Santana: OC Supervisors Wage War on First Amendment

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Orange County supervisors have unleashed a frontal assault on the California Shield Law, which protects journalists from disclosing unpublished information and is vital to the news gathering process in our democracy.

Their tactic is to depose me next week in an ongoing public records lawsuit.

We went to court against the County of Orange this past March, seeking emails and memos between County Supervisor Todd Spitzer and county spokeswoman Jean Pasco about an April 2015 incident during which Spitzer handcuffed a preacher while armed at a local restaurant.

The county’s apparent reasoning for needing to take the highly unusual step of deposing me in this case is to glean information regarding conversations and text message exchanges between Spitzer and me during the course of my reporting on the story.

This rationale is not only ridiculous but ominous.

Any conversation I had with Spitzer during an interview for a story is completely irrelevant to our request for a public document. And not only that, my interviews in the course of news gathering are protected by the California Shield Law and my First Amendment reporter’s privilege.

Breaching this pillar of the news gathering process would have a chilling effect, not only here in Orange County, but in newsrooms across the country.

However, trust that Voice of OC and our attorneys with Californians Aware will mount a vigorous fight against this crass effort to erode constitutional freedoms here in our backyard.

Spitzer, and County Counsel Leon Page, have both argued those kinds of email communications and documents – showing how officials make their decisions – must remain secret in order for our government to operate.

We disagree.

We went to court earlier this year under the state’s Public Records Act to ask a judge to analyze our legal arguments and decide.

Now, lets be clear.

Deposing me has nothing to do with the narrow legal question of whether these documents are public or not.

It’s pure bullying and an attempt to divert attention from the real issue.

You see, county supervisors want to establish a legal precedent that the $6 billion dollar public safety, health and human services agency funded by our taxes as the county government is really an authoritarian dictatorship.

They want all their communications between their offices and civilian staff to be totally shielded from disclosure.

A secret government – where county supervisors are free to wheel and deal as they see fit.

Where do taxpayers fit into this model?

They are only clued in later, when it’s time to pick up the check.

Orange County Supervisors’ Calendars Off Limits

This week, I also learned that supervisors want their office calendars kept private as well – arguing that even a basic listing of who visits their offices on the fifth floor of the county Hall of Administration is secret.

It’s funny how there is a public sign-in sheet on the third floor of the Hall of Administration for the CEO’s office, ostensibly for security purposes, but no similar approach two floors up at county supervisors’ offices.

Why would that be?

Well, this month for example, they want to hide the fact that folks like Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs President Tom Dominguez has been working the fifth floor in recent weeks to prepare the way for a pay raise for deputy sheriffs.

County supervisors don’t want you to know about public business until they are done politicizing it for perks and campaign contributions.

It’s ironic that even though county officials argue in our case that a county supervisor’s email traffic to county departments is secret, the same officials have released salary negotiations materials about the deputy sheriff’s contract (offers and counter offers) to Republican activist Jon Fleischman under a simple public records request, right in the middle of ongoing negotiations.

They didn’t even have to depose him.

In fact, they gave a passionate defense of the public’s right to know in court when the deputies’ union tried to block release of the records.

In their legal pleadings, county officials argued:

“The County maintains that the public interest served by disclosure is paramount. In order to have transparency and openness in government, the County believes that the public has a right to know what transpires during contract negotiations with its employees. The law does not prevents the County from making such records available for that purpose.”

The same standard should apply here on the back and forth between a county supervisor and a public employee, the county’s top public information officer.

Under California law, our elected and appointed officials are actually supposed to help us secure public records.

I just wish the County of Orange had a more steady reading of the law – one that isn’t connected to who is asking for public records.

Ironically, the county’s authoritarian tactics with Voice of OC come just on the heels of national celebrations over the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act and significant reforms last month.

One key point made by the legislation signed into law by President Obama (who himself also has targeted the press corps in the courts) is the government should operate from a presumption of openness when it comes to public records.

Unfortunately, Orange County politicians have a lot of company across our nation and internationally when it comes to politicizing access to records.

Scores of local governments are increasingly targeting news agencies when they seek public records in a variety of ways, some even filing lawsuits against requestors of public records.

Politicians want to shut down your ability to have independent public records so you can’t judge them and hold them accountable.

“Transparency brings accountability,” said Colombia Journalism School Professor Sheila Coronel earlier this summer at the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) annual conference where she was the keynote speaker.

