2 Calif. groups file suit seeking voting records

By STEVE LAWRENCE, Associated Press Writer

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

(12-03) 16:43 PST Sacramento, CA (AP) --

Two nonprofit groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to force the Legislature's attorneys to release an electronic database that could be used to link lawmakers' votes to campaign contributions.

The California First Amendment Coalition and MAPLight.org said they wanted the information for a Web site that voters could use to look for a connection between special interest donations and a legislator's votes.

The suit was filed in Sacramento County Superior Court against the Office of the Legislative Counsel, which has refused to release the database.

Chief Deputy Counsel Jeff DeLand said the office wasn't in a position to comment on the lawsuit because it hadn't seen it.

The two groups said they asked the office in July and August for an electronic database containing information about bills, the Legislature's schedule and lawmakers' voting records dating back to 2003 and were turned down.

The Legislature's Web sites provide the information in a text form that is nearly impossible to analyze for trends in voting and patterns of campaign contributions, the groups said.

"The Office of Legislative Counsel is obviously afraid that release of the legislative database to MAPLight.org will make it too easy for voters to connect financial contributions by special interests to specific votes and other accommodating actions by legislators," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

"And legislators should be worried, but fear of embarrassment is hardly a basis for withholding government records from public view. Just the opposite," Scheer said.

Daniel Newman, MAPLight.org's executive director, said the database sought by the two groups already exists and that the counsel's office is required by law to make it public.

"It's not as if we're asking them to do additional work," he said.

In identical letters to the two groups, Deputy Legislative Counsel J. Christopher Dawson said the California Public Records Act requires the counsel to disclose certain records but not the database itself.

"Your request, therefore, seeks information that is exempt from the act and accordingly, will not be provided," Dawson said.

Besides the database covering the three previous two-year legislative sessions dating back to 2003, Newman said the groups wanted electronic feeds in the future that would allow them to update the MAPLight.org's Web site as bills are introduced and voted on.

The Web site, MAPLight.org California, would operate in the same way as a congressional Web site maintained by the Berkeley-based group.

"We would like to have it updated in real time as things happen in the Legislature," Newman said. "Our congressional Web site is updated within an hour of each vote in Congress. We would like to have similar updates for transparency for the California Legislature."