Use of the California Public Records Act for Opposition Research
June 17, 2011 Leave a comment
The California Public Records Act (as well as the disclosures required by the Political Reform Act, adjudicative court records) provides an important tool for gathering information about political rivals. Below is a brief overview of the kinds of records that are available to the public, and what can be learned from the types of information.
1. Permit and Property Records. An opponent may be able to find administrative citations, notices of violation, building permits (or no building permits) by making a California Public Records Act request by a parcel number or street address. Some cities will take the view that code enforcement records are criminal investigatory files and refuse to disclose. However, I have found that most cities will disclose this information, with some redactions with the name of reporting parties. Building permits themselves are relatively non-controversial, and will be inspected.
2. Contracts with government entities, particularly entities that are not
3. Litigation with a public entity. This can be a treasure trove of information about the inner workings of government. Depositions are a good source because they are largely unfiltered. Also ask for any government claims, as they may not show up if no lawsuit is filed.
4. Minutes. Opponents can use these to establish a record of voting or non-voting.
5. Electronic mail. Though many public entities have policies of deleting email within a certain amount of time, electronic mail is often very candid and can provide powerful ammunition.
6. Constituent correspondence. You can find specific complaints about public officials and contact the complainants.
7. Correspondence with staff, including electronic mail. Is the political rival abusing staff? Find out by requesting correspondence on matters of importance to the elected official, particularly on matters that have dragged on for a long period of time because of red tape or the involvement of other government agencies.
8. Campaign disclosures. These often have little nuggets of information. For example, sometimes candidates keep committees open long after the election. One reason is because they made a loan of personal funds to themselves, and they hope to some day get paid back when they run a successful campaign in the future. Form 700 Statement of Economic Interests, whether for a candidate or an elected or appointed public official, have valuable information about potential campaign opponents.
9. Web browsing information. This may be subject to some exemptions, the agency may claim that these are not records, and they may be deleted fairly regularly. Request these records early and often.
9. There are many, many more areas which might be helpful. These requests need to be made regularly and not during election season. Records can be destroyed in compliance with California law, so the record you most want may not be there when you need it. Also, the California Public Records Act’s time provisions can be a disadvantage to obtaining records in a timely fashion.