By Hannah Wiley, SACRAMENTO BEE – CAPITOL ALERT
February 18, 2020
A California consumer advocacy group filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to force Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and his agency to hand over detailed calendar appointments with industry executives who contributed to his campaign.
Consumer Watchdog, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit is alleging that Lara and the California Department of Insurance are hiding details of appointments Lara had with a list of people who donated in April more than $54,000 to his re-election campaign. The donors in question all had professional ties to Applied Underwriters, a company with issues pending before the insurance agency.
The group requested calendar logs under a Public Records Act request in June of 2019. The San Diego Union-Tribune first reported the donations on July 7.
Consumer Watchdog’s original request sought “all appointment schedules, calendars, meeting logs, phone call logs, mobile phone records, and any other records relating to any meetings or phone calls between Insurance Commissioner Lara and any individuals who are employed or represent the interests of one or more insurance companies or the insurance industry.”
The department initially refused to release the calendars, saying that some records are “privileged or confidential” under law. Consumer Watchdog then narrowed its appeal in July to focus on the handful of donors and their connected companies. The Sacramento Bee filed a similar request.
Lara then released his calendars in September. The documents showed he had meetings with an executive of Applied Underwriters, including a “relationship-building” luncheon scheduled for campaign purposes.
Lara while running for office pledged not to accept contributions from companies he regulates. He acknowledged the contributions marked a broken campaign promise.
Consumer Watchdog has long argued the released calendars are insufficient. The group said more exhaustive records would answer questions of a potential “pay-to-play scandal.”
“The Public Records Act requires the actual records to be produced, not a paraphrase that could conceal critical details,” said Jerry Flanagan, Consumer Watchdog’s litigation director.
“Rather than producing Commissioner Lara’s actual calendar, the Department of Insurance appears to have created a new record claiming to be the calendar,” the lawsuit alleges. “Consumer Watchdog is informed and believes and, on that basis, alleges that the Department of Insurance created the new records to avoid redacting the original records to avoid scrutiny of the entries that were withheld from public disclosure.”
The “full disclosure of records” would help clear Lara’s name “if is he innocent of any wrongdoing,” the filing in Los Angeles County Superior Court reads.
The group is also seeking comprehensive “notes” of “planned events, meetings and appointments,” according to the lawsuit.
Lara issued an apology for accepting the money in September, halted fundraising for his 2022 campaign and fired his longtime fundraiser Dan Weitzman.
The commissioner also said the meetings did not influence any action his department had taken in cases related to Applied Underwriters.
“I believe effective public service demands constant adherence to the highest ethical standards,” Lara wrote in a Sept. 3 letter to consumer advocates. “But during my campaign and first six months in office, my campaign operation scheduled meetings and solicited campaign contributions that did not fall in line with commitments I made to refuse contributions from the insurance industry. I take full responsibility for that and am deeply sorry.’
The agency did not immediately return requests for comment on Tuesday. Lara’s office previously said he would “continue to make his calendar available to the public as he represents the interests of Californians.”
Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.