JULY 16, 2009
A special exemption to California’s open records law allows the state legislature—which passed the measure four decades ago—to cover its misconduct and keep from taxpayers details of the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to settle claims for the wrongdoing.
The state has secretly settled—with public dollars—numerous misconduct cases over the years on behalf of Assembly and Senate members accused of workplace harassment. Just last month, Senate officials privately approved a $70,000 legal settlement that forbids the plaintiff from going public with details of the charges.
The undercover arrangement and many others like it were made public thanks to a newspaper’s persistent digging. In the late 1960s the California Legislature passed a measure (Legislative Open Records Act) to specifically exempt from public disclosure internal records, complaints or investigations involving its members.
All the while, residents of the Golden State have been left in the dark about what they have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle and why. One California open government advocate points out that such deals betray public trust and raise serious questions about using tax dollars to pay for silence.
Other secretly investigated and settled cases listed in the article include a $360,000 settlement on behalf of a Republican Assemblyman accused of sexual harassment, a $117,200 settlement for a Democratic Senator accused of discrimination and $59,500 to settle a complaint against a Democratic Assemblyman for making unwelcome sexual advances.
As is the case in many states throughout the nation, California’s open records law forbids all of its local government entities from keeping details of such deals secret. Eliminating the outrageous exemption for state lawmakers is long overdue though it’s unlikely to happen since they are the only ones who can do it.
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