SPJ/LA Receives UCLA Correspondence About Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Visit

Nearly 14 months after tendering its request under the California Public Records Act, SPJ/LA received a total of six emails from UCLA in response to the chapter’s request for all materials relating to a controversial 2018 campus appearance by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Mnuchin appeared on campus on February 26, 2018 at the invitation of UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations to deliver the Center’s annual lecture, an event open to the public and like prior lectures, recorded for subsequent posting on the Center’s website.

During the Q&A, Mnuchin was heckled by several disruptive students, who were quickly removed from the room to allow the program to proceed. As a result, Mnuchin’s office objected to posting the recording.

UCLA initially complied with Mnuchin’s request, but after an outcry from SPJ/LA and other journalism organizations and political groups, quickly reversed itself and posted the lecture, here. But SPJ/LA and other organizations, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and political supporters of the protesters, independently filed public-records requests concerning Mnuchin’s appearance.

SPJ/LA filed its request on March 7, 2018. After six months of auto-generated email delays, SPJ/LA publicly complained on September 20, 2018 about UCLA’s sluggish response. After another six months of unsigned robo-email delays, on March 28, 2019, SPJ/LA formally complained to the UC Board of Regents about UCLA’s continuing failure to comply with the state public-records law.

Finally, and only after FIRE had already filed a lawsuit against UCLA over the same batch of records, UCLA responded to FIRE’s and SPJ/LA’s request by producing the six emails.

While the brief exchange doesn’t tell the full story, it appears that UCLA thought that Mnuchin’s office had consented in advance to post the recording, was told after the lecture by Mnuchin’s staff that they had not agreed to such an arrangement, and realized the need for more explicit advance agreement in writing to resolve any ambiguity and insure against similar problems recurring in the future. UCLA furnished no information about, or explanation behind, the reversal that ultimately led the university to post the recorded appearance.

The most troubling aspect of SPJ/LA’s year-long ordeal was realizing that the California Public Records Act contains no meaningful enforcement mechanism. Those seeking to utilize its provisions to shine a light on the dark corners of government must depend on “the kindness of strangers”—if not a compliant agency, then perhaps a sympathetic judge—because they are unlikely to find relief anywhere else.

Below please find the email correspondence that UCLA released to SPJ/LA in response to the chapter’s California Public Records Act request:

From: Alexandra Lieben <alieben@international.ucla.edu>
Date: Tuesday, February 6, 2018 at 5:45 PM
To: “Tony.Sayegh@treasury.gov” <Tony.Sayegh@treasury.gov>
Cc: “Wrench, Sophia” <swrench@international.ucla.edu>, “Zachary.Isakowitz@treasury.gov“<Zachary.Isakowitz@treasury.gov>
Subject: Feb. 26 – UCLA event

Hi Tony,

It was great talking with you earlier today.

To summarize what we discussed and then confirmed again before we signed off, you are okay with the Burkle Center and Marketplace audiotaping and with the Burkle Center videotaping the event. We will post both podcast and video on our Burkle Center website. Marketplace will use excerpts of the event in their show the following day and, like we do, will post the audio of the entire event on their website. We agreed to shorten the interview with The Generation, our student magazine, from 20 to 15 minutes. We also agreed to shorten Secretary Mnuchin’s introductory remarks from 15 to 5-10 minutes, as well as to shorten the conversation with Kai Ryssdal from 35 to 30 minutes. And we will leave the Q&A with the audience at 25 minutes. Thank you for agreeing to the intern photo at the end of the lecture. That only takes a few minutes and makes them very happy.

As explained, since the dinner at Mr. Burkle’s house will be in his dining room, the best possible place for a meaningful and intimate conversation, the format will be rather informal there as well. It would be wonderful if Secretary Mnuchin, after Burkle Center Kal Raustiala’s welcome, could start the conversation off with about 5 min. of solo remarks. Then Kal will ask one or two questions to get the conversation around the table started. There will be probably about 20 people present.

As you and I discussed, the easiest way for Kai Ryssdal to get a better understanding of what Secretary Mnuchin will cover in his introductory remarks at UCLA, will be for Mr. Ryssdal or his executive producer Nancy Farghalli to speak with you directly. I will e-introduce you to Nancy after this email.

We are truly excited and are very much looking forward to welcoming Secretary Mnuchin to UCLA!

Best,

Alexandra
Alexandra Lieben
Deputy Director
UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations
11353 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095
P: (310) 206-4071
www.burkle.ucla.edu


From: Lieben, Alexandra
To: Raustiala, Kal
Subject: FW: Feb. 26 – UCLA event
Date: Wednesday, February 28, 2018 6:04:02 PM

Here is the summary of my most recent conversation with Tony Sayegh, the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs of the US Department of the Treasury. As you can see, this restates and confirms the agreement with had with them to podcast and videotape the lecture. I sent him this email as record of our conversation and he never objected to any of it. Prior to that, I had conversations about this with Zach Isakowitz and with James Littlefair, both staff members of Secretary Mnuchin’s office.

