The former head of the City of San Diego’s Public Records Department said the city pressured her to “bend” California’s public records laws in the wake of last year’s deadly Hepatitis A outbreak.
Lea Fields-Bernard said her unwillingness to do so resulted in the city firing her, days after documents were released to the media on the city’s response to the outbreak.
The allegations were laid out in a wrongful termination claim filed with the City’s Risk Management Department on January 29 from Fields-Bernard.
NBC 7 Investigates obtained the claim through a request made under the California Public Records Act.
Fields-Bernard had worked with the city for more than 18 years, first as a deputy city attorney, and later as the program manager who oversaw the release of public records.
But, according to the documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates, Fields-Bernard was fired abruptly on November 17, 2017. Her termination occurred weeks after her department released documents to NBC 7’s media partner Voice of San Diego and the San Diego Union-Tribune in response to public record requests each outlet had filed.
Those city documents revealed officials were questioning the city’s response to last year’s deadly Hepatitis A outbreak that killed 20 and hospitalized hundreds throughout the region.
The claim alleges that the city’s protocol in handling public record requests changed in the months following the outbreak, something the city has denied.
Prior to the Hepatitis A outbreak, Fields-Bernard said she followed well-established guidelines before issuing public documents. After receiving a public records request, Fields-Bernard and her staff would send the request to the appropriate department. That department would then compile the records and would make any necessary redactions. The documents would then go back to Fields-Bernard’s department for final review.
Fields-Bernard said the protocol changed around August 2017, as reports surfaced of multiple deaths caused by Hepatitis A infections and the Voice of San Diego submitted a request seeking emails and other correspondence mentioning the placement of handwashing stations.
In her claim, after releasing the records Voice of San Diego had requested, Fields-Bernard said her boss informed her that the City’s Director of Communications Katie Keach would begin reviewing all Hepatitis A-related documents prior to release and would alert the mayor before the release of any documents that were “of concern”.
Fields-Bernard allegedly informed her staff of the changes and implemented the new policy.
The following month, the San Diego Union-Tribune submitted a public record request seeking the same documents that Voice of San Diego had requested.
According to the claim, Keach had concerns about some of the records that were slated to be released to the media outlets.
Fields-Bernard’s boss then, “instructed [her] and her team to heighten their review of any documents related to the Hepatitis A outbreak to ensure that the appropriate redactions were made and records withheld,” according to the claim.
Emails and other correspondence from the Environmental Services Department soon made their way back to Fields-Bernard for release, in response to the public record requests. One of the documents included a statement from a department worker who described the city’s vaccination process, stating, “this situation was handled very poorly.”
The claim said Keach stuck a note next to the quote stating, “this isn’t great.”
But Fields-Bernard and her staff looked at the legal requirements and found that those comments did not qualify for an exemption under state law and needed to be released.
On October 2, 2017, the claim states Fields-Bernard released the documents to the Voice of San Diego and the Union-Tribune.
The next day, the Union-Tribune wrote an article that revealed that the city had warned employees of the outbreak before alerting the general public.
According to the claim, the article was not received well by Mayor Faulconer and Fields-Bernard’s supervisors. A week later, Fields-Bernard was informed that all public record requests, not only those related to the Hepatitis A outbreak, would be rerouted through the mayor’s office and no longer through the public records department.
“[Fields-Bernard’s bosses] indicated that they intended to narrow the scope of what was released in response to requests pertaining to Hepatitis A,” the claim said. “Her supervisors’ comments and behavior lead Ms. Fields-Bernard to believe that she would soon be fired.”
The following day, the claim states Fields-Bernard was placed on administrative leave.
“While Ms. Fields-Bernard agreed that she had never received explicit instruction to break the law, she did feel pressure to bend it,” reads the claim.
In an email Monday, Keach told NBC 7 Investigates “there is no truth” behind Fields-Bernard’s claim that she was pressured to “bend” the law.
In regards to narrowing the scope of what was being released, Keach said, “we added a layer of review to ensure that there was no further inadvertent release of employee information, but there was no change/directive to what was considered disclosable or how we interpreted requests.”
“It is clear under the laws that a governmental entity may not withhold information simply because it ‘isn’t great’ or ‘causes concern’," the claim states. "Terminating Ms. Fields-Bernard for releasing these records demonstrates that her supervisors desired her to withhold information that the City had a duty to release.”
The claim said Fields-Bernard's termination was made final on November 17, 2017.
“The City complies with its records retention policies regarding public records and with the California Public Records Act,” Keach told NBC 7 Investigates. “City staff also relies on legal advice from the City Attorney’s Office when determining if certain records are exempt from disclosure under the law.”
Fields-Bernard declined to comment on the claim.
The city said the claim was settled, which resulted in the claim being dismissed with prejudice. Keach said there was no financial payment to Fields-Bernard and that she is now working for the city of San Diego as a Program Coordinator in the Public Works Department.