By: Allison Plette
Consumer Watchdog v. Ricardo Lara, Case No. 20STCP00664 (Super. Ct. Los Angeles County). On May 12, 2021, the court issued an order granting in part and denying in part Petitioner Consumer Watchdog’s motion to compel specific documents associated with two Public Records Act (PRA) requests made in 2019 to Department of Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara. The writ of mandate and complaint for declaratory relief, filed on February 18, 2020, alleged that the Commissioner failed to comply with the PRA by declining to respond to Consumer Watchdog’s requests. [see 25:2 CRLR 153; see 25:1 CRLR 187–188]. The issue before the court on these discovery motions was whether the discovery sought by Consumer Watchdog would aid in determining whether the Commissioner legitimately redacted and/or withheld records from disclosure under the PRA.
Consumer Watchdog filed the original PRA request in mid-2019, in response to news of a potential campaign funding scandal involving the Commissioner. The alleged scandal concerned his contacts with representatives of workers’ compensation insurer Applied Underwriters (“Applied”), which, according to news sources, donated approximately $54,000 to the Commissioner’s reelection campaign. Consumer Watchdog’s original PRA request asked for meetings and communications involving certain named individuals and others representing Applied, including the Commissioner’s former boss and political mentor, Fabian Nunez.
Pursuant to the interim order, the Commissioner identified approximately 400 internal emails, 34 internal documents, and records of 21 meetings between the Commissioner and his top political and legal advisors discussing how to respond to the PRA requests. In further response to the discovery requests, the Commissioner produced a list of meetings with various officials, including the Chief Deputy and Deputy Commissioner. The Commissioner also filed objections to requests for admissions about meetings and communications between the Department and lobbyists for Applied, asserting that the “determination of whether the Commissioner met with Nunez [was] not necessary to determine whether the Department had properly redacted or withheld records.”
According to the privilege log, the Commissioner still refuses to disclose at least 102 communications that occurred over a five-month period in early 2019. Ninety-nine of the 102 withheld records are communications between two individuals involved with the alleged scandal involving Applied, including Applied’s president and now owner, Steven Menzies, and lawyer, Jeffrey Silver. The Commissioner refused to disclose records of meetings and communications with individuals who are now known to have represented Applied, including Nunez.
At the time of this writing, the hearing for Petitioner’s Writ of Mandate is set for November 12, 2021. This hearing will determine whether these documents must be made public and whether the Department must conduct an adequate search for new documents related to Nunez and others.