An open-government advocacy group sued the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office on Friday for records of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations within the department.

David Snyder, executive director of the California-based First Amendment Coalition, told inewsource the lawsuit stems from an effort to gather similar records from the seven largest district attorney offices in the state. It was not prompted by any one incident or tip.

Why this matters

The purpose of the California Public Records Act is to ensure that government records related to how agencies conduct the public’s business be made available to the public. 

“The response we got from San Diego was unusual and troubling, in that they asserted that they would not provide us with the actual records,” Snyder said. Instead, the office provided summaries of what the records show.

Some of the other DA offices are also refusing to release records, Snyder said, but none offered the reason San Diego did for non-disclosure. Citing case law, the San Diego DA’s Office says the employees involved in the sexual harassment and misconduct incidents “do not occupy positions of such public trust and responsibility” that the disclosure of their identities and disciplinary records would be required by law.

In response to the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Summer Stephan issued the following statement:

“The District Attorney’s Office is fully committed to transparency and to fulfilling our responsibilities every time we receive a request under the California Public Records Act, as we have done for each of the 145 requests we’ve received in the past year. Further, the District Attorney’s Office takes all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, moves quickly to investigate such claims and takes disciplinary action when appropriate. The DA’s Office provided three responses to the FAC, comprising 20 pages, which met our obligations under the public records act.”

Incidents involving DA employees

The First Amendment Coalition on April 5 asked Stephan’s office for all records related “to sexual misconduct and/or sexual harassment claims” lodged against employees of the District Attorney’s Office since Jan. 1, 2013.

Two weeks later, the office provided summaries of six incidents that have occurred since 2013 involving its employees, but it would not provide the documentation behind those incidents.

According to the summaries:

  • In 2013, a male supervisor made verbal statements of a sexual nature to a female subordinate. He resigned before being disciplined.
  • In 2015, a DA investigator made unwelcome physical contact with a female co-worker outside the office after work. He was suspended and transferred.
  • In 2016, Deputy District Attorney Michael MacNeil took nude photos on county property and violated San Diego Superior Court policy by taking photos in a courtroom. He resigned before being disciplined.
  • In February 2016, a male employee told a female co-worker who had been promoted she was pretty and he was happy for her. He added: “Maybe I should grow a pair of boobs?” He was verbally disciplined.
  • In May 2016, the Human Resources Department received a complaint that a male supervisor commented on a female employee’s work attire that referenced her body. He also made an inappropriate joke about her. He was disciplined with a written warning.
  • In May 2017, a male supervisor was reported for tugging on a female colleague’s ponytail on multiple occasions; making derogatory comments about people based on sexual orientation; commenting when he saw an attractive woman, “if she was my wife, I wouldn’t let her get out of bed,” and making similar comments.

Snyder called the summarized responses “untenable under the California Public Records Act, and frankly dangerous.”

“If other public agencies were to take this tack, it would in some ways gut important provisions of the California Public Records Act and maybe the most important provision, which is to provide public records, not summaries of public records,” he said.

Lawsuits involving California’s public records law are supposed to be heard in an expedited fashion, Snyder said, but the time frame can vary by court.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of the story was unclear about the kinds of cases that are expedited. The story has been updated.

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Brad Racino was the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in...