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Complying with a court order, the California Assembly released thousands of pages of documents about its members' expenditures today that it fought against providing to the public.

The documents detail budgets and spending by each of the Assembly's 80 members. The data should enable the public to better determine what portion of committee funds are used for lawmakers' personal staff.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley ordered the records to be released in a lawsuit filed by The Bee and Los Angeles Times. Frawley issued a tentative ruling in December, which the Assembly did not contest.

"How the government spends the public's money is an area of profound interest," said attorney Rochelle Wilcox, who represented the newspapers in the fight over interpretation of California's Legislative Open Records Act.

Documents released by the Assembly "provide significant information about Assembly spending of tens of millions of dollars annually," Wilcox said.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez said that his house was changing its policies to make information accessible to the public even before Frawley's ruling.

"We had the opportunity to challenge the ruling of the court," Pérez said. "I don't think there's any value in that. We have no interest in muddling the issue up, so we're going to move forward in compliance with the court and act based on best practices around sharing information."

After the lawsuit was filed, but before it was resolved, the Assembly began posting onto its website member-by-member expenditure information that previously was not released until 12 months after the end of a legislative year.

For several years prior to the lawsuit, the Assembly has published the salaries of each of its employees on its website.

"When you compare us to other large states with full-time legislators, we have been and will continue to be -- and will expand on - setting the standard for disclosure of information," Pérez said.

The chain of events leading to the lawsuit began when Assemblyman Anthony Portantino sought member-by-member budgets after Assembly leaders threatened last July to furlough his entire staff in response to what they called overspending.

Portantino argued at the time that he was being punished for being the only Democrat to vote against the 2011-12 budget.

Portantino said Assembly records would show that his budget had been slashed for bucking the party line with his vote.

When the Asembly balked at Portantino's demand for member records, and similar requests by The Bee and Los Angeles Times, the two newspapers jointly filed suit. Pérez ultimately lifted his furlough threat to Portantino's staff, but the lawsuit continued.

In court, the Assembly argued that member-by-member budgets are not public records because the figures are preliminary and can change throughout the year; the documents are correspondence sent to members; and that related projections can contain personnel information, such as whether an employee is planning a leave of absence.

Frawley ruled that California law "reflects a strong presumption in favor of public access to legislative records" and that exemptions "should be narrowly construed to ensure maximum disclosure of the conduct of governmental operations."

"The court is persuaded that the strong public interest in disclosure outweighs any reason for keeping the records secret," Frawley's 12-page ruling said.

Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, called the Assembly's release of a mountain of member budget documents today a "tremendous victory for the state of California and for average Californians."

"The ability to hold the Legislature accountable for how it spends the people's money, with complete transparency, is the right thing to do," he said. "It saddens me that it took a lawsuit to force the Legislature to come clean and embrace transparency, but it's terrific that it's here."


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