By Jeff McDonald, THE SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
The Los Angeles advocacy group that unsuccessfully sued California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and the Department of Insurance over their refusal to turn over documents they said were exempt from public release has filed a formal appeal.
Consumer Watchdog, the nonprofit group whose 1980s-era work helped establish an independently elected state insurance commissioner, argues the Superior Court judge who decided the case in January erred in his ruling.
“Our California Constitution guarantees the public’s access to government records,” Consumer Watchdog litigation director Jerry Flanagan said in a news release that announced the appeal this week.
“We hope the Court of Appeal will send a clear message that state agencies must not be allowed to ignore clear evidence of public records,” he added. “Access to information concerning the conduct of public business is a critical weapon in the fight against government corruption.”
The Department of Insurance did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the appeal. But a spokesperson previously said the court properly found that officials complied with open-records laws and the department would keep doing so.
“The judge ruled the Department of Insurance adhered to California’s Public Records Act guaranteeing the public’s right to know,” spokesperson Michael Soller said early this year.
“We will continue to respond to each and every public records request in accordance with the law and our core values of transparency and public access,” he said.
Consumer Watchdog sued Lara and the state agency he oversees in 2020, after The San Diego Union-Tribune disclosed a series of political contributions he had accepted from insurance industry executives.
The advocacy group sought calendars, notes, emails and other records pertaining to meetings Lara and other department officials held with insurers.
Department leaders provided some documents in response to the document request but resisted the public release of many others. In court papers, Consumer Watchdog accused officials of not having conducted a proper records search.
In its appellate brief, the organization said the Los Angeles Superior Court judge who dismissed most of the initial claims had committed multiple errors in his ruling that must be corrected.
Most significantly, Consumer Watchdog alleged, the department failed to expand a records search relating to former state officials who previously released records showed had met with Lara while representing a major workers’ compensation insurer called Applied Underwriters.
“Despite those clear leads, the agency failed to update its search terms to determine whether any other responsive records associated with the four individuals existed,” the filing says.
It says the trial court also wrongly ruled that the department conducted a reasonable search for records even though the search was conducted by a person with limited knowledge of the request.
The department should have assigned someone more familiar with the documents to look for the requested records, Consumer Watchdog said.
“To remedy these errors and ensure that the public continues to have access to all types of public records, Consumer Watchdog’s appeal requests that the Court of Appeal remand the case to the trial court with instructions on the correct legal standard to apply,” the announcement said.
After the Union-Tribune’s report, Lara issued a public apology and returned tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions.
The newspaper later reported that Lara’s office had intervened in at least four cases in ways that benefited the commissioner’s campaign donors.
He was re-elected to a second four-year term in November.
The California Department of Insurance regulates more than $300 billion in insurance policies marketed to drivers, homeowners, employers and others.