for local governments.”

A week later, Yee, wearing handcuffs, appeared in federal court, accused of taking bribes from FBI agents, political racketeering and even running guns in the Philippines. On July 1, 2015, Yee, 66, pleaded guilty.

Given California’s failing grade — F — for public access to information, perhaps it’s fitting that one of the few legislators willing to stand up for open records in California was living a secret criminal life and faces the possibility of a lengthy term in federal prison.

RELATED on inewsource: Trouble At The Statehouse: Secrecy, Corruption And Conflicts Of Interest

Yet despite Yee’s troubles the overall picture suggests California takes accountability and transparency relatively seriously. The Golden State achieved a score of 73, or a C-, in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The score placed the nation’s most populous state second only to Alaska, the fourth-least populous.

Among the 13 individual categories, California had its highest scores for pensions, state budget process and lobbying disclosure. Aside from access to information, its other failing mark was for judicial accountability, largely because the state has no system of evaluating judges’ performance or independent confirmation process system for trial court judges.

In 2012, the first go-round for the State Integrity Investigation, California scored a B- or 81 and ranked 4th nationally. Scores from the two surveys are not directly comparable, however, because of improvements and updates to the project and methodology. The 2015 survey did not include a category for redistricting, for example, which occurs once every 10 years, after each census.

Tarnished images

The California Capitol in Sacramento is seen in this undated photograph.
Capital Public Radio
The California Capitol in Sacramento is seen in this undated photograph.

In the latest survey, California’s ranked 11th among the states for legislative accountability despite the legal woes of Yee and two other Senate Democrats, Rod Wright of Los Angeles, and Ron Calderon of Montebello. Wright was sentenced to 90 days in jail for lying about whether he actually lived in his legislative district when he ran in 2008. Calderon faces a federal trial on political corruption charges.

The Senate’s image was further tarnished by disclosures that the director of human resources, Dina Hidalgo, had employed five of her family members and three members of her softball team in the Senate, as reported by the Sacramento Bee. The case broke into public view when Hidalgo’s son, a Senate sergeant at arms, was involved in a late-night off-duty shooting with his state-issued Glock pistol at his house. He tested positive for cocaine and marijuana. A man was shot dead in the gunplay, but no one was charged with the killing.

One reason California flunked on access to public information: disputes must be resolved in court — a time-consuming and expensive venture, although costs can be recovered if plaintiffs prevail.

In a small way, though, Yee and Calderon helped reporters win access to their calendars and other office records, release of which has traditionally been blocked by the courts under a doctrine known as “deliberative process,” which protects records used by state officials to reach decisions.

When the Bay Area Newsgroup sought the lawmakers’ records, the Senate refused to comply. The journalists sued and a Sacramento County Superior Court judge rejected the Senate’s claim of immunity.

“The public interest in the disclosure of the requested documents is pronounced,” the judge wrote on June 5.

A week later, the newspaper group reported: “A rare look into the legislative calendar of disgraced former state Sen. Leland Yee illustrates a harried schedule that regularly led him from the capital to San Francisco as he juggled meetings with constituents, fellow lawmakers and undercover FBI agents from whom he is accused of accepting bribes.”

The judge, however, refused to expand his ruling to include all legislators, so the “deliberative process” roadblock persists for other cases.

The California Public Records Act, enacted in 1968, looks creaky as technology has dramatically changed the way public officials can communicate. The California Supreme Court has accepted a case with sweeping ramifications for government officials who use private email and text accounts to discuss official business.

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at UC San Diego, Oct. 27, 2015.
Associated Press
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at UC San Diego, Oct. 27, 2015.

The case arose in San Jose, where a resident sued the city for refusing to disclose the contents of emails sent via private accounts held by public officials. A Superior Court judge ruled against the city, reportedly declaring "a public agency could easily shield information from public disclosure simply by storing it on equipment it does not technically own." The district Court of Appeals overturned the ruling and the case will now be heard by the high court.

An amicus brief filed by various journalism organizations in support of the plaintiff states that San Jose’s “position would empower public officials to use ‘private’ electronic accounts and devices to thwart the disclosure to the public of vital information and records concerning their official duties and activities: to, in effect, allow government business to disappear into a black hole of secrecy.”

While the Public Records Act is showing its age, the state’s Political Reform Act, approved by voters in 1974 and supported by Gov. Jerry Brown, as part of his first campaign for governor, seems to enjoy a perpetual youth.

California scored relatively well in political finance (10th among the states), lobbying disclosure (2nd) and ethics enforcement (tied for 4th) – each of which is overseen by the five-member Fair Political Practices Commission, created by the initiative. California’s judiciary is overseen by a separate entity, the Commission on Judicial Performance, which doles out punishments ranging from private letters of admonishment to removal from the bench.

The Political Reform Act requires public officials at every level, from governor down to the lowliest bureaucrat, who makes any kind of financial or policy decision to file a Statement of Economic Interests.

The statements are designed to give the public access to the potential conflicts of interest for public officials. It is estimated that more than half a million of the statements are on file in California.

You can even find one for Leland Yee.

This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. It is part of State Integrity 2015. How do each state's laws and practices deter corruption, promote transparency and enforce accountability? Click here to read more stories in this investigation.