“That’s why they (politicians) fight it,” said Coronel, who herself confronted the Marcos regime in the Philippines and whose reporting is credited with the fall of President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

This year with the publication of the Panama Papers, which showed how corrupt officials move money around the world, the halls of IRE were buzzing with reporters talking about the democratizing power of harnessing data and public records to connect the dots on what our governments and special interests are really doing.

“We’re living in a golden age of global muckraking,” Coronel told reporters during her speech.

Orange County supervisors want to turn back that clock – ensuring that their private business stays private.

We won’t let them without an epic fight.

Will you?

  • Sharon Logan

    I say we start an effort to have every single one of those Board of Supervisors recalled and removed from their positions!

  • OCservant_Leader

    Norberto – keep up the fight! Stand up to their bully tactics! Bring the Sunshine to their secret organized crime ring they are running in the OC.

    These self-serving Elites are out of control. This is unchecked power. Welcome to OC Tyranny.

    Any records you do get out of this (that aren’t shredded/deleted will be altered. All records are “fixed”. Trust me. This organization will do anything – and I mean anything, to keep prying public eyes from their scams.

  • Jasenn

    These are some of the qualities of a sociopath from an article on How To Spot A Sociopath.

    “Superficial charm and good intelligence
    Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
    Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations
    Unreliability
    Untruthfulness and insincerity
    Lack of remorse and shame
    Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
    Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
    Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
    General poverty in major affective reactions
    Specific loss of insight
    Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
    Fantastic and uninviting behavior with alcohol and sometimes without”

    Do we know of any government officials in OC with a preponderance of these qualities?

  • Debby Bodkin

    Mr. Santana, after you finish this lawsuit fire drill orchestrated by Todd Spitzer and County Counsel, Leon Page, I respectfully request that you find out the details regarding the misdemeanor charges against a current OC Sheriff officer, Angel L. Guerrero. Mr. Guerrero was charged this week with accessing criminal records that were not part of his law enforcement job. It would be interesting to observe whether County Counsel Leon Page will go to the same lengths for Mr. Guerrero as he does for Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

    Something tells me Mr. Guerrero knows something BIG and Rackauckas’ filing of two misdemeanor charges (not felonies) against Guerrero, while Guerrero maintains his employment with the OC Sheriff, is another familiar tactic that is used in the OC to silence the individuals who know too much!

    • OCservant_Leader

      I agree with you. Something is very fishy about this story.

  • John Claxton

    Norberto, it’s a complete sham that these cowards are trying to deny accountability to the public on their actions. It didn’t happen if know one knows – right? That’s the BOS logic. Besides that, money is no object. They spent over a million bucks to an outside law firm to fight me in court for three years in 3 different venues. Leon Page certainly doesn’t care. He thinks the law is whatever he says it is. At least now you get a front row seat at how the BOS operates and deals with people that piss them off. Keep up the great work.

  • enoble

    excellent reporting. sunshine is a natural disinfectant – keep it shining.

  • Stay on it, Norberto. The day is coming when the idiot Republicans will turn tail and run. Of course then, we’ll have idiot Democrats running the store and they are no better when it comes to “transparency”.

    • @Dan Chmielewski

      Norberto — you have no legal obligation to answer a single question; the County should know better. Good luck next week.

  • David Zenger

    “This week, I also learned that supervisors want their office calendars kept private as well – arguing that even a basic listing of who visits their offices on the fifth floor of the county Hall of Administration is secret.”

    When Nelson first ran for Supervisor in 2010 he opposed lobbyist registration saying that his County diary would be an open book. I found out about a year later that his County diary was a complete sham. His real diary was being kept on a server at his law firm. I wonder if that’s still the case.

    • Is that kinda like when Hillary used her private email server (you know, the one at http://www.hillarybs.com) to conduct official business?

    • Debby Bodkin

      If the law is upheld in the OC, the OC Supervisors cannot keep their business calendars private–anyone who has been involved in any type of litigation will confirm this. It is important to remember that “Calendars” will show “RICO Patterns”…… maybe that is why efforts to keep county business from public disclosure.

  • Rose Tingle

    “Transparency brings accountability”…Oh yes, I can name several instances where the county prevented and continues to prevent transparency. Two of which are;
    (1) As most know, it took the county almost 20 years to finally get to the point where the county broke ground for a new county animal shelter (July 29, 2016) to replace the current one and only 75 year old county animal shelter, while continually placing the whole delay on the Navy’s failure to release the property to them. I attempted to obtain records of a meeting between the Navy and county on the issue, but was denied disclosure by the county. I then immediately submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the same records directly to the Navy…. and the Navy supplied the requested information.

