In an effort to stall the publication of a leaked confidential city council memo Tuesday, the city of Newport Beach sought – and was granted – a temporary restraining order against the Orange County Register.
OC Superior Court Judge David McEachen granted the restraining order and preliminary injunction Tuesday afternoon, but by the time the papers were served, the newspaper had already published an article quoting the memo, according to City Attorney Aaron Harp.
The article by longtime Register reporter Tony Saavedra, published on the Register website Tuesday evening, details potentially illegal gifts accepted by outgoing Assistant City Manager Steve Badum, and quotes from the memo extensively.
Saavedra declined to comment Wednesday afternoon.
In the article, Saavedra details a March 12 memo by City Attorney Aaron Harp to the City Council:
In a confidential memo to the Newport Beach City Council, City Attorney Aaron C. Harp lists 41 separate occasions when Badum may have received gifts from companies that received no-bid contracts and other financial benefits from Newport Beach.
In the memo, dated March 12, Harp asks the council if a criminal investigation is warranted.
State law requires public officials to report gifts of $50 or more on a yearly conflict-of-interest form. The maximum gift allowed is $460 annually from any single party, according to the state Fair Political Practices Commission. In the memo, Harp indicated the city is concerned the gifts could be considered bribery.
Harp’s memo also warned that all the evidence gathered so far was circumstantial and “we have not concluded that Mr. Badum has accepted a bribe or fraudulently allowed a contract.”
According to the initial court filing, Saavedra called City Manager Dave Kiff on Monday about the memo and received a call back from Harp, the city attorney.
Harp demanded Saavedra return the memo, and when he refused, Harp called Saavedra’s editor, Andre Mouchard, who is also named in the lawsuit. Mouchard also refused, according to the filing.
In a document filed with the court Tuesday, Harp argues that writing about and quoting from the confidential memo violates attorney-client privilege and government codes prohibiting the disclosure of confidential information.
He also argues that making the memo public would “enable those involved in the matters on which the City may institute litigation to obstruct justice by the destruction of evidence or evasion of arrest and criminal prosecution.”
While it’s common for news reporters to get pushback from government officials over leaked confidential information, it’s rare for agencies to go as far as taking such issues to court.
Asked whether the city was attempting to prevent the publication of a news article, Harp defended his action as “protecting the integrity of the process” and said that the intent of the restraining order was to “put things on hold” so he could go to the council and give them the option of waiving their attorney-client privilege.
Although the Register has already published an article detailing the memo, the newspaper has not published the document itself.
As to whether the temporary restraining order could prevent the newspaper from publishing the memo in the future, Harp said he hadn’t “thought that issue through yet.”
Harp doesn’t know if the city will pursue any further action against the newspaper and said that he would bring the issue before the council at its next meeting.
Read Saavedra’s full article on the Register website.