News

Privacy-bill fight is parable about use of political power

Despite the honest policy disputes over Kevin Murray’s bill to seal
financial records in divorce cases, the debate over S.B. 1015 has focused on
just about everything but policy.

The story of this bill is a story of how lawmakers and advocates make
political calculations. It is about how to know when you’re beat, and about
cutting your losses to limit the political damage that your opposition may
inflict on you down the road. To some, it is a tale of political cowardice.
To others, it is a tale of the ultimate political pragmatism and democracy
in action.

It is a parable of how business gets done in the Capitol halls and the ways
political power can manifest itself, both through direct and indirect
pressures. It is a story of how a bill really becomes a law.

The fight over this one little bill involves two Senate leaders, one
Assembly speaker, a well-connected multi-billionaire, one of Sacramento’s
largest lobbying firms, a nasty divorce case, women’s groups, newspaper
publishers, identity theft, the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment,
Bill Clinton, Jennifer Lopez, and the California Supreme Court.

The bill to protect financial privacy in divorce cases is not expected to
move off the Assembly floor this week, and some in the Capitol now believe
S.B. 1015 faces still longer delays. If the bill regains momentum, the
likely end product is legislation that proponents say will help protect a
constitutional right to privacy. Critics blast the proposal as a restriction
on the public’s right to court documents and a favor for a major Democratic
donor and his lobbyist pal.

As with many parables, there is no shortage of irony in this story. Some say
it is a story of Ron Burkle’s personal quest for privacy, yet this fight is
precisely what is keeping his name in the headlines. And this bill is being
pushed hardest by powerful Democrats who as recently as 2004 went to the
ballot to fight for more public access to government documents.

Burkle’s fingerprints are not on the bill directly, but some of his close
associates have been among those pushing hardest for quick passage. Burkle’s
former CEO, Darius Anderson, is one of Sacramento’s most well-connected
lobbyists. And while Burkle has not employed a lobbyist to push for the
bill, Mary Kinney, a lobbyist in Anderson’s firm Platinum Advisors, was seen
working the bill in Assembly Appropriations last week on a “pro-bono” basis.
When the bill came before the Assembly Judiciary committee last month, two
other Platinum lobbyists–Brett Granlund and Tim Lynch, were spotted at the
committee hearing. Burkle gave Granlund $50,000 for his Assembly campaign in
2000.

Supporters of the bill say Burkle’s role in this legislative fight has been
overplayed. The legislation may not be signed into law in time to keep
Burkle’s divorce records sealed. And they point out that Burkle’s records
were public for months before the Legislature passed a law in 2003 that
helped put them under seal. Many media organizations already have those
documents in hand, and details were published in January in a long article
in the Los Angeles Business Journal.

But Burkle, who was himself the victim of identity theft in 1999, has been a
supporter of privacy protections in the past. And the perception that S.B.
1015 is “the Burkle Bill” remains in the Capitol, in part because of timing.

Burkle’s high-profile run-in with a New York Post gossip columnist and his
efforts to purchase newspapers from McClatchy Company have made him a
familiar name, even though he has been a prominent political donor to
Democrats and Democratic causes for years. He also has given heavily to
Governor Schwarzenegger’s campaigns.

Lost in the discussion of the politics of the bill has been the policy
battle of the public’s right to know versus the individual’s right to
privacy. Instead, the bill has been amended and re-amended in an effort to
appease various interest groups.

The original sponsor of the bill, attorney Fred Silberberg, penned a
scathing column in the Los Angeles Daily Journal this week, criticizing the
legislative process for rendering his bill useless.

“With the bill in its present form, I wonder why anyone up there in
Sacramento is even bothering to continue to try and have it enacted.” he
wrote. “It seems as though certain people in the Legislature continue to
push the bill solely to get credit for having implemented the legislation,
and certainly not because they are trying to protect the constitutional
right to privacy.”

The newspaper publishers’ association has aggressively opposed the bill on
First Amendment grounds. The National Organization for Women (NOW) has
expressed concerns about the bill at various points along the way because of
fears that the bill would restrict their ability to document gender
discrimination in divorce judgments. They are, for now, still opposed to the
bill.

The State Bar’s family-law division is among the organizations supporting
the bill.

The saga of this particular piece of legislation began in 2003 when then-San
Diego Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego first introduced the bill.
The measure passed, and was immediately invoked by Burkle’s attorneys to try
to seal his divorce records. Burkle was challenged in court by his wife’s
attorneys, and joined by CNPA, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated
Press. Eventually, the Second District Court of Appeal agreed with Janet
Burkle and the news agencies and ruled the law unconstitutional.

As the state Supreme Court considers whether or not to hear Burkle’s appeal
of the appellate-court decision, proponents are pushing for a new law, one
they believe will pass constitutional muster.

Not all Democrats are thrilled with this bill. Among them is Sen. Joe Dunn,
chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Because Murray gutted and
amended a Senate bill that was already on the Assembly side, the bill will
likely not be heard in Dunn’s committee, thanks to a quirk in legislative
rules.

NOW has been opposed to the bill most of the way, and that has put some
members in a tough spot–caught between their leadership and an organization
that many like to boast support from.

Meanwhile, Assembly members have found themselves caught in the crossfire.
Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, was
committed not to pass an unconstitutional bill out of his committee, and
other members, including Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, did not want to run afoul
of NOW.

But the pressure was on from the speaker’s office. N


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