    (2) For at least the last 8 years, county officials had and continue to have “secret” monthly meetings with high paid contract city officials, with salaries upward of $200,000 to $300,000, on the county animal shelter, yet nothing was ever done to improve the conditions of 75 year old shelter….exposing staff and volunteers to unsafe conditions, animals suffering and many euthanized for unwarranted reasons. The 5 OC Grand Jury Reports are evidence of their lack of action. The public is banned from the meetings and no minutes are taken. I have attempted to gain attendance either for myself and/or selected and informed constituents, but have been denied by Orange County CEO and ignored by the OC Board of Supervisors, with the excuse being the meetings are “staff meetings.” There is currently no oversight by the taxpayers!!!!!

  • Paul Lucas

    Excellent reporting Norbert.

  • David Zenger

    “Internal” e-mails are not privileged. PRA requests to government agencies get them turned over all the time. It depends what’s in them, not who sent or received them.

    Spitzer’s attempt to use the County PR apparatus to explain away his wingnut behavior doesn’t even have anything to do with “policy.”

    The only “rationale” for hiding these documents is that they reveal the former Chairman of the Board of Supervisors is an unbalanced (and armed) megalomaniac.

  • Jacki Livingston

    From the highest to the lowest, the BoS and County Corruption Crew have ways to deal with anyone who dares to defy them. I had Spitzer send two off duty sheriff’s deputies to my home, last year, to tell me that I should not be discussing him or my case against the County in social media. How can I prove that? Witnesses, and they were idiots enough to give me a business card. I found horrific corruption and abuse going on at the highest levels of SSA and the County as a whole, regarding nursing home patients. I was harassed to the point of Complex PTSD, lost four days of work and filed an $800 claim with worker’s comp. The county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, and four years, to try and discredit me and deny the claim. Finally, they had to settle, for many times that amount, but have continued to illegally harass and give me slanderous references so I cannot get a job. They know full well that I have boxes of internal emails, files and such that I have never shown any of them, or the Grand Jury. The fact is, these people are some of the most corrupt and downright evil ‘public servants’ that I have ever seen. Just today, I had to go to court because of their refusal to let it go. I have emails from Dave Wiggins, Todd Spitzer’s former PA Martha Ochoa and Mike Ryan, who is now the head of SSA. Some of these internal documents are stunning, in their clear and illegal attempts to cover up the dirty deals that the County was doing, covering for incompetent and filthy nursing home providers. They hire investigators, then when the PI comes back to say that the employee is truthful and the management is lying, they ignore the findings and create their own stories. Over the course of SIX YEARS, I have letters and emails that I sent to the members of the board, from Moorlach to Michelle, and not one of them ever picked up the phone to even ask what was going on. The evidence of wrongdoing is OVERWHELMING. The patients are being robbed, raped and killed, and the facilities cover it up with help from the BoS and management. As a whistleblower, I have seen the sausage being made, and it is rancid. They continue, to this day, to threaten and harass me. Yo, Norberto, if you want to see some internal emails? I have some doozies, you’ll love them. I have nothing to hide, I will send them on over. You will especially love the one with the senior manager who said he couldn’t care less what the fraud is costing the taxpayers. Good times…

    • OCservant_Leader

      It’s scary to think that what you unveiled didn’t even hit the top 10 of on-going OC scams.

      • Jacki Livingston

        That is only because they have it well covered up. You don’t see VoC or the Register writing about it because they are scared s-less of something this bad, at this level. The proof is overwhelming, and the fact that both Spitzer and Nelson are officers of the court, and county Supervisors, and that they are violating the ethics and codes of the legal profession by ignoring crimes being currently committed proves only one thing…they are engaged in those felonies. Otherwise, they would be required by law to report them.

        • OCservant_Leader

          Failing to protect our most vulnerable citizens…is so heinous – it has its own category of crime- elder abuse.

          We as citizens trust our elected officials and the highest paid Managers are doing thier jobs. In the OC – They are only interested in self- enrichment schemes. We are seeing how they operate in complete secrecy – without any accountability.

          I applaud you – for keeping this story in the public view. Keep it up. They can’t claim they didn’t know this abuse was going on.

          You did the right thing – you are a true public servant.