Local Groups Sue State Over Legal Database Access Denial

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Two Bay Area non-profit organizations-one based in Berkeley-filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the state's Office of Legislative Counsel, seeking access to an electronic database containing information on bills and legislative votes dating back to 2003.

The Berkeley-based organization MAPLight.org, which seeks to expose connections between political donations and subsequent legislation, and California First Amendment Coalition each filed public records requests for the database several months ago, but were denied.

California is the first of several states that MAPLight.org, whose goal is to make money and vote connections transparent, plans to monitor. It already has a database for the U.S. Congress.

Although information for individual bills is publicly available in plain text online, the organizations requested a copy of the entire database so that MAPLight.org could use computers to analyze it and generate statistics. Such a task would not be practical with individual printouts.

"They're trying to give us the

equivalent of 10,000 sheets of paper, and we're asking for the electronic file," said MAPLight.org Communications Director Pamela Heisey.

The organization MAPLight.org first made the request in July and was denied. In August, the coalition made the same request and was again denied. After trying to negotiate with the counsel, they jointly filed a lawsuit for the records.

The counsel refused to comment on the lawsuit or reasons for denying the requests.

"The database at issue here is a record, for the purposes of the Public Records Act," said Rachel Matteo-Boehm, the attorney for the organizations. "The general rule is that a record in the hands of a public agency is public."

The organization MAPLight.org, which has been collecting and examining data since May 2007, wants the state's database so that it can be compared to their database of political contributions from the National Institute on Money in State Politics and research by their employees.

"We would like to point out money's influence on policy," Heisey said.

She said one reason the original requests were denied is that the counsel may see a distinction between providing individual documents and a database.

Peter Scheer, the executive director of the coalition, said that the state has taken a "bizarre position."

"I can only speculate that they expect that once it's out there, you'll be able to see lots of embarrassing things," he said.

The California Supreme Court could begin hearings for the case as soon as January or February of next year.

Scheer and Matteo-Boehm expressed confidence in the case.

"We're not asking them to do anything different. We're asking for a copy of what they already have," Scheer said. "We've studied it very carefully, and I'm quite comfortable that we'll have the better of the arguments."


Contact James Parker at [email protected]

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