How is $99.3 million in public funds being spent by private contrators to clean up the former Fort Ord for "re-use" by removing munitions and other explosives from the base? The Fort Ord Reuse Authority, a public agency, is saying it doesn't know and doesn't have the right to find out. A nonprofit group, Keep Fort Ord Wild, isn't accepting that for an answer and has taken its public records request to court. Virginia Hennessey explains in the Monterey County Herald.

Open space advocates filed suit Monday to get an accounting of how the Fort Ord Reuse Authority spent nearly $100 million in federal money.

Keep Fort Ord Wild is asking a judge to compel FORA to release documents it first requested under the Public Records Act in December. Molly Erickson, attorney for the group, said FORA responded with incomplete records and said it does not have or has destroyed the rest.

At issue is a $99.3 million grant, the Environmental Services Cooperative Agreement, issued in 2007 for cleanup of munitions and explosives on Fort Ord.

The records supplied say the majority of the money, $82.1 million, purchased an "environmental insurance policy." Erickson said FORA representatives said they did not have a copy of the policy and didn't have a right to request one unless a claim were filed.

FORA spokeswoman Candy Ingram said the policy is a fixed-rate contract with Chartis, formerly American International Group, to administer the cleanup work with independent contractors. AON insurance, in turn, underwrote Chartis, guaranteeing the job would be completed at cost by 2015.

Contracts between the two companies are private, she said. With few exceptions, FORA does not have purview over the individual invoices submitted as part of the ongoing work, she added.

All of this comes at a time when FORA and local legislators are seeking an extension of the agency's sunset date from 2014 to 2024. Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Carmel, said the authority is the best means of completing the cleanup and transition of the former Army base to civilian use.

Michael Salerno, spokesman for Keep Fort Ord Wild, said the public has no way of knowing if an extension is advisable if it cannot see documentation of the agency's work since the base closed in 1994.

"It seems premature to advocate unconditional continuation of an agency which does not freely share the basic accounting records a public agency is expected to maintain," he said.

Keep Fort Ord Wild, a coalition of recreation enthusiasts and environmental preservationists, is fighting development on the former base, including the Monterey Downs project in Seaside. It was instrumental in blocking the Whispering Oaks business-transit center in February.

Michael Houlemard, executive officer of FORA, could not be reached for comment Monday. Ingram said he had been served the petition but had not reviewed it for detailed comment.

Erickson said FORA has also told the group it destroys paper documents after scanning them electronically. However, she said, it does not have a records-retention policy spelling out how long those files are kept and regularly deletes e-mails after 90 days.

"FORA is destroying records nearly as fast as the public can request them," she wrote in the lawsuit, "and is doing so without a written and approved plan for doing so."

Ingram said FORA has complied with each of the group's records requests, turning over thousands of pages of documents. Erickson said many of those were packets from board meetings and unsearchable electronic records, forcing the public to spend hours sifting through irrelevant documents in search of a simple answer.

Because FORA has not been forthcoming, Erickson said, Keep Fort Ord Wild was forced to seek a court order. What happens next, she added, is up to FORA.

"Sometimes it can take many years if the public agency digs in its heels and fights the public's right to access."