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Sacramento Bee
Jun 26, 2000

Public information: Why are legislators helping hide the truth?

Bee Editorial
At the same time legislators express justifiable outrage over the troubling activities of Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, they've taken action to make future misconduct by public agencies and insurance companies hard to uncover. At the behest of lobbyists for insurance companies, the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee has gutted a bill that would have opened to public scrutiny the very department records at the center of the burgeoning scandal.

Under current law, government agencies are free to withhold documents from public scrutiny if the agency determines the public interest in keeping the information secret outweighs the public interest in disclosure. That exemption to the state law designed to safeguard public access to government documents amounts to a catchall loophole that can be easily abused.

Two years ago Quackenbush used that "public benefit" loophole to deny legislators copies of investigations his office had conducted into alleged misconduct by insurance companies following the Northridge earthquake. Alerted by disgusted insurance department staffers to serious improprieties at the agency, a legislative oversight committee tried to get the documents, but was repeatedly rebuffed by Quackenbush, who used his discretionary powers to deny legislators the right to see the reports.

AB 2799, authored by San Francisco Assemblyman Kevin Shelley and sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association -- of which The Bee is a member -- would have put into law a "reverse" public benefit test. Under that rule, a member of the public could petition a judge to order release of a government record withheld based on a finding that the public interest in disclosure outweighed the public interest in secrecy. That key provision of the Shelley bill was removed when insurance company lobbyists objected to it.

Had the rule been in place following the Northridge earthquake, quake victims could have used it to ask for access to department investigative reports that contained evidence of massive cheating of quake victims by insurance companies. Those documents were finally released by Sen. Martha Escutia. Not surprisingly, the department and insurance companies attacked the senator's actions in releasing the confidential information as "outrageous" and "illegal."

The real outrage involves government secrecy that denies the public access to documents so crucial to the public interest. The outrage here is that a regulated industry -- insurance companies -- and an elected regulator -- Quackenbush -- can use state law to hide documents alleging widespread fraud and misconduct. The outrage here is that even in the face of all that, legislators have failed to safeguard the public's and their own access to government documents that are key to exposing corruption.

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