The Port of Oakland has long carried a reputation as a cesspool of recalcitrance, a murky agency populated by arrogant officials who think what they do isn't the public's business.

Port officials are only furthering that repute by refusing to be transparent about $4,500 of public money spent at a Houston strip club.

They're claiming, somehow, that the privacy rights of employees who took your money and stuffed it in G-strings trump the public's right to know. It is hard to think of a more flagrant violation of the Public Records Act, the law meant to provide access to government records.

Only one person, James Kwon, who was reimbursed the money after turning in receipts, has been definitively linked to the scandal.

But like Kwan, Port Director Omar Benjamin is also suspended -- with pay no less -- as what happened in Houston is investigated.

But the port has censored from expense reports and receipts all names other than Kwon's. There is simply no legal justification to this.

Benjamin was in Houston with Kwon to attend a shipping conference.

The scandal broke. He was suspended, with no reason made public.

Names on the documents were whited out to protect someone.

A port spokesman, Isaac Kos-Read, claimed in emails to this newspaper that it's standard policy for the agency to censor all names except that of the person named in a records request. (That's his stated position. You couldn't make it up).


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The reason, he claimed, is to protect the privacy of public officials -- apparently no matter what they do.

—... the Port followed a standard protocol of (censoring) the names of all persons that appeared on the requested expense reports other than the names of the subjects of the requests. This approach was taken to comply with the Public Records Act's protection of personal privacy rights."

But public officials have no right to privacy when it comes to their jobs and how they spend public money, especially when it involves $4,000 worth of Houston strippers.

Privacy in our modern age is a myth. You don't have much and neither do I. Government workers like Benjamin, who costs the port more than $300,000 a year to employ, should have less.

A couple of weeks ago, my students at the Berkeley graduate school of journalism were amazed when I showed them Social Security and bank account numbers found in routine public records like court papers and property deeds.

But the very government culture that allows public access to those records are the same ones that crow about privacy rights when it comes to protecting their own from embarrassing information.

There's no higher standard of disclosure of public records than those that show the expenditure of public funds. But the Port of Oakland plays fast and loose with both the truth and the money.

It continues to do so now, considering it's paying Benjamin and Kwon to stay home from work.

Consider the writing of former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George when he wrote a 7-0 decision that public employees had no privacy right to keep their salaries secret.

"[W]e recognize ... in light of the strong public policy supporting transparency in government, an individual's expectation of privacy in a salary earned in public employment is significantly less than the privacy expectation regarding income earned in the private sector," George wrote.

The same is true for public officials' expense accounts and who's named in them.

George wrote that public employees might have a "reasonable expectation of privacy (depending on) the circumstances." Circumstances involving public money and a strip club aren't even close.

The right to privacy extends to people like Benjamin only when their personal affairs trickle into work: a spouse emails them a grocery list; a government phone's used to call their doctor.

In every instance, the public's right to information to how its money was spent -- and who spent it -- squashes the nonexistent privacy concerns of public officials who are embarrassed by their own conduct.

The port must release uncensored expense records from the strip club immediately and stop hiding behind fictive excuses.

Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches a class on public records at UC Berkeley. Reach him at tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com; follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.