Two state senators have accused UCLA of withholding the records of a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences from the public, the most recent development in a conflict that has lasted about three years.
The two California senators – Minority Leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) and Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield) – started corresponding with UCLA about Professor John Froines’s public records earlier this year, when they noticed UCLA had not disclosed all of Froines’s emails in a past records request.
Controversy over the records dates back to July 2010, when insecticide and fungicide manufacturing corporation Arysta LifeScience filed a records request asking for communications between Froines and other scientists that might show he engaged in actions that constituted a conflict of interest.
Over the past seven months, UCLA Vice Chancellor of Legal Affairs Kevin Reed and the senators have exchanged three letters. The most recent letter, sent from the senators to Reed on Sept. 13, demanded that UCLA disclose all of Froines’ related emails. Reed was not available for comment.
The senators claimed that UCLA has repeatedly changed its reasons for not releasing all of Froines’ emails in response to the records request. Huff and Fuller could not be reached for comment.
Froines resigned last month from his position as chair of the California Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants, an organization within the California Environmental Protection Agency, even though he was midway through his term.
In his resignation letter, he said that he intended to spend more time with his family, to travel and to continue his research on biological toxicology at the UCLA School of Public Health.
Froines served 30 years on the panel, which is tasked with independently evaluating contaminants that could be harmful to air quality in California.
Because the Scientific Review Panel is supposed to conduct independent research on chemicals and toxins, scientists on the panel may not have ties to other people with strong positions for or against any possible air contaminants, which could create a conflict of interest.
The panel released a report in 2009 stating that methyl iodide was harmful to air quality. Arysta LifeScience’s request for Froines’s records in 2010 asked for communications between him and other scientists who had expressed disapproval of methyl iodide at the time Froines was evaluating the chemical.
In one instance in 2009, Froines’ Assistant Elinor Fanning sent an email to Susan Kegley, CEO of the consulting firm Pesticide Research Institute, stating Froines’ support of UC Berkeley Professor Robert Bergman, who had previously called methyl iodide “highly toxic” in a letter to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
“John talked with Bergman last week, and we want Bergman to know that we would support him in any way possible – going to the governor, etc. – but that we have to remain behind the scenes at the moment,” Fanning wrote in the email. “John has to protect his position as chair of the review committee for the time being.”
UCLA took about 10 months to give Arysta LifeScience its requested records, and decided to withhold some of the requested records on the grounds that releasing them would violate Froines’ academic freedom and privacy. The university also said they could not produce some emails because Froines and Bruin OnLine had deleted them.
Two years of written arguments between a lawyer for Arysta LifeScience and Reed followed, but UCLA did not release all of the requested records.
Though the initial Arysta LifeScience records request was in 2010, the conflict over Froines’ records is ongoing, with outside parties now in the debate.
Columns by Lois Henry in The Bakersfield Californian brought the issue to the senators’ attention earlier this year.
Peter DeMarco, spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus and Huff, said he thinks UCLA is wrongfully withholding records from the public.
“Any taxpayer-funded university should heed a (public records request) and recognize that they should be more forthcoming,” DeMarco said. “There’s a perception that academic freedom exempts from public records and that’s simply unfortunate.”
The senators wrote that Reed allegedly “changed the story” multiple times, citing different reasons for not producing the emails at different times.
Some reasons UCLA offered were that Bruin OnLine automatically deleted Froines’ emails, that Froines deleted his own emails, that releasing the emails would violate the privacy of some students, and that disclosing the emails would violate Froines’ academic freedom.
Froines declined to comment for this story.
Steve Ritea, a UCLA spokesman, said in an emailed statement that UCLA has evaluated Froines’s contracts and records and has found he engaged in no actions that would constitute a conflict of interest.
The statement also asserts that UCLA complied with the records request and produced all records it should have in response to the request.
“As a public institution, UCLA carefully evaluates all requests for records and makes every effort to produce documents under applicable laws,” the statement read. “However, certain records are withheld in specific instances, including to protect academic freedom.”
UCLA has not indicated any plans to release the records in the future, and the senators have shown no signs of stopping their pursuit of the documents.