Who gave press info on child deaths, neglect? Top L.A. County official launches inquiry
On Tuesday, county Chief Executive William T Fujioka will ask the Board of Supervisors to direct all departments to aid an “inquiry related to the inappropriate disclosure of confidential child welfare information, and, in consultation with the County Counsel, report back on the findings.”
The meeting’s agenda also states that comments will be taken on the proposal.
Two sources familiar with the probe said the inquiry was authorized more than a week ago and was all but complete. The investigation was launched during a closed meeting of the Board of Supervisors without public notice, the sources said. The results of the meeting were never formally publicized.
Fujioka did issue a statement saying “the sole basis for our review at this point in time is to determine if any single or group of county employees released information in violation of the relevant sections of the Welfare and Institutions Act. That act speaks to the confidentiality and potential liability placed upon the county should that information be released by its employees.”
Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., said the vote authorizing the investigation appeared to have violated the Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law, in at least two ways. If the county discussed or took action on a proposal without notifying the public at least of the general nature of the action, then it violated the Brown Act.
Also, the topic itself doesn’t qualify for a special, non-public meeting, Ewert said. The law sharply limits the nature of government deliberation and action that can occur outside the public purview. The basic rule is that all government actions and discussions are open to the public with a few exceptions, such as individual performance reviews, hiring and firing decisions.
A proposal to launch an investigation into the source of information used in newspaper stories would not qualify for closed-door treatment, Ewert said.
“It’s a clear violation,” he said. “I’m not aware of any exemption in the Brown Act that would permit them to discuss that in closed session. So, even if they had properly agenda-ized the vote, it would still be in violation of the Brown Act.”
The inquiry into The Times’ sources comes amid tightening secrecy surrounding information about children who die of abuse or neglect after coming to the attention of the county’s Department of Children and Family Services.
Department Director Trish Ploehn has grown reluctant to share documentation about the deaths even with the Board of Supervisors, preferring to brief them orally or not at all.
Additionally, a senior deputy county counsel declared the topic of child fatalities off-limits at a meeting earlier this month of the county’s Commission for Children and Families when commissioners asked for basic statistics regarding the deaths. County Counsel Andrea Ordin said later that her deputy erred in squelching the discussion and promised that the data would be released, but the department had yet to do so.
Ewert, the newspaper association lawyer, questioned the supervisors’ priorities in allocating county resources on an investigation into the release of information amid far more troubling reports about the operations and failures of the department. He said the investigation made it look as if the county was “circling the wagons,” rather than focusing on how it could better protect children.
Ewert also said that the investigation could have a chilling effect on the willingness of county employees to relay legitimate and public information to The Times.
-- Lisa Girion
Photo: William Fujioka. L.A. Times file