California lawmakers, raising fears of political violence, want to shield their properties

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ALEXEI KOSEFF | CalMatters

Citing safety threats, California lawmakers are advancing a bill that would keep the property they own and other personal information from annual financial disclosures off the internet.

The measure, Assembly Bill 1170, would shift to an electronic filing system for the statement of economic interest, known as Form 700, that elected officials and some public employees in California are required to complete each year.

But a secondary provision proposes to expand the redactions on publicly available versions of the form, shielding the addresses of filers’ real property interests and businesses, though they would still be available upon request. Organizations that advocate for greater transparency in government have objected to withholding information that could illuminate conflicts of interest.

Laurel Brodzinsky, legislative director for California Common Cause, said Form 700 is an important tool for understanding how elected officials’ economic interests shape their decision-making. “We do think that having that transparency is really important for accountability,” Brodzinsky said. A compromise on the bill — which passed through the Assembly today on a 58-0 vote and is headed to the Senate — may be imminent. Assemblymember Avelino Valencia, the Anaheim Democrat who is carrying the measure, said he is working on amendments that would narrow the redactions to only addresses where a filer lives.

He declined to further discuss any changes. “By modernizing state processes and improving government efficiency, we are focused on the priority of saving the state money during this critical budget time,” Valencia said in a text message. “However, that will not come at the expense of the public’s access to government documents that provide transparency into potential conflicts of interest.”

Lawmakers are increasingly raising concerns about what they say has been a rise in political violence and harassment in recent years, such as the October 2022 hammer attack against then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband at their San Francisco home. During a committee hearing for AB 1170 earlier this month, Assemblymember Gail Pellerin, a Santa Cruz Democrat, said she believes “the expanded redaction requirements in the bill are important to ensure filers’ privacy and safety.”

The Legislature approved another bill last year that would have expanded the ability of California political candidates to use campaign funds to pay for security expenses, such as home security systems and bodyguards. It was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said the measure did not provide enough guidance on what would be a legitimate security expense.

The Fair Political Practices Commission, the state campaign ethics regulator that manages the statement of economic interest, sponsored Valencia’s bill because it wants to require electronic filing of the form. Senior legislative counsel Lindsey Nakano said the redaction provision came out of discussions with lawmakers about increased security and safety issues. “We heard concern about people who might use the addresses found online on the Form 700s to harass the filer or those connected to them, including to potentially harass tenants of real property owned by the Form 700 filer,” Nakano said in an email. “I’m not aware of any specific incidences.”

The bill, as currently written, would also require the commission to redact the signature, personal address and telephone number of a filer, though none of that information currently appears in the copies of Form 700s available online. Brodzinsky of California Common Cause said there are reasonable limitations on what information is disclosed about elected officials and other public servants given the threat of violence. “We do understand the concerns of the privacy of the filer and they would not want their residential address out so publicly on the internet,” she said.

But there are also legitimate reasons for making the real property interests of filers known, Brodzinsky argued. She pointed to an investigation last fall by the San Francisco Standard into a city building inspector who signed off on construction permits for his own home, which cited Form 700 records. CalMatters analyzed legislators’ real property interests in 2019, as they were considering a measure to cap rent increases, and found that more than a quarter of the members of the Legislature at the time were landlords.

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