Awareness Area: Government

Grand juries & police; torture & accountability

Should grand juries handle police shootings? Some California lawmakers may move to take police shooting cases away from the secretive grand jury and into open hearings When torture’s no crime, but exposing it is Critic: CIA’s Bush-era torturers go free, but the CIA officer who exposed their methods has been prosecuted by Obama’s DOJ Accountable government: The devil’s in the emails Expert: Senate’s torture report relied crucially on preserved emails—often the only evidence of what was going on Court: Record’s prior release must be proved Government can’t keep a record from you that’s been shared with someone else in the public—if you can prove it was shared Court: Retaliatory firing’s motive is what counts You can sue your employer for firing you on suspicion of whistleblowing—even if you never actually blew the whistle

Your ideas sought on campaign $ sunshine

The Federal Elections Commission invites you to tell it how to make campaign contribution data more transparent—by January 15.  As the Sacramento Bee pointed out in a recent editorial, The six-member Federal Election Commission is asking the public to comment about rules governing whether voters can know which interests are spending how much to win over their votes. The Commission long has been one of the more dysfunctional agencies in Washington. It splits 3-3 on virtually all issues of any significance related to campaign disclosure. But in a moment of clarity in October, the commission agreed to ask the public to weigh in on the most pressing issue before it: campaign finance disclosure. Three of the Commissioners, including Ann Ravel, recent chair of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, are traveling the country to stir up awareness of and interest in this rare opportunity.  In a statement released to encourage participation, they said: We think it is essential to hear from anyone who cares about money in politics – especially citizens and campaign volunteers who have an equal stake in making our democracy work. We know there is growing public concern about the deluge of undisclosed spending to sway our votes. We share this concern. …Outside spending by groups that hide their donors increased from just $5 million 2006 to more than $300 million in 2012. Given this dramatic increase, the commission should consider based on public comments and testimony how to strengthen its disclosure rules so that voters know who is behind the messages intended to influence their votes. Two problems for the vast majority of citizens who want to be heard but are newcomers to the process: knowing what suggestions to make, and where […]

Online performance data of hospitals, nursing homes

PUBLIC INFORMATION Harmful, sometimes fatal hospital errors and infections in California now disclosed by NBC Bay Area investigative report online Real owners of California’s nursing homes and how the big chains perform revealed by Sacramento Bee investigative series online Police policy of allowing access to reports of only the most recent crimes going to Court of Appeal on December 11 Senate Judiciary Committee gives unanimous, bipartisan approval to FOIA Improvement Act; now on to full Senate vote OPEN GOVERNMENT Feinstein drops ag-favoring water allocation bill secretly negotiated with Republicans and criticized by excluded stakeholders

FOIA improvement, Brown Act ruling, mayor’s promises

PUBLIC INFORMATION U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee today takes up the Freedom of Information Improvement Act, already passed by the House OPEN MEETINGS Judge rules that Monterey County Supervisors’ frequent closed door evaluations of top management did not violate the Brown Act OPEN GOVERNMENT Comment: After eight months, San Diego’s new mayor slow to live up to his campaign promises to improve the city’s transparency

State Bar, CalTech Face Whistleblower Suits

WHISTLEBLOWERS Whistleblower suits claim retaliation for accusing colleagues of altering records at the State Bar, spying for Israel at CalTech FREE SPEECH Hearing set in suit against West Covina School District for barring first grader from handing out candy canes mentioning Jesus OPEN MEETINGS Little Hoover Commission reports recent roundtable discussion of needed flexibility in Brown Act, Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act

State’s high court lets secrecy rulings stand

OPEN GOVERNMENT State Supreme Court lets stand ruling that L. A. teachers’ names needn’t be disclosed in connection with performance ratings State Supreme Court lets stand ruling that S.F. Sunshine Ordinance can’t force release of city attorney’s open government opinions FREE SPEECH Report: Young men accused of crimes are having the gangsta rap lyrics they write and perform used as evidence of their guilt Comment: Why California’s ban on handgun images in outdoor signage violates the First Amendment protection for commercial speech

