Cartoons on Secretary of State Website Make Mockery of Government Transparency, Encourage Destruction of Records

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Assembly Committee Approves Bill to Preserve Public Records

Sacramento, CA — The California Secretary of State (“SOS”) Shirley Weber will remove cartoons and a records “retention” handbook on the SOS’s website that encourage state agencies to destroy government records in order to avoid legal liability under the state’s landmark Public Records Act.  Download Consumer Watchdog’s letter raising concerns about the threat to government transparency posed by the cartoons and handbook.

The California News Publishers Association, First Amendment Coalition, and Californians Aware have joined Consumer Watchdog in support of AB 2370 (Levine) to implement minimum standards for preservation of public records. AB 2370 was passed out of the Assembly Judiciary Committee yesterday on unanimous consent.

Read Wes Venteicher’s story on AB 2370 in the Sacramento Bee

Avoid Litigation cartoon

Though voters amended the Constitution in 2004 to guarantee access to public records, there is currently no minimum records retention period that applies to state agencies. Government records are routinely deleted or destroyed before the public or journalists have a chance to access them. Making matters worse, the cartoons on the Secretary’s website encourage destruction of records to avoid legal liability despite acknowledging an agency staff’s “reluctance” to do so. 

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In response to Consumer Watchdog’s letter, the Secretary of State’s office said the cartoons and handbook will be removed ‘shortly,’ that the agency had been in the process of updating the handbook prior to Consumer Watchdog’s letter, and that a revised handbook should be posted in the coming months.

“These are not trivial matters,” wrote Consumer Watchdog. “As noted by the California Supreme Court in underscoring the importance of the Public Records Act, ‘individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process.’” (C.B.S., Inc. v. Block (1986) 42 Cal.3d 646, 651).  

Consumer Watchdog discovered the cartoons and commentary in the course of researching the Department of Insurance’s recently rescinded policy to automatically delete emails after 180 days. The email deletion program was initially proposed shortly after Consumer Watchdog sought records regarding a government corruption scandal involving insurance companies that contributed to Commissioner Lara’s 2022 re-election campaign.  Read Jeff McDonald’s story in the San Diego Union Tribune.  
As noted by Department of Insurance staff who contacted Consumer Watchdog with grave concerns about the timing and implementation of the email deletion program, such regular automatic purging of emails is inappropriate for state agencies charged with protecting the public. Many records that ultimately prove to be essential for agency enforcement efforts may not appear to be important until years after they are initially received.  Yet, the Secretary of State’s records handbook and cartoons currently promote an “annual purge day” for all records.

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“Without a minimum records retention requirement as proposed by AB 2370, your agency’s calls for ‘purging’ emails and other records on a regular basis is a gift to unscrupulous business seeking to avoid appropriate oversight,” wrote Consumer Watchdog.  AB 2370 would simply apply to state agencies the same minimum two-year retention period for public records that is already in place for California counties and cities.
Failure to retain public records is a problem that reaches beyond the Department of Insurance.

  • CalPERS began automatically deleting email older than 60 days in 2011 after a different government scandal. 
  • The California Environmental Protection Agency currently considers emails transmitting “informal information” to be “transitory,” which must be deleted after 90 days. 
  • The Medical Board destroys physician licensing files not necessary to establish qualifications for licensure upon the time the physician’s license is issued. 
  • The DMV destroys records regarding a driver’s failure to establish insurance coverage following an accident after just 30 days. 
  • The Department of Forestry destroys records regarding hazardous material (Hazmat) property upon expiration of the relevant contract regardless of the time period, and records of fire safety inspections after one year.

Download Consumer Watchdog’s letter in support of AB 2370.

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Jerry Flanagan
Jerry Flanagan
Jerry Flanagan is Consumer Watchdog's Litigation Director. Flanagan leads Consumer Watchdog’s litigation efforts in the areas of health insurance coverage and access to treatments. He has over 20 years experience working in public interest and health care policy, legislation and litigation.

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