State Supreme Court Rejects Voice of OC Public Records Case

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The state Supreme Court has rejected a request by Voice of OC and open-government advocates Californians Aware to review a gag order Orange County government leaders imposed on themselves so they wouldn’t have to release information regarding allegations of sex abuse by a top county official.

The case involved a Voice of OC request under the California Public Records Act for documents that would show what top county officials knew about allegations that former Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante sexually assaulted female employees.

Opponents of the gag order fear the tactic employed by Orange County leaders will become a tool statewide for government officials who want to avoid complying with the 45-year-old Public Records Act.

Voice of OC Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana Jr. said the “self-imposed gag order was nothing more than a cheap political trick invented by county supervisors who are gearing up for campaigns next year. They want to delay answering tough questions about how they reacted when confronted with serious sexual harassment allegations against one of their own.”

“Frankly,” said Santana, “I’m stunned the state’s Supreme Court went along with it. Nonetheless, Voice of OC will remain steadfast in aggressively defending our legal rights as journalists and citizens when confronted by government secrecy.”

The appeal to the state Supreme Court to hear arguments against the gag order was supported by Freedom Communications, parent corporation of the Orange County Register; the Los Angeles Times; the 800-member California Newspaper Publishers Association; and Virginia–based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which is led by reporters and editors from the nation’s largest print and broadcast organizations.

The state high court acted Nov. 26 without comment, simply declaring that the petition to review lower court actions in the case was denied.

In October 2011, top county officials, including the Board of Supervisors, allowed Bustamante, a rising star in Republican politics, to quietly resign with a confidentiality agreement and a 90-day severance.

Then last year, Bustamante, who also was a member of the Santa Ana City Council, was charged with 12 felony counts of sex abuse involving women who worked for the county.

Using the California Public Records Act, Voice of OC asked to review records that could show what county leaders knew about his alleged sexual abuse of female workers at the time they allowed him to resign.

The county refused to make the records available, so Voice of OC and Californians Aware went to civil court to gain access. Just before the public records case went to trial, County Counsel Nicholas Chrisos asked the criminal court judge in the Bustamante case for a gag order against the county so leaders wouldn’t have to release the documents.

The Orange County District Attorney’s office already had a criminal court order in place, sealing records prosecutors feared might damage the case.

Even so, the DA’s office joined forces with the county counsel’s office and Bustamante’s attorney to keep the records secret.

The move by the county was highly unusual. Even in high-visibility investigations such as public corruption in the Los Angeles County city of Bell, public records were released.

Voice of OC appealed the county action, but justices in a state district court of appeal chose not to overrule the criminal court’s decision. That’s when the appeal was filed with the state Supreme Court.

“If permitted to stand, the [lower court] ruling will invite agencies throughout the state to adopt similar improper tactics to shield misconduct and mismanagement,” Kelli L. Sager, an open-government attorney at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, warned the Supreme Court in a letter urging it to review the lower court rulings.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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