Jun. 30—A freedom of speech advocacy organization has called for a public apology this week after it says Kern County government threatened legal action against a Bakersfield man who had accused local officials of withholding public information.
Eddy Laine, who has lived in Bakersfield for 35 years, had sought information about the Kern County Park Rangers program by requesting documents through the California Public Records Act, but mistakenly claimed he never got a response.
The County Counsel's Office sent Laine a letter June 21 stating it had provided most of the documents Laine requested, but that he should be aware of the California False Claims Act, which imposes liability for damages totaling thousands of dollars for spreading falsehoods.
"I've never had a letter like that ... threatening legal action. Never," Laine said Wednesday, adding he has used the records act to request documents over the years. "I found (it) highly unusual."
The county cited the False Claims Act after learning Laine had sent a letter to the California Attorney General's office accusing Kern County of failing to respond to his CPRA letter. He sent copies to entities such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the Dolores Huerta Foundation and this newspaper.
The First Amendment Coalition sent a letter Tuesday to the County Counsel's Office asking that it apologize to Laine and ensure threats about seeking financial liability never recur. The county's statements, FAC Legal Director David Loy wrote in the letter, violated Laine's freedom of speech and the right to petition the government for "redress of grievances," which are enshrined in the First Amendment.
"First Amendment rights are intrinsic to democracy — they are the oxygen of civil society," Loy said in a phone interview Wednesday.
County Counsel Margo Raison wrote in an email that the county has not threatened Laine or initiated any investigation into him. It also does not intend to commence legal action, she added.
"I believe the First Amendment Coalition's reading of the letter is overbroad," Raison wrote.
Laine sent a CPRA request May 2 for information such as the number of filled park ranger positions, number of park rangers assigned to Kern River Parkway area and contact information for park rangers. He also sought records on how the county plans to use $5 million it received from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 — a federal stimulus bill passed to help counties recover from the COVID-19 pandemic — and how the community could provide input to designate those funds.
Laine then sent a letter to the California Attorney General's office stating the county did not respond to these requests.
FAC's scrutiny arose from a letter the county penned to Laine in response to his complaint to the state Attorney General office. The county wrote it provided complete responses to some of Laine's requests, while partially responding to others. In addition to making reference to the California False Claims Act, the county counsel noted anyone held liable for making false statements faces triple damages and civil penalties between $5,500 and $11,000 for each violation.
The coalition took no position on whether the county had properly responded to the CPRA request or whether the county had properly engaged with Laine. The County Counsel's emailed responses to Laine's CPRA request were inadvertently diverted to his spam folder, which gave Laine the impression he received no response, FAC noted in its letter.
The problem, FAC said, lies with the county citing the False Claims Act. Loy said this kind of invocation, sent on county letterhead, serves to intimidate citizens and prevent them from speaking when being threatened with financial costs. Laine's First Amendment right was to speak out on a topic of public concern, and to petition the Attorney General, he said.
Loy added the threat of the False Claims Act against Laine was baseless because it does not apply to speech protected by the First Amendment, which Laine's statements were. Even if Laine made a mistake, Loy noted, it does not mean he should be sued.
"That should just never have happened," Loy stated.
Raison added that her office, and other county departments, has worked to ensure Laine gets information he requests. When pressed on whether her office will apologize publicly, Raison did not respond.
"In fact, we have previously offered to assist him in crafting his public records requests so the County is able to respond more expeditiously," Raison wrote. "We have again renewed our offer to work with him to obtain the records he seeks."
Laine said he was "taken aback" when he read the county's letter. The public should know how money is being spent, he added.
He said he hopes FAC's letter results in one change.
"Transparency in the future," Laine said. "Regarding this and other potential issues that arise in the future."
You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter.