Crime & Justice

Group seeks court order requiring LA to search for LaBonge records

Tom LaBonge at a Los Angeles City Council meeting on August 6th, 2013.
Tom LaBonge at a Los Angeles City Council meeting on August 6th, 2013.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

A nonprofit group dedicated to First Amendment issues has filed a lawsuit asking a Superior Court judge to order the city of Los Angeles to conduct a search for boxes of files that went missing from the office of former city Councilman Tom LaBonge after he left office last year.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday by the First Amendment Coalition, relates to a long-running controversy dating back to when newly elected Councilman David Ryu took over the Council District 4 seat after defeating LaBonge's former chief of staff in the May 2015 race to succeed LaBonge, who had reached his term limit. Ryu and his staff discovered that files kept by LaBonge and his staff were nowhere to be found.

Two retired attorneys looking into the matter found public records showing a LaBonge staff member had requested that documents filling 113 boxes be burned by city staff, according to published reports. An assistant city attorney later found 35 of the boxes while doing research at the city's Piper Technical Center — where the city archives are located — but the whereabouts of the other 78 boxes were unknown, Todd Gaydowski, the city's records management officer, told the Los Angeles Times in January.

Ryu allowed the press and public to look through the files in the recovered boxes, which contained planning and land use paperwork, internal memos, and even campaign finance documents.

The First Amendment Coalition in February submitted a request to City Council President Herb Wesson under the California Public Records Act, seeking documents related to communications LaBonge had regarding certain issues, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the California Film Commission, and the proposed Villaggio Toscano housing development in Sherman Oaks. In March, City Council Assistant Chief Deputy Edward Johnson informed the coalition that no such documents existed.

In its lawsuit, the First Amendment Coalition alleges the city violated the California Public Records Act by not providing the documents the coalition requested, and that the city violated state government codes requiring that public records be preserved for at least two years. 

The suit seeks an injunction from the court that would order the city to "conduct a reasonable search for records responsive to" the public records request, and prohibit the city "from destroying any public records less than two years old."

LaBonge has said he was unaware his office was required to preserve the files and that any important public documents would be available in other city departments.

"I haven't got a call from anyone asking for any direction or help, and I've seen Mr. Ryu and he never said, 'Hey, whatever happened to this,'" LaBonge told KPCC in February. "I did what I was instructed in leaving the office. No one instructed me to leave anything." 

LaBonge also denied any wrongdoing related to campaign finance rule violations, saying he never conducted any political activity at City Hall.

For the full text of the lawsuit, which includes news reports with more details on the document controversy, see below:

First Amendment Coalition filing