California Senate, ethics agency differ over release of documents

California Senate, ethics agency differ over release of documents

The state Senate and California’s political ethics agency have taken different positions on whether the public should be able to see changes in the Conflict of Interest Code set for employees of the Legislature.

The Senate Rules Committee chaired by state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) recently met in open session, and one of the items on the public agenda was a revised Conflict of Interest Code. The code details how much personal financial information must be publicly disclosed by Senate employees.

When The Times requested a copy of the new code, Senate Secretary Daniel Alvarez declined to provide it. He later sent a letter to The Times again denying the request, citing the Legislature’s open records rules, which are different from the open records law for all other state agencies.

Alvarez said the Legislative Open Records Act allows exemptions for certain records, including “preliminary drafts, notes or legislative memoranda” and correspondence of and to individual members of the Legislature and their staff.

“To the extent any records responsive to your request exist, those records fall within the scope of one or more of the foregoing exemptions and will not be produced,” Alvarez wrote.

The state Senate is required to send a copy of the code to the state Fair Political Practices Commission for approval by its legal division. That agency immediately sent a copy to The Times upon request.

“They are public,” said agency spokesman Jay Wierenga. He added that the agency officials “try to be as transparent as possible.”

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the Senate should have immediately made the documents available to the media. The Legislature’s public records rules do not support the withholding of the documents, he said.

“This is a prime example of the Legislature's hypocrisy on government transparency requirements,” Scheer said. “The Legislature's open government law, the Legislative Open Records Act, should be called the Legislative Officials Secrets Act.”

The Conflict of Interest Code determines how much of each official’s personal finances, including investments and gifts, must be disclosed annually by Senate employees. Top staff, including Alvarez and policy advisors, must disclose the most; positions involving accounting and personnel issues are allowed to disclose less.

The new code “modifies the disclosure requirements for many positions,” said a letter from Alvarez to employees. Under the new code, the number of jobs in which employees had the lowest disclosure requirement increased from 12 to 16.

However, because many job titles have changed since the code was last modified in 1978, it is difficult to determine all of the employees being subjected to new disclosure requirements.

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