The Island Comments: Inside the sausage factory (updated)
This week brought with it what was for me a somewhat surprising debate over the content of one of my news stories (“Gilmore Seeks Accounting on Tam Investigation,” September 21). At issue, specifically, was this paragraph:
Invoices from attorney Michael Colantuono obtained by The Island through a public records act request showed that Colantuono billed the city $77,095.16 for “general services” performed between the months of March and August. Highsmith would not reveal the specific amount of money Colantuono charged for his work on the (Tam) investigation, claiming the information was protected by attorney-client privilege and exempt from public disclosure requirements.
As a reporter, I feel it’s my obligation to provide you the most accurate coverage possible, and to be accountable for what I put down on the page. And in that vein, I’d like to offer a peek inside the sausage factory, as we in the news biz lovingly call it, to anyone seeking some clarification on what I reported and how.
Long story (maybe not so) short: On September 8, I e-mailed a public records act request to the city seeking invoices from attorney Michael Colantuono and also for three letters Colantuono sent to the district attorney’s office that hadn’t yet been released. Specifically, I asked for
Invoices from Michael Colantuono in the date range of March 17, 2010 to September 8, 2010; invoice for GWAVA email recovery software
Letters from Michael Colantuono to the Alameda County District Attorney’s office dated July 7, July 15 and August 4, and any documents included with those submissions
I got a response from City Attorney Teresa Highsmith on September 16 that said:
The City of Alameda is in receipt of your September 8, 2010 email requesting “invoices from Michael Colantuono in the date range of March 17, 2010 to September 8, 2010” as well as for “invoice[s] for GWAVA email recovery software.” In response to your first request, the City has determined that it possesses certain identifiable, non-exempt documents that fall within the scope of your request, which documents it will make available to you. Your request also included documents that are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act pursuant to the exemption set forth in Government Code section 6254(k) (documents protected by the attorney-client privilege enumerated in Evidence Code Section 954). As to your second request (for GWAVA email recovery software invoices), the City has no documents responsive to your request. We do, however, have other invoices from GWAVA for other software or services—do you wish to review those?
Please contact Elaine —— at (510) XXX-XXXX to schedule a time to inspect the documents, or, in the alternative, to request that copies be made for you; copies are available for .10 per page.
At this time, the City of Alameda considers its response to your September 8, 2010 request for public records to be complete.
At this point, I sent some e-mails back because I thought Highsmith was holding the Colantuono letters, but she clarified with the following message, of which I believe this is the key part:
The PRA request I was responding to was the one where you asked for “invoices from Michael Colantuono in the date range of March 17, 2010 to September 8, 2010.” The majority of these documents are attorney-client privileged, as attorney invoices detail the actual attorney-client privileged legal work being performed. However, what you can have copies of are the monthly one-page summaries (which contain no detail of the work performed) which state the total number of hours worked that month and the amount billed. I have these summary pages for the months of March, April, May, June, July and August only, as September has not been billed. It would cost you .60 for all 6 pages of these monthly summaries, which will reflect the total hours and costs of all legal work provided by Mr. Colantunoo (sp) to the City during this period. To the extent that you are looking for invoices that are limited to Mr. Colantuono’s investigatory work regarding Lena Tam, these summary invoices will not provide you with that detail, nor should you assume that the total amounts paid to Mr. Colantuono during this time period reflect the amount of time or fees paid for his work on the Tam investigation–they do not. His work on the Tam investigation is a subset of his total time.
I picked up those summaries on September 20 and, with those and the e-mails you see here, wrote the paragraph posted at the beginning of this piece. And I stand by the accuracy of the piece.
I take my obligation to accurately report facts seriously, and I think you do too. In fact, that’s one of the things I appreciate the most about reporting news online – that you all can, and do, correct errors when you see them. I recognize that people will draw different conclusions from the information I provide, but that’s okay. It’s my job to tell you what happened, and to let you decide what you think about it.
If you’ve ever got a question about what I reported or why, please drop me a line, at email@example.com. Or feel free to offer your thoughts, as always, in the comment section below. As always, thanks for reading The Island.