inewsource is taking part in Sunshine Week, an annual weeklong celebration that highlights open government and access to public information. Reporter Brad Racino shared his take on requesting public records and some of his favorite sources for finding open information.
A recent story that drew from public records
I wrote a story last year about an active earthquake fault in downtown San Diego. As part of that investigation, I requested the original geotechnical report that documented the fault’s discovery in 2008.
It was an important report because – I was told – it established a timeline for how long government agencies had known about the hazard and not told the public or the developer undertaking a massive redevelopment of the land. It also provided a detailed map of the fault’s exact location.
I asked the city and the port of San Diego for the document. Both said they didn’t have it. I continued to press, asking how it was possible that neither agency would maintain a copy of such an important document. Two weeks before we were set to publish the monthslong investigation, the city and the port found the report. In all, it took them two months to find it.
There was at least one geologist in the story alleging a cover-up, though it’s unclear if that was the case. The only certainty was that without that important public document, obtained through a public records act request, the story would have been much weaker.
My favorite sources for public information
1. San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/County Clerk website
This website has helped me tremendously when it comes to backgrounding people. I can type in a name and potentially see all sorts of documents filed with San Diego County. These include land purchases and sales, tax liens, articles of incorporation, power of attorney assignments, UCC (Uniform Commercial Code) financing statements and many other primary documents that can help inform reporting. You can also find detailed information about a particular parcel of land using the county’s Parcelquest portal, including its assessed value, property characteristics and recent sale history. The site asks you to pay for a full report to access details, but you can find it all for free if you go down to the recorder/assessor office at the county administration building.
2. California Secretary of State Business Search combined with OpenCorporates.com
The website for the Secretary of State’s Office allows a user to look up any business (LLC, LP or corporation) that operates within the state. You can find articles of incorporation, registration renewal fee reports and amendments. Those documents can show the names of company officers along with their phone numbers and addresses. It’s a quick and easy way to find out who is behind a company.
Then if you head to OpenCorporates.com, you can search a person’s name and find out all of the corporations they’re tied to within the country. Or you can search by corporation there as well, though you can’t access the detailed filings without going to the respective state’s secretary of state website.
This site is a great tool for digging into nonprofits. The site analyzes all the forms nonprofits are required to fill out and converts them into searchable text, then compiles all of that into a massive searchable database. You can search by the name of the nonprofit or one of its officers, or even by mission statement or keyword. Though, I should point out, it’s not always 100 percent accurate – inewsource is classified as a “Parent/Teacher Group” on the site. Which brings me to the point that when searching information about nonprofits, you should always download their Form 990s for the most accurate data, which you can do on this site as well.
Your one-stop shop for looking up money in politics. You can search how much money politicians are raising, who they’re getting that money from, how much they’re spending, what they’re spending it on, who spends what on federal lobbying and a million other things.
Muckrock is an online tool journalists use to file, track and share public record requests. And while it’s very useful for organizing and keeping tabs on these requests, you can also search the thousands of responsive documents government agencies provide as a result.
Best rejection for public records
My favorite denial was when we asked for the results of a leadership assessment the North County Transit District paid the UCSD Rady School of Management more than $30,000 to conduct. inewsource had published a series of stories in an investigation detailing the district’s holes in security, misallocation of funding, questionable contracting, high employee turnover, lawsuits, audits and peer criticism. As a result, we wanted to see whether the leadership assessment validated inewsource‘s reporting about NCTD’s “vacuum” of knowledge – the result of a high turnover rate among upper management and an alleged culture of intimidation inside the agency.
NCTD denied our request by saying the records were part of an employees’ personnel files and that disclosing them “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
As a result, we fought through the San Diego Superior Court and then the state 4th District Court of Appeal. Judges within the state appellate court concluded that the assessment’s summary should be released for public review. Which it was.
Justice James McIntyre, part of the three-judge appellate panel that considered the case, said he thought releasing the documents would be of some benefit to the public.
“If you need improvement in this many categories,” he said, looking at the study’s results, “you must not be a top rate or even a medium rate organization.”
And if you disagree, he suggested, “I don’t know what planet you’re on.”
We'll let you know when big things happen.