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City Of L.A. Sued Over Former Councilman's Shredded Files

The 35 boxes of former Councilman Tom LaBonge's files that were recovered. Many more were destroyed. (Photo courtesy of Councilman David Ryu)
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The City of Los Angeles is being sued by a nonprofit over missing records tied to former City Councilman Tom LaBonge. The First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit that focuses on government accountability, filed their lawsuit against the city after the group made records requests for LaBonge's correspondence on a number of matters and were told that none existed, according to the L.A. Times.

The case of Mr. LaBonge and the missing files has been an ongoing saga that has generated increasing controversy over the past year. LaBonge, who termed out in 2015, served as a councilman for 14 years, generating countless public documents relating to his work on behalf of the City of Los Angeles during his time representing Council District 4. And yet when newly-sworn in Councilman David Ryu and his staff arrived at City Hall last summer, they found that LaBonge had left nothing behind, not even furniture.

The lack of furniture was an unusual inconvenience (for reference, the offices of Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who also took office in 2015, and Councilmembers Nury Martinez and Curren D. Price, who took office in 2013, all told LAist that there was furniture when they arrived at their City Hall offices), but the real problem was the files. There was nothing left for Ryu and his staff: no records of constituent correspondence or ongoing projects, no planning files or contextual information regarding myriad ongoing issues in the district.

As the Los Feliz Ledger reported at the time, more than 100 boxes had been removed from LaBonge's City Hall offices and transported to the city's records manager with notes saying they were to be destroyed and burned. Thirty five boxes were later recovered but the vast majority were never found.

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Former Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge arrives at the 9th Annual BritWeek launch party at the British Consul General's Residence in April, 2015. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
"Over time, we were able to get certain information from various departments, and constituents, but it wasn't easy, I'll say that much," Estevan Montemayor, Councilman Ryu's communications director, told LAist. "This is the Councilmember's first time serving as an elected official, but there was an expectation that there would at least be some supporting documents for some very important issues in the district."According to the L.A. Times, state law "generally allows city governments to destroy some records if lawmakers and the city attorney approve, but not if the documents are unduplicated and less than two years old." However, despite having rules governing how other municipal officeholders can dispose of records, the City of L.A. has no specific rules dictating what departing council members must do with their files, which raises questions about whether the city is even in compliance with state law.

LaBonge has repeatedly alleged that he did nothing wrong, and that without clear guidelines, he had no way of knowing that he was even supposed to save the files. "There were no instructions given to me other than to get out of the office," he told the L.A. Times in January.

Other interpretations of the former councilman's motivations have been less generous. An anonymous former LaBonge staffer told the Ledger that LaBonge actually had two reasons for ordering the files to be destroyed: staying out of trouble, and screwing over his successor.

There was "lots of wrong doing and [LaBonge] wanted to make sure that was covered [up] plus make sure that Ryu would have to start from scratch," the former staffer told the Ledger in an email. Ryu had beaten out LaBonge's longtime former chief of staff Carolyn Ramsey for the council seat when he took office in 2015.

"The destruction of public documents can be a felony," lawyer Michael Overing told the Ledger. "[The city has an] obligation as agents of the public. . . . If they can simply destroy these documents with impunity, that smacks of bad faith."

The First Amendment Coalition's lawsuit, which was filed on Thursday, hinges on the issue of the city's obligations to the public, and whether or not they were met. Under the California Public Records Act, local government agencies have an obligation to retain public records and disclose them to the public upon request. The nonprofit alleges that because the city couldn't produce any of the LaBonge documents related to the coalition's request, Los Angeles has violated the California Public Records Act.

The missing documents have already figured into two other lawsuits.

"The more transparent we can be and the more supporting documents we have, the more successful we can be with our job," Montemayor told LAist.

"I think that can be addressed by having a transition plan. How can we make sure that our newly sworn in council members are prepared on day one to serve their constituents?" In December, Ryu's office submitted a motion asking the city to create a set protocol for transitions between City Council administrations, and put guidelines in place for a standardized transition plan.

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