That One Time California Highway Patrol Conspired with Neo-Nazis to Reject My Public Records Request

I’ve filed a lot of public records requests over the years, and I’ve received my fair share of dubious excuses from government officials for withholding my documents.

But this one is a first. Nazis blocked transparency. Allegedly.

Last week, The Guardian reported on court documents [PDF] alleging that California Highway Patrol investigators had developed inappropriate relationships with the white power group, Traditionalist Worker Party. The group, often described as Neo-Nazis, had staged a demonstration at the state Capitol in Sacramento in 2016 that turned into a violent melee with Antifa counter-protesters. Defense attorneys for the counter-protesters argued that there was evidence that CHP had worked with TWP to selectively prosecute certain counter-protesters.

Midway through the piece, reporter Sam Levin describes an audio recording of a phone call between CHP detective D. Ayres and the TWP organizer, Doug McCormack. The conversation centers around a public records request filed by an unnamed member of the public. The officer had taken it upon himself to alert McCormack that his name might be released as a result.

Reading it, I immediately recognized that it was me who filed the request. A year and a half ago, I had asked for the event permit application, the final permit, communications with protesters and counter-protesters, relevant departmental policies, the estimated cost of overtime for security at the protest, and other assorted records.

Going into the conversation, the CHP officer knew that the permits were public records. “We don t have a reason to.. uh.. deny it,” the CHP detective told McCormack, with “it” being my records request.

By the end of the conversation, after McCormack agreed to help with the investigation, the CHP officer had generated a new reason to withhold the records. “I’m gonna suggest that we hold that or redact your name or something.. uh.. until this thing gets resolved,” Ayres said.

I never received the permit, or most of my records for that matter, with CHP claiming they were all exempt as part of an active investigation. I did however eventually receive the overtime cost ($27,672.83) and copies of the departmental policies.

That my request had been used an investigative bargaining chip wasn’t the only thing chilling about the transcript between CHP and the McCormack. At one point, McCormack asked who filed the request. The detective responded, “I don’t know exactly… and if I did I would tell you.”

To be clear, I did not file the request anonymously. In fact, I filed it through Muckrock’s public records system and made the page for the request viewable to all. I even posted to Twitter about it. And I’d have no problem with my name being released if, say, McCormack or anyone else had filed a public records request for my public records request.

However, it feels altogether different when a law enforcement investigator suggests he’d give my name to an organizer from a racist, extremist organization with a documented history of violence.

Thankfully, I don’t have to face this injustice alone. The First Amendment Coalition has now sent a letter [PDF] to CHP expressing grave concern over the incident and urging the agency to cease and desist in this conduct. As part of the letter, the FAC is demanding records under the California Public Records Act that would show exactly how CHP came to reject my initial request.

I urge you to read the letter, written by FAC Executive Director David Snyder, available online here. I’m very grateful to FAC for ensuring that this behavior does not go unchallenged.

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Made in the American West, now based in San Francisco. Always a journalist, but my day job is investigative researcher at EFF. Views here are usually mine.

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