In the wake of state Sen. Leland Yee's arrest on public corruption charges, the powerful Senate Rules Committee insists on shielding his official activities from the public by refusing to release his legislative calendars.

The committee's response to three recent requests from this newspaper echoes a consistent line the California Legislature has articulated over the years: The public is better served by keeping lawmakers' activities secret, it argues, than by shining a light on them. Not even the intense interest in Yee, the subject of an FBI sting, justifies public scrutiny of the company he kept.

Critics label the stance outrageous.

"Democracy only works when voters know what their representatives are doing (or not doing)," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. "Information permits voters to hold reps accountable, which is the essence of democracy."

This newspaper sought calendars and other Yee-related documents that could illuminate details outlined in a 137-page federal complaint filed against the senator, his fundraiser Keith Jackson, and former Chinatown gang leader Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, among others. On the strength of numerous interactions with undercover agents, many of which appear to have been recorded, Yee has been charged with political corruption and brokering an illegal weapons deal.


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In its insistence on shielding its members' activities from the people who elect them, the Legislature stands in stark contrast to public agencies and officials at all levels. Many local politicians in the state, including the San Jose City Council, routinely post their appointment calendars online. Since 2004, following a legal settlement between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and media organizations, including the San Jose Mercury News, California's governor also regularly releases such information.

The Legislature's fervent resistance to sharing appointment calendars dates at least to 2010, when it declined a request from The Associated Press. The next year, it turned down a combined 171 requests from this newspaper, The Associated Press and the First Amendment Coalition for legislators' calendars, each one asking for specific appointments on various topics or time periods. Rules committees in both houses rejected the requests, citing exemptions in the state's Legislative Open Records Act.

The requests followed a 2010 Mercury News series highlighting legislators' close relationships with lobbyists and campaign contributors, and sought to reveal additional aspects of those relationships, but the blanket denials stymied the effort.

Ironically, Yee was one of three legislators who volunteered to release their calendars at the time, only to be refused permission by the Senate rules committee.

In 2010, Yee wrote a letter asking Secretary of the Senate Gregory Schmidt for permission to release his calendar, referring to himself as "an advocate of government transparency."

Schmidt denied Yee's request, telling him it was important to guard the privacy of those who meet with legislators. "We have an equal responsibility to protect the right of citizens to complain, chastise, petition or even praise their elected officials without third parties using their communications for purposes not intended by the constituents," he said in a letter to Yee.

Schmidt's three recent denial letters to this newspaper, like his earlier refusals, insist that the secrecy is justified by the Legislative Open Records Act, which is somewhat weaker than the California Public Records Act that applies to governments on the local level. Schmidt cited the broad concept of "legislative privilege" and argued that the public interest served by withholding the records outweighed the interest in releasing them, paraphrasing language in the act.

Not so, said Terry Francke, general counsel of the open-government nonprofit Californians Aware.

"This public interest standard is all the more applicable to records showing the official appointments and expense claims of a member of the Legislature who stands indicted for his allegedly corrupt overtures to those involved in criminal activity, especially given his prior stated willingness to share his calendar with the public for the sake of accountability -- an offer that was countermanded by the Senate leadership," Francke wrote in an e-mail.

Following the arrest of Yee, and the criminal charges pending against state Sens. Roderick Wright and Ron Calderon, top legislators have faced a difficult public relations task, trying to show they are serious about ethics.

Senate President Darrell Steinberg moved to suspend all three sullied senators after Yee was indicted, and the Senate concurred. Steinberg is also supporting some tightening of rules regarding campaign fundraising and contact with lobbyists. And following Schmidt's perfunctory denials of this newspaper's requests for records, a spokesman for Steinberg last week offered a more elaborate explanation of his reasons for opposing public access in this particular case.

Releasing Yee's calendar "may jeopardize" the ongoing criminal investigation, said spokesman Mark Hedlund, adding it would possibly violate a judge's protective order prohibiting public disclosure of evidence provided to the defense.

"If there is a situation or situations where there is a scheduling record of Sen. Yee meeting with someone, and that turns out to be supportive of criminal accusations, that will be publicly revealed in due time during the criminal proceedings," he said in an e-mail. "Your desire to acquire such information prematurely to help you write a story does not supersede the need to maintain the integrity of the judicial process."

In general, Hedlund said, the Senate does not release such records in order "to protect the safety and security of legislative members. That advice to the house has been consistent from Senate security personnel." He did not explain how releasing appointment calendars that are months or even years old would jeopardize Yee's safety.

Leila Knox, an attorney representing the First Amendment Coalition, said such disclosure of legislative records is vital.

"It all goes to the decision-making process. How do laws get made. How legislators think," she said. "Knowing who legislators are meeting with helps the public understand the democratic process."

Staff writer Karen de Sá contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.