Second and Third Thoughts about the Free Speech Movement

At its 50th Anniversary, the Free Speech Movement at U.C. Berkeley has become a nostalgia brand easily invoked to mask how intolerant the student body, like those in so many other prestigious ivory towers, can be of speech it finds intolerable, says one of the FSM veterans. On the brighter side, the latest annual survey by the Knight Foundation shows, for the first time in its 10-year history, young people generally more supportive of the First Amendment than their teachers. Another survey by the First Amendment Center shows that Americans generally are increasingly supportive of students’ rights to speak and report as much as anyone else. A strong majority of Americans believe that high school students should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights just as adults do. The percentage of those who support this statement increased over the past year from 75% to 78%, while the percentage of those who disagree with this statement decreased from 23% to 19%. In addition, A growing majority of Americans (68%) agree that public school students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities, while only 27% disagreed. When the question was first asked in 2001, Americans were almost evenly split on the issue and those who strongly disagreed with the statement dominated the response. We see a large change from 2001 through 2007 and into 2014 . . . As some evidence of how the tide may be turning, a developing controversy in the Boulder, Colorado public schools shows student dissent erupting to challenge proposals for change in a college advance placement history curriculum, which the school board majority wants to “present positive aspects of the […]

His Reporting Made the Case for the Brown Act

Michael Harris, age 92, died in Chevy Chase, MD on Thursday, but his career was Californian through and through. Equally with Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown and Bud Carpenter of the League of California Cities, he’s to be credited with getting the state legislature to enact the nation’s first omnibus local government open meeting law. He wrote its lead, so to speak, as well—the work of an afternoon, we’re told, with Carpenter sitting across the table, drafting the legal specifics. For Carpenter and the League, the main problem to be solved was not that there was no law requiring open meetings of local government bodies; it was that there were too many, each written to govern specific types of agencies—cities, counties, school and special district boards of various jurisdictions. How could a citizen keep track of all the variously shaded requirements? Harris described that patchwork at the opening of his 10-part series in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Your Secret Government.” But the series also went on to describe how the few generally worded rules that were in place were too routinely evaded by circumlocution or just simply ignored, because there was no uniform remedy and no serious consequence for violation. The series, written when Harris was a young veteran of World War II with only two years on the Chronicle’s reporting staff, still makes fascinating reading, since it shows an era so blithely indifferent to transparency principles that have come to win at least lip service as fundamentals of today’s politics. It also shows what the scene would be like today without the criminal penalty that so many have pooh-poohed as toothless.

Air Marshal Whistleblower Case Goes to High Court

Robert MacLean of Ladera Ranch in Orange County was fired from his Air Marshal job with the Transportation Security Agency in 2003 for disclosing to the press that the TSA planned to discontinue assigning marshals to overnight flights from Las Vegas to save money, despite an airline hijack alert which prompted higher security concerns at the time. He appealed his firing as illegal under the Whistleblower Protection Act, and while the trial court ruled against him, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit unanimously agreed he had a case, despite the government’s argument that such a precedent would encourage leaks that could threaten lives. But it has been a hard road for MacLean, as Teri Sforza reports for the Orange County Register. His case finally goes before the U.S. Supreme Court next month and, reports Jacob Gershman for the Wall Street Journal, lawmakers in both Houses of Congress and both parties are saying the viability of the WPA is at stake if the Court rules that the government can fire its employees for revealing anything that it pronounces—before or after the whistle is blown—as “sensitive” national security information.   

Major National Media Smear One of Their Own

A fact-based movie thriller to be released soon, “Kill the Messenger,” tells the story of Gary Webb, the investigative journalist whom the CIA found it easy to discredit when his series in the San Jose Mercury News, “Dark Alliance,” threatened an explosive national security scandal. The series accused the CIA of looking the other way when Nicaraguan Contras, its Reagan era clients, used the profits of crack cocaine smuggling that flooded the streets of Los Angeles to support their guerrilla war against the Sandinistas. It was easy to discredit Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, because the country’s leading newspapers were receptive to CIA denials at the time. And they were receptive to those denials because they could not believe they had been beaten to such a major exposé by a second-tier newspaper, but even more because a reputation for responsibility in the eyes of the intelligence “community” had become more precious to them than the credibility and integrity of a fearless reporter. They didn’t just disagree with him; they destroyed his career, and he committed suicide. Georg Hodel remembers.