SACRAMENTO — Despite solid bipartisan support from the Legislature's top leaders, the Senate Governmental Organization Committee on Tuesday resoundingly rejected legislation that would close to public scrutiny the investigative files of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission.
The defeat of the legislation during its first hearing was unexpected, in part because of its high-powered backing, but also because many committee members argued strongly that politicians need protection from unfounded allegations contained in official files.
However, the bill's defeat on a 3-6 vote came amid an avalanche of opposition from news executives and civil liberties groups. Those critics accused lawmakers of trying to grant themselves special protections and of participating in a "cover-up" of botched political practices investigations.
Immediately after the vote, Assemblyman Elihu M. Harris (D-Oakland), the bill's author, blamed the defeat on lawmakers' "fear of the press" and indicated that he might seek another hearing later in the session.
Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), a principal co-author, declared of the bill's rejection that "the firestorm that's been built among the press is absolutely outrageous."
The bill was hastily drafted at the behest of Democratic and Republican leaders in both houses and placed into non-controversial legislation that already had passed the Senate.
The commission, which was created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, has been operating under a set of regulations that bar release of investigative files unless the commission decides otherwise.
But those rules are being challenged in a lawsuit filed against the commission by the San Jose Mercury News. The newspaper is attempting to prevent the commission from destroying files on its investigation into business ties between former Democratic Assemblyman Frank Vicencia of Bellflower and convicted political corrupter W. Patrick Moriarty.
Critics of the bill, drafted as an "urgency" measure so that it would take effect immediately upon being signed by the governor, believe it is intended to short-circuit the newspaper's lawsuit and keep the Vicencia files secret.
Robert D. Ingle, senior vice president and executive editor of the Mercury News, told the committee that by suggesting the bill, the commission was trying to draw the Legislature into its "cover-up" of a botched investigation.
"If the FPPC investigation was thorough and professional and if it was free of any political influence," Ingle said, "then the investigative files should show that."
But Senate Majority Leader Barry Keene (D-Benicia), who voted for the bill, argued that investigative files can contain unfounded and damaging allegations that could harm a politician's reputation.
Critics of the bill, however, argued that the California Public Records Act, which allows police and other investigative agencies to keep certain information confidential, already provides adequate protection to politicians. Under the act, the public can go to court to try to force disclosure. Under the bill, only the Fair Political Practices Commission would be able to decide whether to release investigative files.