MAPLight.org/CFAC File Lawsuit to Gain Access to California Public Records
California Legislative Public Database Monopolized By Government Agency
California First Amendment Coalition and MAPLight.org File Suit Against the Office of Legislative Counsel of California to Gain Access to State's Legislative Records in Electronic Format
BERKELEY, CA, December 3, 2008 - The California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC) and MAPLight.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that illuminates the connection between money and politics, filed a lawsuit today against the Office of Legislative Counsel of California for denying MAPLight.org's freedom-of-information requests. The intent of the lawsuit is to force the Office of Legislative Counsel to make the state's records of bills and votes in the California Legislature available in electronic database format for use in MAPLight.org California, a free online database that shows the connection between special-interest campaign contributions and legislator votes.
"The California government works for the taxpayers," said Daniel Newman, MAPLight.org's executive director. "California may not keep its database of basic democratic information hidden from the public."
"The Office of Legislative Counsel is obviously afraid that release of the legislative database to MAPLight.org will make it too easy for voters to connect financial contributions by special interests to specific votes and other accommodating actions by legislators," said Peter Scheer, executive director of CFAC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to free speech and government transparency. "And legislators should be worried. But fear of embarrassment is hardly a basis for withholding government records from public view. Just the opposite."
California Legislative data is currently available to the public in a text-based format on the California Legislative Information website. This current format is suitable only for viewing and printing. What MAPLight.org is requesting is copies of the database records used to create the website. These database records would allow searching for how a member votes, analysis of trends in voting and in bill topics, analysis of patterns of campaign contributions and votes to track special-interest influence, and many more valuable civic uses.
"It's not as if we're asking them to do additional work," said Newman. "This database already exists. It has already been paid for by the taxpayers of California. The Office of Legislative Counsel is required by law to share this information in whatever format they have in their possession. What the Legislature is giving the public now is the equivalent of a 10,000 page printout--they're refusing to share the one simple spreadsheet on which it was created. This makes searching and analysis nearly impossible."
"We tried to work with the Office of the Legislative Counsel in an effort to get them to voluntarily release the requested records without the need to file this lawsuit, but unfortunately they declined to do so, leaving litigation as the only option," said Rachel Matteo-Boehm, a partner in the San Francisco office of Holme, Roberts & Owen LLP. "The law is clear that the public has a right to obtain these records in a useable electronic format, and that's what we're after."
MAPLight.org California will be modeled after the award-winning MAPLight.org Congress website, which provides journalists, citizens, and non-profit groups with a host of government transparency tools, including a Money and Votes database that shows the connection between campaign donations and legislative votes. The database combines all money given to politicians with how each politician votes on every bill, revealing patterns of money and influence never before possible to see. Traditionally this dataset would take journalists and researchers weeks, if not months, to compile. MAPLight.org's data has been cited on CNN, Marketplace, Harpers, Washington Post, Boston Herald, Reuters, Wall Street Journal and more.
"In the age of the Internet, there is no justification for government to maintain monopoly control over online access to public records," said Scheer. "This is especially true when the records--bills, amendments, votes and the like--are the public roadmap for the laws that govern us all. It's frankly hard to imagine any public records that could be more 'public' than these."
"California's Office of Legislative Counsel appears reluctant to embrace the transparency mandated by law," said Newman. "It will be a brighter day for all of us when government sees itself as working for the public who pays the bills."
On July 1, 2008, MAPLight.org requested basic bill information--bill text, bill history, bill status, legislator voting records, legislative calendar, etc.--in electronic database format from the California Office of Legislative Counsel for use in its MAPLight.org California website (Exhibit D). MAPLight.org's request was made pursuant to the organization's rights under the Legislative Open Records Act, the California Public Records Act (PRA) and California Government Code 10248, which states that the Office of Legislative Counsel is required to make available, for each current legislative session, certain bill information in electronic format. On July 16, 2008, MAPLight.org's request was denied (Exhibit E). On August 15, 2008, CFAC Executive Director Peter Scheer sent a letter to the Office of Legislative Counsel, under the PRA, requesting a copy of the same records requested by MAPLight.org (Exhibit F). On August 18, 2008, CFAC's request was denied (Exhibit G). On October 9, 2008, legal counsel for CFAC and MAPLight.org had a telephone conversation with the Office of Legislative Counsel asking them to reconsider their denial of the PRA requests. On October 23, 2008, legal counsel for CFAC and MAPLight.org had a subsequent conversation with the Office of Legislative Counsel in which counsel was informed that the request had been reconsidered, but denied. (View full lawsuit.)
About California First Amendment Coalition:
CFAC is a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to free speech and government transparency. Among other activities, CFAC files test-case lawsuits against government agencies at the local, state and federal levels. This is the third case CFAC has filed to break down monopoly control by government agencies over databases created with tax dollars. The other suits involve electronic mapping records controlled by Santa Clara County and records controlled by the State Bar relevant to academic research on affirmative action in law schools. For more information visit: www.cfac.org
MAPLight.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization based in Berkeley, California. Its search engine at MAPLight.org illuminates the connection between Money And Politics via a database of campaign contributions and legislative outcomes. Data sources include: GovTrack.us; Center for Responsive Politics (OpenSecrets.org); Federal Election Commission (FEC); and National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP). Support and opposition data is obtained through testimony at public hearings, proprietary news databases and public statements on the websites of trade associations and other groups. To learn more visit MAPLight.org.
California First Amendment Coalition