State public records laws help uncover wrongdoing at public universities

See our post about why journalism and public interest groups are opposing AB700

Legislation is pending in the California Assembly (AB700) to weaken the California Public Records Act by exempting from disclosure much of the work product of the state’s publicly funded universities. This bill, authored by Laura Friedman, sets a dangerous precedent and would unnecessarily weaken a vital journalistic and good government research tool; see our post about journalism groups and other public interest groups that are opposing AB700.

At California’s public universities, the California Public Records Act is central to efforts to unearthing research misconduct and fraud, sexual harassment, financial improprieties and misallocation of funds, government waste, corporate influence in research process, the commercialization of the university, the influence of wealthy donors, and administrative cover-ups of all of the above. If enacted, AB700 will shield such scandals from exposure and accountability, and invite more.

#MeToo scandals, corporate corruption: examples of how open records laws shine light on information the public has a right to know  

Important news stories about sexual misconduct and corporate-influence scandals may not have come to light if legislation to exempt publicly-funded academics from state open records laws passed in California or elsewhere. In one recent case, 30 UCLA employees were found to have violated UC sexual violence and harassment policy based on documents obtained by CPRA, according to reporting in the Daily Cal. See:

  • ‘It’s everywhere’: UC Berkeley community reacts to documents revealing sexual misconduct by UCLA employees, by Ronit Sholkoff and Andreana Chou, Daily Cal, 10/24/18
  • California Public Records Act request reveals Title IX investigations over 2-year span, by Anjali Shrivastava and Rachel Barber, Daily Cal, 10/23/18

In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times opposing AB700, NYU Journalism Professor Charles Seife described several more examples of sexual harassment cases involving academics, and wrote, “It’s worth noting that many of the universities and other scientific organizations where high-profile cases were exposed are public, taxpayer-funded institutions. That’s not to suggest that private university scientists are less predatory, but at public institutions, researchers are held to account by freedom-of-information laws that allow journalists to compel scientists and their institutions to turn over emails and other records.” See:

  • Scientists have #MeToo issues too. Don’t exempt them from accountability laws, by Charles Seife, Los Angeles Times 4/1/19
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Other examples of notable reporting arising from documents obtained via state public records requests involving publicly-funded academics include an investigation into the corporate ties of a scientist who claims pollution is a health benefit, an exposé about N.F.L.’s flawed research on concussions, and the groundbreaking reporting that exposed Coca-Cola’s efforts to spin the story of obesity. See:

  • Scientist says some pollution is good for youa disputed claim Trump’s EPA has embraced, by Suzanne Rust, Los Angeles Times, 2/19/2019
  • N.F.L.’s Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to Tobacco Industry, by Alan Schwarz, Walt Bogdanich and Jacqueline Williams, New York Times, 3/24/2016
  • Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets, by Anahad O’Connor, New York Times, 8/9/15
  • Emails reveal Coke’s role in anti-obesity group, Candice Choi, Associated Press, 11/24/15

Since 2015, an investigation by U.S. Right to Know has uncovered many more examples of how the food and chemical industries rely on publicly-funded academics and universities for their lobby operations and PR campaigns. Documents we obtained from publicly funded academics, using state public records laws, provided the basis for, or the trail to, all of the following stories:

  • Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O Lobbying War, Emails Show, by Eric Lipton, New York Times, 9/5/15
  • Public Meets Private: Conversations Between Coca-Cola and the CDC, by Nason Maani Hessari, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler, Milbank Quarterly, 1/29/19
  • Coca-Cola emails reveal how soda industry tries to influence health officials, by Paige Winfield Cunningham, Washington Post, 1/29/19
  • Coke and CDC, Atlanta icons, share cozy relationship, emails show, by Alan Judd, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2/6/19
  • Coca-Cola and obesity: study shows efforts to influence US Centers for Disease Control, by Gareth Iacobucci, BMJ, 1/30/19
  • Reports: Limit food industry sway on public health matters, by Candace Choi, Associated Press, 1/29/19
  • Old emails hold new clues to Coca-Cola and CDC’s controversial relationship, by Jacqueline Howard, CNN, 1/29/19
  • Two congresswomen want an investigation into CDC’s crooked relationship with Coca-Cola, by Nicole Karlis, Salon, 2/5/19
  • New emails reveal CDC employees were doing the bidding of Coca-Cola, by Nicole Karlis, Salon, 2/1/19
  • Coca-Cola tried to influence CDC on research and policy, new report states,by Jesse Chase-Lubitz, Politico, 1/29/19
  • Science organisations and Coca-Cola’s ‘war’ with the public health community: insights from an internal industry document, by Pepita Barlow, Paulo Serôdio, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 3/14/2018
  • Case-study of emails exchanged between Coca-Cola and the principal investigators of the ISCOLE, by David Stuckler, Gary Ruskin and Martin McKee, Journal of Public Health Policy, 2/18
  • Coca-Cola’s Influence on Medical and Science Journalists, by Paul Thacker, BMJ, 4/5/17
  • Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media—and Discourages Criticism, by Paul Thacker, The Progressive, 7/21/17
  • UN/WHO panel in conflict of interest row over glyphosate cancer risk, by Arthur Neslen, The Guardian, 5/17/16
  • How food companies influence evidence and opinion – straight from the horse’s mouth, by Gary Sacks, Boyd Swinburn, Adrian Cameron, and Gary Ruskin, Critical Public Health, 5/18/17
  • Emails Show How Food Industry Uses ‘Science’ to Push Soda, by Deena Shanker, Bloomberg, 9/13/17
  • Leaked Email Exchange Reveals Food Industry Tactics, by Lexi Metherell, ABC PM with Linda Mottram, 9/19/17
  • Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Monsanto Connection in Paper Touting GMOs, by Laura Krantz, Boston Globe, 10.1.2015
  • University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties, by Jason Warick, CBC, 5/7/17
  • U of S Defends Prof’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree, by Jason Warick, CBC, 5/10/17
  • Before you read another health study, check who’s funding the research, by Alison Moodie, The Guardian, 12/12/2016
  • Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding? by Monica Eng, WBEZ, 3/15/16
  • How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs, by Jack Kaskey, Bloomberg, 10/2/15
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Investigations based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state open records laws are ongoing, and many of these documents are now posted in the University of California, San Francisco Chemical Industry Documents and Food Industry Documents archives.

The public deserves the right to know what our public universities and their researchers are doing with our tax dollars, and that right properly extends to inspecting the work of our taxpayer-paid employees, including those who work at public universities.

For more information about AB700, see our post, Don’t Weaken the California Public Records Act.

U.S Right to Know is a nonprofit, public interest, consumer and public health research group working for transparency and accountability in our nation’s food system. 

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