The headline is about how much San Diego County’s employee pension fund had to pay its lawyers to defend its decision to fire a whistleblower. The finer print adds that the defense was successful, because while California’s whistleblower protection laws are triggered by disclosures up the chain of command or to appropriate outside government authorities, they do not authorize document leaks to the news media—even when the documents are public records.
On the other hand, once a newspaper or broadcaster gets such documents it can refuse with impunity to disclose where it got them—if it knows. The net prudential lesson for California government employees: If you must leak documents to the media that you’re not authorized to disclose—even if you’re sure they’re public records—do it over the transom. And the media receiving such material might want to request them under the California Public Records Act to see what if anything is released by the agency. If all that the leak provided is disclosed in compliance with the request, the leak need never become an issue. If the agency denies access to the records or even denies they exist, the story can still go forward, and could be even more interesting.