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California State Secrets: What public officials don't want you to know

CALIFORNIA STATE SECRETS: What public officials don't want you to know
CALIFORNIA STATE SECRETS: What public officials don't want you to know 06:42

SACRAMENTO — Heading into this election year, transparency and government accountability are crucial, but California has some of the weakest public records laws in the nation.

Would you want to know if your child's school found toxic chemicals in the drinking water? Or who might be using your DNA for research? Or if the state is planning to put a sexually violent predator in your neighborhood?

That's the type of information you're supposed to have access to through public records. Instead, CBS Sacramento found agencies often spend your tax dollars coming up with ways to keep public information secret.

Why? According to experts, California agencies have an incentive to hide embarrassing or inconvenient public information because "there are no significant penalties for unlawfully withholding records" in California. 

How It Impacts You

Kellie Prime and Monica Ferrulli's sons, Kyle and Mason, were diagnosed with cancer a year apart. 

"We promised that we'd check off every box that we can check off to make sure that these children don't get sick anymore," Prime told us roughly five years ago. 

Kyle and Mason were two of several students at their school, and nearly a dozen kids in their Ripon neighborhood, who were diagnosed with cancer over five years.

When we first interviewed Prime and Ferrulli, they were among many parents pointing to the cell tower on campus as a possible cancer contributor.

It was removed.

But as the unintentional activists compiled a growing list of other people in their neighborhood with cancer, they shifted their attention to the chemicals found in the city's water.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: Troubling Water: Ripon Child Cancer Investigation

Through public city water records, the moms discovered that their local well had been contaminated with chemicals that were "known to cause cancer."

Then we started digging through state public records and found the city had secretly re-activated the contaminated well without public notice.

When we asked the public works director if the water was safe to drink, he noted the level of chemicals was "within the state guidelines." However, the parents believed they deserved to know if their children were being exposed to any level of chemicals. 

CBS Sacramento later obtained public records from the school district that revealed the district previously found the chemicals in school drinking water but didn't tell parents.

"How many more children have to get sick and how many more children have to be on their deathbed?" Prime asked at a public meeting. 

The district eventually disconnected its contaminated well following the media coverage. However, without public records, Prime stresses, "we would still be where we were... years ago with no knowledge of any of it."

Your Rights Under California Law

Every agency in California, from law enforcement to school districts to prisons and public health, is subject to public records laws.

California's constitution says agencies should interpret public records laws to "further the peoples' right of access." The constitution also clearly states that "writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny."

But in reality, when the media or members of the public request those writings, state agencies often refuse to release them or they excessively redact the records before handing them over. 

From the California Department of Corrections to the Department of Public Health, state agencies frequently cite the "deliberative process" exemption to withhold emails and other "official writings." Freedom-of-information advocates say that exemption is supposed to apply to policy-making discussions. However, in practice, we've found that tax-payer-funded communications teams often use it to conceal uncomfortable information or discussions. 

"They have an incentive to withhold that which is embarrassing or inconvenient," said the First Amendment Coalition's David Loy. "And because there are no significant penalties for unlawfully withholding records, agencies, in effect, often get away with stonewalling members of the press or public."

Loy points to a number of new anti-transparency bills that lawmakers introduced in 2023. Many would have weakened the public's right to access even more. Loy's organization successfully fought many of them.  

However, the California Public Records Act (CPRA), which largely governs public access, already includes a lot of exemptions. We've found that California agencies use them a lot.

"It's a great law in theory, but in practice," Loy said, "the problem is the implementation and enforcement."

"Good Law - Bad Implementation" 

For instance, for years we've been investigating California's newborn DNA biobank.

The state stores a DNA sample from every baby born in the state and doesn't ask for consent.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: Newborn DNA Privacy Concerns

Public records we obtained between 2010 and 2018 revealed the state sold thousands of DNA samples to researchers and we found multiple law enforcement requests for people's DNA.

But when we recently asked the California Department of Public Health for an updated list of research and law enforcement requests for DNA samples from the state's stockpile, the agency denied our request stating that it "is no longer tracking" the information like it used to and is "not required to create a record" to tell us who has access to our DNA.