Alexandra
Alexandra Lieben
Deputy Director
UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations
p: (310)206-4071
f: (310)206-3555
alieben@international.ucla.edu
www.international.ucla.edu/burkle


From: Kal Raustiala <raustiala@law.ucla.edu>
Date: Wednesday, February 28, 2018 at 6:06 PM
To: Alexandra Lieben <alieben@international.ucla.edu>
Subject: Re: Feb. 26 – UCLA event

Great. I think in the future with sitting gov officials we probably want them to affirmatively say yes or something to that effect. But this is good.


From: alexandra lieben
Date: Wednesday, February 28, 2018 at 6:11 PM
To: Kal Raustiala
Subject: Re: Feb. 26 – UCLA event

His media person said affirmatively yes and I confirmed it in writing. What else would you have wanted me to do?

Alexandra Lieben
Deputy Director
UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations
p: (310)206-4071
f: (310)206-3555
alieben@international.ucla.edu
www.international.ucla.edu/burkle


From: Kal Raustiala <raustiala@law.ucla.edu>
Date: Wednesday, February 28, 2018 at 6:14 PM
To: Alexandra Lieben <alieben@international.ucla.edu>
Subject: Re: Feb. 26 – UCLA event

I think this only applies to gov officials, and you didn’t do anything wrong—no one anticipated this– but for Schiff for example we should either ask them “Do we have your permission to video…” OR send them a release to sign. Or otherwise eliminate the opportunity for them to post hoc lie and say, we never agreed to that.


From: Lieben, Alexandra
To: Raustiala, Kal
Subject: Re: Feb. 26 – UCLA event
Date: Wednesday, February 28, 2018 6:16:03 PM

Okay.

Alexandra Lieben
Deputy Director
UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations
p: (310)206-4071
f: (310)206-3555
alieben@international.ucla.edu
www.international.ucla.edu/burkle

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SPJ/LA Condemns Search of San Francisco Journalist’s Home and Office in an Effort to Get Him to Reveal the Source of a Confidential Report

The Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists condemns the recent search of the home and office of a San Francisco journalist by law enforcement agencies and the seizure of his reporting materials. These acts are outrageous, unlawful and set a dangerous precedent for journalists working in California and across the nation.

“At a time when press freedoms are being curtailed in Venezuela, Turkey and many other nations, to have a San Francisco law enforcement agency, working in tandem with the FBI, engage in such authoritarian behavior is appalling,” said SPJ/LA President Stephanie Bluestein. “SPJ/LA stands with the dozens of media and free speech organizations that have denounced these disturbing acts.”

Police officers went to the home of freelance videographer Bryan Carmody last month and asked him to reveal the identity of the person or persons who gave him a confidential report about the Feb. 22 death of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Carmody declined to reveal the person’s identity, protecting the confidentiality of his source or sources. A month later, law enforcement officers returned to his home with guns drawn, handcuffing Carmody for hours and seizing computers, phones, hard drives and other materials.

SPJ/LA agrees with Carmody’s legal team that the raids were both “violent and breathtakingly overbroad” — and that his reporting materials are protected under California’s Shield Law. The chapter supports the ongoing effort to have the search warrants that led to these raids revoked, ensuring that Carmody’s reporting materials are returned to him promptly.

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Legislator pulls anti-transparency bill after SPJ/LA, others protest

Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) has pulled AB 700, her bill to exempt a vast swath of university research materials from the state’s public-record disclosure law. Her decision came after protests from SPJ/LA, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the ACLU, and other journalism organizations and open-government advocates.

AB 700 was introduced on Feb. 19, 2019 and breezed through the Assembly Judiciary Committee on April 2 on a 9-3 vote, despite reservations voiced by Chairman Mark Stone (who ultimately supported it.) But it ran aground before it could be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee after fierce opposition from journalism organizations across the state, consumer advocates, animal-rights groups, and others concerned that it would throw a shroud of secrecy around research funded and/or conducted by public universities.

See SPJ/LA letter of protest here and a second letter from SPJ/LA President Stephanie Bluestein here.

In a May 2 Facebook post, Friedman cited a November 2018 article in New York Times about the “weaponizing” of public-record requests and its potentially chilling effect on research as her rationale for introducing the bill. Then she explained her reason for tabling it for the remainder of the 2019 legislative session:

“Our open records laws are critical to government transparency – they rightly protect the public’s right to know what’s happening with their tax dollars and keep decision makers at all levels accountable. However, like many of you I find the push by some industries, whether they are the NRA intent on discrediting research on lead poisoning in wildlife, tobacco companies seeking to stifle public health research, or chemical manufacturers racing to register patents based on public research, troubling….Over the past month, I’ve heard from a number of organizations and advocates about their concerns and outright opposition to the bill…AB 700 was never intended to obscure animal research, sexual harassment, or professional wrongdoing. That’s why I’m putting a hold on the bill for this year.”

SPJ/LA will continue to monitor the situation and will be prepared to speak out again should the bill return for further legislative consideration.

