By Anne Lowe
A recently fired public information spokesman for the Los Angeles Superior Court says he was terminated because of a conflict with administrators who wanted to “prevent or delay” the release of salary and other public information to the press—and who resented his advocacy of camera coverage of trials.
Allan Parachini was accused of leaking information to celebrity gossip website TMZ.com, but he denied these allegations in the Los Angeles Times. Parachini said he was fired because he believed employee salary information, judicial spending reports and a contract were public information, while administrators felt the information should be kept confidential.
As reported in the Times:
Parachini called the TMZ allegations "a pretext" to cover increasingly contentious disputes between judges and court administrators on one side and him on the other over how to respond to a series of requests for information submitted by reporters from The Times and another newspaper outlet, the Bay Area News Group.
He said that this fall when a Times reporter asked for a copy of the Sheriff's Department contract with the court — something Parachini said was clearly public information — Clarke and another administrator worried aloud about "political sensitivities" in releasing the material. He said he was instructed to stall by asking the reporter to submit questions in writing and later to find out if the reporter "wanted to screw us."
"I said even if we knew he wanted to screw us — whatever that means — I don't see how we have justification to withhold that information," he said. Ultimately, the reporter got the contract. At around the same time, two other Times reporters sought copies of judges' expense reports. Parachini said "the first response [of court administrators] was to find a pretext to withhold that as long as possible, knowing full well that the judges would be up in arms."
He said that he insisted that the material had to be turned over, but administrators ordered that it be released "in dribs and drabs" beginning with departmental summaries that did not comply with the reporters' requests.
At the same time, the Bay Area News Group was seeking salary information for every employee in the court system to complete an online database of state government and university employees. Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter, said he e-mailed the same request to every county court system in late July with detailed instructions about how to provide the material.
While other courts handed over the information, L.A. County's courts initially did not respond and later sent him a letter saying they did not accept e-mailed requests, Peele said. "My initial reaction…was, 'Come on, everybody else can do this by e-mail, why can't you? This is 2010,'" he said.
Peele said he mailed in a request, but a court official told him it was never received. He sent a second one but has still not received the data.
Parachini said that in all three cases, the data being held back did not appear to contain anything damaging. He said there were "no fat cats" on the court payroll and the judges' expense forms showed "nothing to be ashamed of."
"There's an unfortunately pervasive belief among judges and the courts as an institution that media organizations have inherent ill intent toward the court and are hoping to damage it," he said.
Parachini believes he also ran afoul of his bosses by speaking out in favor of camera access in legal proceedings. He gave an interview to TRU TV, formerly Court TV, for a video presentation in favor of cameras in the courtroom to be played at an August convention of court public information officers.
Parachini told the network that parties involved in cases quickly forgot about the presence of cameras. The same month, a report by L.A. judges found that 94.4% of bench officers opposed a state proposal making it easier for media organizations to get cameras in courtrooms.