The Port of Oakland's claim of privacy as justification for withholding information about expenditures of public funds at a Houston strip club is legally ridiculous, politically stupid and ethically bankrupt.
At issue is a 2008 charge card bill for $4,537 submitted by port maritime director James Kwon, who has been placed on leave pending the outcome of an investigation. It's one of numerous questionable Kwon expenditures.
The accompanying receipt and handwritten notes -- released under Public Records Act demands by this newspaper, KTVU and the San Francisco Chronicle -- indicate the money was spent to entertain a delegation of 10 people from two firms. But one of those companies denies its employees were there.
The notes also indicate that Kwon and another person from the port attended the festivities. But the other name has been redacted. There's no excuse for that. The port must reveal which other government employee may have abused public funds.
The port claims that it's protecting someone's privacy rights that "outweighed any public interest in disclosure because the redacted material was not deemed to be substantive."
That's right: The port attorney, Daniel Connolly, actually argues that the public doesn't have a right to know which government worker was at a strip club eating, drinking and who knows what else on the public dime.
Connolly would do well to reread a state Supreme Court ruling in favor of this newspaper in a 2007 case involving public employee claims to the privacy of their salaries.
As Chief Justice Ronald George wrote, "an individual's expectation of privacy in a salary earned in public employment is significantly less than the privacy expectation regarding income earned in the private sector. To the extent some public employees may expect their salaries to remain a private matter, that expectation is not a reasonable one."
Folks, if there's no right to privacy of salaries, there's certainly no right to anonymity when you're running up a government tab at a strip club.
As George also wrote, "Counterbalancing any cognizable interest that public employees may have in avoiding disclosure of their salaries is the strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money."
Who was at the club? That's the question. Executive Director Omar Benjamin was also in Houston at that time. And he has also been placed on leave.
Again, let's look at the chief justice's words: "Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy. Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files."
If port directors expect to maintain any credibility, they must remove the cloak of secrecy -- and they must do it now.