By Pat Lynch
The Thousand Oaks Acorn recently printed a seemingly defamatory article against Trustee Sandee Everett that shows they may have been manipulated by leadership at CVUSD, a major Acorn advertiser. At the March 5, 2019 school board meeting, Superintendent Mark McLaughlin successfully deflected the Acorn from the board meeting’s primary story (alleged insurance fraud) and instead convinced the Acorn to launch a witch hunt against Everett, who happens to be the only watchdog on the board.
During the board meeting in question, the superintendent attempted to deny responsibility for alleged insurance fraud in the aftermath of the Woolsey fire that was reported to Mrs. Everett by rank and file district employees. These employees worked on fire clean up and later reported that they were directed by district employees to fill out insurance forms with false information. They spoke to Mrs. Everett for fear of district leadership retaliation. Mrs. Everett took the matter to the Ventura County District Attorney’s office.
The superintendent chastised Mrs. Everett during the meeting for not reporting the matter to him instead of the District Attorney. He also made what appeared to be a retaliatory statement against the whistleblowing employees by stating that if they filled out the timecards incorrectly, then it was the employees themselves that committed fraud. This is obviously not the case. The alleged fraud would ultimately be the responsibility of any person(s) who ordered timecards to be filled out incorrectly.
At the end of the meeting, the superintendent seemingly made an attempt to retaliate against Mrs. Everett for being supportive of the whistleblowing employees. The retaliation consisted of calling attention to the fact that she had been typing on her phone during the meeting, which was against some “procedure” that he failed to identify. We have been unable to locate any policy that prohibits this.
He also looked straight at Acorn reporter Dawn Megli-Thuna and said that any text messages could be the subject of a public records request. He appeared to be instructing her to make that request, which would cost the district thousands of dollars – straight out of the general fund.
The Acorn fell for this classic “look at the squirrel” deflection to deter the Acorn from investigating the alleged insurance fraud, and rather investigate Mrs. Everett for reporting it. Instead of submitting a public records request about the alleged fraud, such as a search of district emails for the word “FEMA” or a search to verify that all employees had really been sent the email instructions that the superintendent insisted that had been sent (whistleblowing employees have anonymously confirmed they did not receive), the Acorn instead submitted a request for Mrs. Everett’s texts during the meeting.
Mrs. Everett was indeed texting during that particular meeting with good reason. That day, her daughter had just arrived home from her mission in Tahiti, very sick from complications of Dengue Fever, a mosquito borne virus that is quite serious. The others on the dais – including the superintendent – knew this fact. Throughout the seven-hour meeting, she remained in contact via text message with those concerned regarding this family crisis. What mother would not have done the same?
According to public records laws, messages on personal devices are only subject to public records requests if they are “relating to the conduct of the public’s business” (Penal Code 6250 [e]). Mrs. Everett’s messages were personal and therefore not subject to disclosure. When the Acorn made its request, Mrs. Everett did what the law requires and searched her phone. Although she did not need to, she provided one text as an example that her texts did not pertain to public business. She was therefore fully compliant.
In response to community member concerns over the Acorn insisting on viewing Mrs. Everett’s personal texts, Acorn Editor Kyle Jorrey stated, “We don’t need a reason. If they [the texts] are sent during the meeting they are public record.”
Mr. Jorrey is wrong. The law is clear that personal matters are not public, especially regarding the private health issues of a trustee’s child.
Mr. Jorrey appears to have the false impression that he can inspect Mrs. Everett’s private text messages because they were sent during a public meeting. He is wrong again. The California Supreme Court has provided guidance on the matter by not mandating search methods for personal devices. Rather, the Court has stated that when local agencies receive records requests for information on a personal device, the agency may “reasonably rely” on the employee to fulfill the search and provide material that meets search criteria. If there is nothing pertaining to public business, nothing needs to be provided. (City of San Jose v. Superior Court  2 Cal.5th 608,618-619).
Regarding the other false assertion that Mrs. Everett must sign a “search affirmation” to comply with the law, once again the Acorn editor and reporter were given faulty information by the superintendent and also failed to research the law. There is nothing in the law requiring a search affirmation. However, if the matter is taken to court a judge may later request the trustee to submit an affidavit to provide the factual basis for why the record is private and not public. Therefore, unless a judge specifically requires it, trustees do not need to sign any form. (Grand Cent. Partnership, Inc. v. Cuomo [2d. Cir. 1999] 166 F.3d 473, 481 for expanded discussion on the use of affidavit in FOIA litigation).
The fact that the superintendent relayed to the Acorn that a signed form is required provides insight into his motives. The superintendent put the reporter up to this particular request according to recorded video footage from the meeting.
It is important to note that CVUSD trustees have never been asked to sign search affirmation forms prior to this most recent request.
In addition, the Acorn should be aware that the law states, “…if the court finds that the requester’s case is clearly frivolous, it shall award court costs and reasonable attorney fees to the public agency” (Penal Code 6259 [d]). Mr. Jorrey would bear the burden of proof and simple curiosity would likely be considered frivolous by any judge.
Witnesses after the board meeting in question saw Mrs. Everett offer to show her phone to the superintendent, but he was not interested and instead made an insulting remark. Both he and the Acorn reporter knew about the family crisis. This reinforces the idea that this was all just a smokescreen intended to distract the public from the real story of the alleged insurance fraud.
At the meeting it was reported that Woolsey fire related expenses were almost $600,000. An anonymous employee has reported that the district has been under federal investigation for this matter.
Pat Lynch is a resident of Ventura County