By Jeff McDonald, THE SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE

January 14, 2023

https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/watchdog/story/2023-01-14/state-insurance-regulators-largely-prevail-in-public-records-dispute

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has rejected most of a lawsuit that a consumer advocacy group filed against the California Department of Insurance accusing state regulators of illegally withholding public records.

In a decision issued this past week, Judge Mitchell Beckloff ruled against a request by Consumer Watchdog that sought to force regulators to turn over emails and meeting information sought under the California Public Records Act.

The judge further declined to order the agency to provide unredacted copies of other records or conduct a more extensive search for documents that may be subject to the initial request.

“Petitioner’s demand would require extraordinary effort from respondents resulting in an intrusive search,” Beckloff wrote in a 16-page ruling.

“As a practical matter, petitioner would have respondents and their 1,400 employees sift through documents in their possession to determine whether any particular document contains a name of an otherwise unidentified individual,” he added.

The decision was issued Monday, almost three months after lawyers for Consumer Watchdog and the Department of Insurance squared off during a court hearing in Los Angeles.

State insurance officials said they work diligently to provide public records upon request.

“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 in an email.

“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 added.

Despite prevailing on most elements of the legal dispute, state insurance officials were ordered to release some of the withheld paperwork.

The ruling directed the state to provide Consumer Watchdog unredacted copies of a single calendar entry. The judge also ordered that copies of certain emails be turned over to the court to determine whether they qualify for public disclosure.

Beckloff said he would make that decision after reviewing the records. A follow-up hearing was scheduled for Feb. 1.

Consumer Watchdog said the decision will make it harder for citizens to challenge officials who withhold documents from public release.

“The court’s ruling will likely embolden government officials to shield government records from the public view and raises serious questions about the state’s Public Records Act that may need to be addressed by the legislature or at the ballot box,” said Jerry Flanagan, litigation director for the Los Angeles advocacy group.

 “Access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental right of every person in this state, and is a critical weapon in the fight against government corruption,” he said.

Consumer Watchdog sought emails, meeting schedules and other records from Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara in 2019, after The San Diego Union-Tribune published a series of reports indicating that Lara accepted political contributions from insurers and intervened in administrative cases to benefit some donors.

In 2020, the Los Angeles nonprofit sued the Department of Insurance after officials refused to release certain materials.

The legal dispute culminated in a hearing last fall at which Consumer Watchdog requested the judge order the documents released. The state said it conducted a reasonable search for the records and provided all of the information requested.

Consumer Watchdog helped pass the state ballot measure that created the elected insurance commissioner position back in 1988.

The advocacy group has been sharply critical of Lara for his handling of political contributions, his granting of rate increases and other practices. Some of the group’s revenue comes from intervening in rate-hike applications filed by insurers.

Lara was re-elected to a second four-year term in November.