"They have no strong incentive to comply because there's no meaningful, effective penalty," Loy said, noting that in states like Washington, agencies face court-ordered fines for every day they don't comply. California agencies don't face similar penalties. 

Rewriting State Law

California law also includes broad exemptions for law enforcement agencies, which can indefinitely deny most requests relating to investigations. 

"This is a huge problem with the California Public Records Act compared to many other states," Loy said.

In some cases, we've found, California agencies will attempt to rewrite state law.

For instance, for nine months, we've been fighting for answers and access to the full video from a California Highway Patrol (CHP) shootout that began with a controversial CHP decision to serve a planned, high-risk search warrant to an armed felon at a public park surrounded by spring break day camps.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: Failed Policies: One Suspect. Three Agencies. Countless Questions.

Bullet holes near the batting cages reveal just how close children were to being shot in the crossfire.

An officer was shot. Jim and Patty MacEgan were taken hostage while out for a walk. Jim MacEgan was killed.

Nearly a year later, we still don't have answers to basic questions about what's being done to ensure it never happens again. The multiple agencies involved each appear to be withholding public information.

The Placer County Sheriff's Office is refusing to release the hostage's coroner's report which could confirm Mr. MacEgan was shot by the suspect and not CHP officers in the crossfire.  

The Roseville Police Department, which arrested the suspect and took over the investigation, will only release four 39-second clips of its body camera video, raising questions about what that agency is trying to hide.

State law requires agencies to release any recording "that relates to" a fatal officer-involved shooting, or "critical incident." However, Roseville PD is now attempting to rewrite state law. Instead of releasing recordings that "depict an incident involving the discharge of a firearm." They claim they only have to release recordings "of the discharge of the firearm."

Roseville PD is the first agency, that we're aware of, to ever make that argument. Even the author of the law called their argument ludicrous. If allowed to stand, however, it could set a concerning precedent for future police shootings.

Separately, the CHP violated state law for months by denying the existence of CHP audio and video recordings from the shooting. CBS Sacramento had to twice appeal the denial, informing the agency that law enforcement sources had seen the video before the agency finally acknowledged its existence.  

Additionally, CHP has yet to acknowledge any agency policy changes following its fatal decision to serve the high-risk warrant at the park that day. That is a concern for many who want answers and accountability. CHP is the Governor's police force with jurisdiction across the state.

California Compared to Other States

In California, if an agency refuses to release public records the only option is to sue.

"When I started filing requests in California, I was really surprised. I didn't expect it to be so different," said CBS News data journalist Chris Hacker. 

Hacker is based outside of Chicago and frequently files records requests in states across the country.

"It was a bit of a rude awakening in California," Hacker said.

Unlike in many other states, he notes that there's no appeals process in California when an agency illegally denies or overly redacts a record. 

"In California, you know, you're sort of on your own," Hacker said.

Lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill last year to create an appeals process for state agency denials. Governor Newsom vetoed the bill, stating that his "(s)tate agencies diligently comply with the Public Records Act, and relief is currently available through the courts for those who feel an agency's decision was incorrect."

Delayed Records

Also, in California, while they must acknowledge your request in 10 days, there's no deadline to provide the requested records.

Remember when we investigated the Governor's billion-dollar COVID lab contract amid whistleblower allegations of contaminations, wrong results, and false positives keeping healthy kids out of school?

For nearly a year, the Department of Public Health delayed releasing lab inspection records while the California Health Secretary and Governor publicly discredited the allegations.

We would later learn that state and federal inspectors found lab practices "likely to cause serious injury, harm or death."

One more thing the public would have never known if it weren't for public records.

CALIFORNIA STATE SECRETS: A Multi-Newsroom Public Records and Transparency Project

This story is part of a groundbreaking multi-newsroom collaboration, focused on increasing transparency and accountability in California.

Over the next year, a group of government and investigative reporters -- from newsrooms across the state -- will be working to collectively expose the public harm when agencies and officials withhold records and public information. 

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