Calif. Issues New Rules On When Its Contracts May Be Kept Confidential

Tuesday, March 20th 2007, 1:36 pm
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The California Department of Justice issued a new confidentiality policy Monday spelling out when information on its contracts may be withheld from state records. An Associated Press investigation had found tens of millions of dollars of contracts were improperly shielded from public view.

``This policy change will absolutely ensure those things don't happen again,'' said agency spokesman Nathan Barankin.

The AP investigation found that information on scores of Justice Department contracts, many of them let without bids, was erroneously labeled ``confidential'' and omitted from computerized state records, cloaking it from public sight.

The hidden contracts included spending on lobbyists, consultants, legal firms _ even courier services.

Current and former agency officials said the omissions were mistakes and there was no attempt to intentionally hide spending or protect favored contractors from scrutiny.

Since 2003, the department has labeled ``confidential'' more than 1,700 contracts with individuals and companies, valued at over $100 million.

The new policy is intended to set more precise standards for imposing confidentiality, mirroring exemptions in state open-records laws.

It requires employees to provide a written explanation of why any information on contracts should be withheld from state computer data, and that recommendation must be approved by a supervisor, with advice from lawyers when needed.

Legitimate exemptions would include purchases of wiretapping and other surveillance equipment, legal advice in ongoing trials, or information that would jeopardize security for officers.

The policy ``creates a paper record and a bit of an administrative burden on secrecy, on confidentiality, which in a bureaucracy is a wonderful thing,'' said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition.

``The path of least resistance going forward will be to put things on the public record. The path of some resistance will be to withhold them. And that's the way it should be,'' Scheer said.

The contracts reviewed by AP were issued from 2003 to last year, when Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, was attorney general and headed the Justice Department. Jerry Brown now holds the job; in November, Lockyer was elected state treasurer, where he manages billions of dollars in state investments.

Some of the firms in the concealed contracts had ties to Lockyer; his spokesman has said there was ``no bad intent.''