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SPJ/LA chapter president joins others in expressing concern about how departure of executive director was announced

Below is a statement initiated by the DC Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists after this week’s announcement of the resignation of the Society’s executive director. Several SPJ chapters and chapter presidents signed on to the statement because of our shared concerns about the timing of the announcement and its limited dissemination. The statement that follows gives more details about our concerns.

Dear national board of directors:

We wish to register our concern about the way that the departure of Society of Professional Journalists executive director Alison Bethel McKenzie was announced. As journalists ourselves and as active members of the premier U.S. nonprofit representing the values of transparency, public service, oversight and accuracy, we believe this could have been handled in a much more transparent way.

The sole description of this departure was that Bethel McKenzie “resigned.“ This statement was not attributed to anyone.

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We fully appreciate that this is a personnel matter and that many details must be kept private. However, it is incumbent, we believe, among all organizations to be as transparent and detailed as possible under such circumstances. Indeed, the boilerplate information directly below the two sentences announcing her resignation and wishing her the best in future endeavors starts by saying: “SPJ promotes the free flow of information …”

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We write to you in a cooperative spirit in hoping to positively contribute to the organization’s well-being. We hope you will include local chapters as much as possible in this process.

This brief news release was issued at around midnight on April 29, 2019. Unlike with most other press releases from this association, it was apparently not sent to members of the media. Nor was it sent to members themselves.

This announcement was not released on social media, either. Unlike most other announcements from our group. Best communications and public relations practices dictate releasing even negative information in the same or similar ways as positive information.

We request that going forward, the association and its board do a better job communicating to all stakeholders about such important issues. For starters, who is the point person or people to whom questions can be addressed, such as what will be the process for picking a successor to Bethel McKenzie. How can they be contacted?

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Respectfully,

The boards of the DC Pro, Chicago Headline Club, Florida Pro and San Diego Pro chapters of SPJ

And on their own behalf:

Anna Walsh, Maryland Pro Chapter president
Jordan Frias, New England Pro Chapter president
Stephanie Bluestein, Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter president
Amanda Waldroupe, Oregon Territory Chapter president

SPJ/LA Joins Amicus Brief in Support of Palisades News in Defamation Lawsuit

The Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief, along with a motion for judicial notice and exhibits, filed by the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press on behalf of the Palisades News and two of its editors, who have been sued by cannabis entrepreneur Stephanie Smith for alleged defamation.

In December 2017, San Bernardino police raided three Smith-owned facilities suspected of operating illegal marijuana-growing operations. They also served a search warrant on Smith’s oceanfront home in Pacific Palisades, where they recovered hundreds of oxycodone and Norco pills hidden in the garage, along with a reported $200,000 in cash.

While the initial raids received massive national and international news coverage, Smith took issue with a subsequent January 2018 Palisades News article that cited earlier news reports about the raid and the search from TV outlets KCBS, KTLA, and DailyMailTV, along with interviews with police officials, about Smith’s allegedly illegal activities in connection with large-scale cannabis production.

Smith disclaimed any involvement in the grow operations and insisted she was only a landlord renting to others. A statement from her attorney quoted her as saying, “I am a well-known and recognized leader in large-scale cannabis real estate development and I am proud of the State of California’s position on cannabis.”

In March 2018, Smith sued the Palisades News in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging defamation, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). In response, the News filed a motion to quash the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which bars litigation intended to stifle public discussion of issues and policy. The judge largely agreed with the News, striking the false light and IIED claims but allowing the defamation claim to proceed.

After filing a notice of appeal in August 2018, the News filed its opening brief before California’s Second Appellate District in February 2019; Smith filed her brief in March 2019, and the News filed its response in April 2019. It is in support of the Palisades News’ appeal that this amicus brief has been filed, arguing that Smith is a public figure and that the First Amendment protects the News under the neutral reportage and wire-service doctrines, which shields news organizations who accurately report in good faith what other reputable news organizations have previously reported.

Meanwhile, the San Bernardino Sun reported on February 25, 2019 that Smith had sued the City of San Bernardino after the City Council denied Smith’s application for cannabis production. The Sun also reported that earlier in the month, after a 14-month investigation, San Bernardino police raided one of Smith’s properties and seized 2,600 lbs. of marijuana from an allegedly illegal growing operation, and subsequently arrested Smith at her Palisades home in connection with the drugs and cash that had been seized in 2017. On March 7, 2019, the Sun reported that Los Angeles County prosecutors have charged her with one felony count of possession for sale of a controlled substance; she is due in court on April 25 for a pretrial hearing.

In addition to SPJ/LA, other news organizations who have signed on to the amicus brief include the American Society of News Editors, California News Publishers Association, Californians Aware, First Amendment Coalition, SPJ/NorCal and SPJ national, the News Media Alliance, and media companies including the Los Angeles Times, Digital First Media, E.W. Scripps Company, Gannett Co. Inc., McClatchy Company, and Fox Television Stations, LLC, among others.

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