In a story published Monday morning on voiceofsandiego.org, reporter Will Carless revealed that the county of San Diego had quietly investigated its own department that procures medical equipment for use by low-income children—things like wheelchairs and prosthetics—because of what might have been improper receipt of gifts from the vendors of the equipment. We say “might have been” because county officials are refusing to make the results of the investigation public.
This, of course, is appalling. If the implications in Carless' story are true, taxpayer money was used to buy equipment from vendors who gave gifts of some sort to the people who select the vendors. The public has every right to know not only how decisions are made when it comes to spending its money on goods and services, but also how its money is spent investigating potential improprieties.
What we know, according to Carless' story, is that someone filed a complaint in 2007 alleging misdeeds in the county-run California Children's Services (CCS) program; the county spent more than a year investigating it, and there was some disciplinary action. The implication of improper gift-giving came from the minutes of staff meetings, obtained by voice through a public-records request. That's really all we know.
Voice reported that County Counsel John Sansone has cited attorney-client privilege as the reason for keeping details of the probe under wraps. In this case, the County Counsel's office is the attorney, and the county is the client.
Sansone, Carless wrote, “said the county never makes such documents public and that counsel decided not to set a precedent with the CCS investigation. Because the investigation didn't turn up any serious misconduct, it was not necessary to reveal the names of those investigated, he said. And he said counsel did not want to open the county up to potentially damaging lawsuits.”
First, the county should make such investigations public—that's a precedent that should be set. Second, it's the public—and possibly the District Attorney—that should decide whether the misconduct was serious, and a judge is who should decide whether or not lawsuits are frivolous.
Carless and voice are to be commended for bringing the story to light, yet the story contained a glaring omission.
Other than a generic mention of “politicians” in a quote by public-information expert Terry Francke, there was no evidence of an attempt to seek comment from the five county supervisors. They oversee both the CCS program and the County Counsel's office. They, ultimately, are the decision-making clients, and it's they who can waive the attorney-client privilege.
And waive it they should—immediately.
Can you imagine the uproar if this had happened at San Diego City Hall? A number of regular watchdogs would be hollering from the podium during public-comment time, but they wouldn't even need to, because the majority of the City Counsel would insist on waiving the privilege and releasing the documents.
Relatively speaking, San Diego County government is subject to almost no press or public scrutiny, and the five county supervisors—Bill Horn, Dianne Jacob, Pam Slater-Price, Ron Roberts and Greg Cox—are generally likeminded, which means they don't tend to challenge one another and they don't draw much attention, except those times when Horn says something crazy.
The Board doesn't have anyone like Donna Frye or Carl DeMaio demanding transparency and public disclosure. So, the press and the public have to demand it. Voice took the first step. CityBeat's taking the second step in urging release of the investigative report. Other media must follow suit—particularly the editorial boards of the Union-Tribune and the North County Times.
Maybe, as Sansone seems to be saying, it's much ado about nothing. Fine. Release the report and we'll have a look. If it's no big deal, we'll all move on. If frivolous lawsuits are filed, the justice system will handle that. But hiding the information only makes the story that much more interesting.