By Adam Andrzejewski
Polls show that government corruption, waste and malfeasance are important issues to California voters.
But California is the only state refusing to disclose all state spending. Forty-nine states produced their line-by-line vendor payments after auditors at OpenTheBooks.com submitted open-records requests.
It’s a basic issue of accountability. The people, press, and politicians must be able to follow their tax dollars. After all, it’s their money.
In 2020, we sued California Controller Betty Yee, a Democrat, in state court after she argued that her office couldn’t “locate” any of the 50 million payments that the state admitted making last year. Our lawyers are the public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., Cause of Action Institute.
In a court filing this month, Yee argued that our organization seeks “…a ‘checkbook’ of California’s spending, such a checkbook does not exist…”
In 2012, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar-Topinka, a Republican, made a similar argument after denying our sunshine request: “The state doesn’t have a ‘magical’ checkbook.” We sued Illinois reminding her that the state didn’t have magical taxpayers either, and won.
So, why hasn’t a Gov. Gavin Newsom challenger incorporated this good government, non-partisan issue in the recall election cycle? After all, a governor – even the current governor himself – could solve the state’s lack of transparency through an executive order.
Today, such questions have national implications.
Consider this: U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is 88 years old. If she dies in office or resigns her seat, the governor appoints her successor. If that governor is a Republican, then the balance of power in the U.S. Senate would flip away from the slim 50-50 Democratic majority that comes with Vice President Kamala Harris making the tie-breaking vote.
It would certainly seem that the stakes are high in California. The issue of transparency can turn the ‘Golden State’ into an election battleground.
Here are five arguments from Controller Yee to a California judge regarding her refusal to produce a single transaction subject to our open records request for state spending:
1. Certain records are stored on paper and magnetic tape. Magnetic tape? Paper? Are we in 1951 when magnetic tape replaced… punch cards?! Magnetic tape was inventedin 1928 in Germany according to Wikipedia. Papermaking was finally brought to Europe in the 11th Century.
California is home to Silicon Valley and the electronic, technology revolution!
2. Can’t “locate” the records. Mystifying, after admitting that records are stored on paper, magnetic tape, and other media. Furthermore, Yee disclosed making 50 million payments from her office.
From the Controller brief: “Respondents cannot produce records that are not in its possession.” “Petitioners’ attempt to obtain a record that does not exist…” Yee argued “… the request at first may appear to be reasonable and specific – but when assessed in light of the limitations of and scope of documents possessed by the Respondent, the request is not reasonable…”
Really? The state’s top fiscal officer doesn’t have access to the state payment records when she has a constitutional responsibility to attest that the payments are free of waste, fraud, corruption and taxpayer abuse?
From the Controller’s website: Under the State Constitution, the Controller is charged with the audit of every claim for payment of state and federal funds prior to the expenditure of funds.(emphasis added)
3. Yee called the checkbook spending a limited public interest, in her court filings. Yet, it’s arguably the most important public record in the state – exactly where taxpayer money was spent and who received it. Yee, herself, is acting like she has a lot to hide.
4. The request lacked clarity. Feigned ignorance – here is what we requested: check date, check amount, payee/vendor name, payee/vendor address, check number, check amount, description of services, organization/ agency identifier number, purpose of payment, department agency, type of payment (i.e. contract, grant, etc.).
In fact, over 300 cities and municipal governments in California – and 11,100 governments across America – already produce records under the OpenTheBooks.com request. They can figure it out.
In a nutshell, Yee is arguing that her office is so incompetent that they can’t produce the basic financial record of who received how much taxpayer money.
Even the most corrupt governments across America comply with the OpenTheBooks sunshine request for payments, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It seems everyone except California can figure it out.
5. The request is an “undue burden.” “The information sought would require an extraordinary effort to locate and produce… The [California Public Records Act} does not compel an agency to produce records which cannot be located with a reasonable effort.”
Undue burden? It’s her job. Anyone that makes the payment can track the payment.
Are you beginning to think that the entire California state payment system is designed to hide waste, fraud, corruption and taxpayer abuse?
In 2018, the Wyoming State Auditor Cynthia Cloud, a Republican, argued that producing the state checkbook would take “years and years.” After we sued, Cloud’s successor, Kristi Racines produced six-years of state spending within 30-days on the job!
All of these positions are embarrassing for California. None of the excuses would seem reasonable to a voter. The issue would resonate with regular people.
Challengers to Gov. Newsom could look to the 2018 insurgent gubernatorial candidate in Wyoming, Foster Friess – who went from 1% in the polls to nearly winning the Republican nomination– in months. His entire platform was to open the books on state spending.
Every state across America can produce a complete checkbook of public expenditures. Are we just dreamin’ to believe that California can produce a full record too?