By Jack Clark
Co-Publisher and General Counsel
California’s Supreme Court has held that “One of the basic functions of the grand jury is to ‘act as the public’s watchdog’ by investigating and reporting upon the affairs of local government.” (McClatchy Newspapers v. Superior Court (1988) 44 Cal.3d 1162, 1170. Also, City of Woodlake v. Tulare County Grand Jury (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 1293,1300.)
The Riverside County Grand Jury issued a formal 2014-15 report regarding the actions of Riverside County Counsel Greg Priamos, whom the grand jury found is obstructing its investigations. A good deal of rancor exists between these two parties, and the Town Crier has previously reported on it.
This editorial examines just one key disagreement between Priamos and the grand jury in the report’s Finding No. 2 regarding the grand jury’s right to access the county accounts and records it is charged by law with investigating.
In his formal response to the grand jury’s report against him, Priamos asserted, “The grand jury is only entitled to any public record to which any member of the public is entitled. (Penal Code §921). The grand jury has no superior right to public records beyond that of any other citizen. Despite the grand jury’s protestations, they are simply not entitled to access to ‘all’ records; they are only able to access public records.”
As an attorney who spent more than 22 years advising superior court judges on the law applicable to the legal issues before them, I find Priamos’ position absurdly indefensible to the point of being outrageous. To urge his position on a court would be to invite reversible error.
California appellate authority expressly states that the grand jury does not seek records as a member of the general public; instead, “it acts pursuant to the express statutory authority afforded to grand juries by Penal Code sections 925 and 925a.” (City of Woodlake v. Tulare County Grand Jury (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 1293,1303.) And Penal Code section 925 provides: “The grand jury shall investigate and report on the operations, accounts, and records of the officers, departments, or functions of the county.”
Also, the term “public records” is defined in California law. The California Public Records Act relates that “public records” includes “any writing containing information to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” (Gov. Code, §6252(e).) It then goes on to list which public records are exempt from disclosure to the general public. (Gov. Code, §6254.)
Further, Government Code section 6253(b) begins: “Except with respect to public records exempt from disclosure …” But according to Priamos, there are no “public records” exempt from disclosure. According to him, public records are only those records not exempt from disclosure, so this Government Code phrase would make no sense, according to him.
Priamos cites no authority for his position that the word “public” in “all public records” means only those records to which the general public has access. He cites no such authority because it doesn’t exist. If it did, he most certainly would have cited it. Instead, he relies on California Penal Code section 921, which reads, in relevant part: “The grand jury is entitled … to the examination, without charge, of all public records within the county.” It does not read, “all public records to which the general public has access,” it reads “all public records within the county.”
Further, the State of California attorney general has recognized that “the Penal Code empowers a grand jury in its civil watchdog function to examine any records of cities, counties, and special districts.” (Opn. Atty. Gen. No. 96-307, Sept. 12, 1996.)
Priamos has no authority in his favor on this legal point; it is all against him. He must have a staff of legal researchers, so he must recognize that his position on this legal issue is absurd. But he asserts it anyway, in a document open to the public.
Since Penal Code section 925 charges the grand jury with investigating the operations, accounts and records of county officers and departments, even common sense tells us the grand jury must have access to the accounts and records necessary to do that job. And Penal Code section 921 so provides.
That Priamos is so flat wrong on this fundamental legal point calls into question the legal advice he is giving the county on the other issues he disputes with the grand jury.
Does Priamos think the grand jury and the presiding judge are ignorant of the law such that he can bluff his position through? Why would Priamos take such a legally indefensible position in the first place? Makes us wonder if there is something in the county’s records and accounts he does not want the grand jury to see.