"All governments lie," the late muckraker I.F. "Izzy" Stone used to preach.
Let's add this: They also deny.
Denial of access is a government lie in and of itself -- especially when a bureaucrat tells the public it has no right to view the writings of top officials, particularly when those officials are in trouble.
A pair of recent controversies shows how quickly governments become recalcitrant for fear of embarrassment, denying access to information that may further public understanding and full accountability.
In one, lawyers have denied access to records involving a California power couple, state Treasurer Bill Lockyer and his wife, Alameda County Supervisor Nadia Lockyer. She landed in drug and alcohol rehab after a man with a record of drug arrests with whom she was having an affair purportedly beat her in a hotel room.
In the other, Berkeley has thrown up arbitrary barriers to some writing by and about Police Chief Michael Meehan concerning his bizarre decision to send an officer to a reporter's home in the middle of the night to demand changes to a story.
In the unseemly story about Nadia Lockyer, media members asked for numerous Alameda County records -- including her emails and text messages. That request became more urgent after other records showed the supervisor falsely stated that she was her lover's defense attorney to visit him in jail, a revelation that raises serious questions about her ethics
But, get this. Among Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler's list of excuses for denying access to all of Lockyer's records is this gem: The county, she wrote, "is without any information to indicate any identifiable public interest" for releasing the information.
Ziegler's clearly creating reasons to protect Lockyer rather than the interest of voters and taxpayers by creating reasons to deny access. She is acting like a private lawyer, not one paid with your money and charged by both statutory law and the state constitution to take the broadest possible view of disclosing government records. Her reaction to the request was to simply say no, then find ways to justify it.
Bill Lockyer's staff also denied a request I made for his text messages during the 15 months his wife has been in office. Mark Paxson, a Treasury Department lawyer, argued that Lockyer's texts couldn't be retrieved, which raises questions about the retention of and deletion of public records.
However, Paxson also wrote that Lockyer's texts may not be disclosable anyway, and that certainly the phone numbers associated with any messages wouldn't be. Bill Lockyer is a state office holder, a former attorney general, with no expectation of privacy and whose records are unquestionably public no matter what they contain.
Paxson hides behind the assertion, one largely gutted by the passage of Proposition 59 in 2004, that politicians are entitled to deliberative process exemptions to disclosure -- meaning that what they do and with whom they communicate is secret. When bureaucrats have nothing left to fight with, this excuse gets carted out as a last line of defense against disclosure.
"Trust us, we know what is best for you," this self-serving theory says.
That's certainly what Berkeley interim City Manager Cynthia Daniel is saying about emails and texts concerning Meehan.
Daniel cited deliberative process excuses for some records, saying that writings about Meehan that were "not prepared in anticipation of public scrutiny" wouldn't be released. This allows her to keep secret anything embarrassing, no matter how revelatory.
Clearly, Daniel thinks the government is a little private club and that the public is entitled only to sanitized records.
Appalling positions like these work decidedly against public interest. We need to understand the government and the people in it for who they are, not for who they say they are. The only way to do that is strip down the veils they hide behind.
As Izzy Stone would surely have thought, denial is just another government lie.
Thomas Peele is a digital investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and teaches a class on public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.