Public Records Lockdown

Lately, a spate of dismissive articles have been posted online about those who oppose California Assembly Bill (AB) 711.

Lately, a spate of dismissive articles have been posted online about those who oppose California Assembly Bill (AB) 711.  With a few notable exceptions, these articles generally attempt to belittle AB 711's opponents, relying on a tired theme that those interested in firearms-related issues are “conspiracy theorists,” but without actually meeting with AB 711 opponents or investigating their concerns.  Strangely, those articles seem to avoid discussing a topic that is at the heart of the AB 711 debate, and which is almost universally accepted as a cornerstone of both journalism and democracy: government transparency.   

If enacted, the bill would end the use of lead ammunition by hunters in California, purportedly to protect California condors (Condors).  The theory is that California condors eat lead present in the “gut pile” left behind by hunters in such amounts that it results in Condors being lead poisoned.  Now, there are many, many unresolved issues regarding the alleged causal connection between Condor health issues and lead ammunition use, e.g., the fact that Condors eat leaded paint off of buildings, the fact that Condors ingest “microtrash” that is severely detrimental to their health, and the fact that California banned big game hunters from using lead ammunition in the “Condor Zone” in 2008, and that didn’t do anything to help lower Condor blood-lead levels in California (even with > 99.9% hunter compliance).  But if one wants to investigate these issues, he or she better be prepared for rejection, as much of the critical information being used to support AB 711 is intentionally being kept from the public.  

Researchers at the Donald Smith Laboratory at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), commonly share all sorts of information about Condors with some members of the public, but they often also withhold the same type of information from other members of the public.  While there is no publically available statement that explains exactly how one can get access to the otherwise secret information, it seems the common thread is that the researchers only freely provide information to those that are predisposed to agree with the UCSC researchers’ published work related to lead ammunition.  But even assuming UCSC is limiting access to public records because it thinks doing so somehow protects its researchers, that is really a secondary point. As a governmental organization, UCSC should not be applying any partisan limitations as to who can access public records; once a document is released by UCSC to a member of the public, it should be available to all of the public.         

This is especially troubling because UCSC researchers are among the most vocal proponents of AB 711.  For example, Dr. Myra Finkelstein, a UCSC researcher, represented herself as one of the world’s “leading experts on lead and environmental health” when she addressed lawmakers earlier this year in support of AB 711.  Dr. Finkelstein spent her time before the lawmakers trying to convince them to enact AB 711, and she did not tell them about how UCSC keeps information secret from some, but not all, of those interested in UCSC’s Condor-related work. 

For example, in response to a request made pursuant to the California Public Records Act, UCSC refused to produce original data that was collected for, but omitted from, a student thesis that ultimately became the 2006 publication “Ammunition is the Principal Source of Lead Accumulated by California Condors Re-Introduced to the Wild[.]”  That publication is one of the primary touchstones for those pushing AB 711.  Further, when pressed on the issue, UCSC researchers refused to provide a statement under penalty of perjury as to why the data was not included in the relevant paper.   Indeed, UCSC’s attorney threatened that the party seeking the withheld data could get “into trouble” if it went public with its concern that the omission might have constituted scientifically improper data set manipulation.  None of this was mentioned to the lawmakers when Dr. Finkelstein spoke. 

Nor do the UCSC researchers publicly discuss the fact that UCSC has refused to provide Condor X-rays that UCSC obtained from the L.A. Zoo – documents that are plainly public records, and which the L.A. Zoo itself has released to the public.  And they certainly don’t draw attention to the fact that UCSC has refused to produce pictures of a lead bullet allegedly taken from a Condor or pictures of the Condor that may have ingested that bullet.  Of course, UCSC did not keep this information secret from their “research partners,” one of whom published a photograph of the bullet in question on the internet, thus unintentionally exposing UCSC’s partisan information sharing practices.  

If asked, the UCSC researchers would surely state that they need to keep certain Condor-related information secret until they publish it in a scholarly journal, relying on the questionable assertion that some other scientist, willing to eviscerate his or her own credibility, could “poach” the data collected by the UCSC researchers and prevent them from using it effectively.  But if the UCSC researchers wait to provide public documents until a related journal article is published (something that may never happen, especially if the researchers don’t “like” the data being withheld from the public), shouldn’t they put their advocacy efforts on hold as well?     
Not one of the articles critical of AB 711 opponents has gone to any real effort to investigate how UCSC withholds data from those that are interested in verifying or debunking the science upon which AB 711 is being sold.  Without regard for political affiliation or partisan politics, news reporting has consistently used public record access to investigate and inform the public.  One must ask, then, why does it appear the media is not covering a crucial part of the story around AB 711?  It could simply be that some in the media are attempting to investigate this issue, but they too are being stymied by a less-than-forthright UCSC, or that their requests are “backlogged.”  Regardless, for those who are interested in scientific and legislative honesty and transparency, they should look beyond what has been reported in the media and evaluate for themselves if the playing field needs to be leveled before the legislature votes on AB 711.