UPDATE: After the Weekly went to print on Oct. 20, the law firm Lozano Smith notified Andrew Sandoval they were withdrawing the lawsuit against him, and CUSD Superintendent Ted Knight apologized to him. 

Depending on your perspective, Andrew Sandoval is a champion of the public or a gadfly. He ran (unsuccessfully) for Salinas City Council in 2018 and serves on the board of the Santa Rita Union Elementary School District. On behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens, he sent a letter in September to the city of Monterey, urging the city to transition to district elections. He’s made it a habit to be involved in various public agencies’ business, with a particular interest in school districts, insisting on transparency.

A big part of transparency happens in the form of requesting public records using the California Public Records Act. So when Sandoval sent an email to Carmel Unified School District on Aug. 6, it seemed to him very ordinary. “I am requesting any and all disciplinary records, legal invoices, investigation reports, emails and any other complaints of any form of misconduct associated with Tom Stewart,” he wrote, of the former Carmel Valley High School principal. A similarly ordinary response came five days later, emailed by CUSD Human Resources Officer Craig Chavez: “The district will begin searching for and gathering the documents you requested.”

Then it was radio silence until Sunday, Oct. 17, when Sandoval was served with a lawsuit filed by CUSD, asking a Monterey County Superior Court judge to order the records are not disclosable, and also for Sandoval to pay the costs of the suit. “Instead of a response, I receive a lawsuit,” Sandoval says. “I’m just in shock.”

So, apparently, is Carmel Unified School District. I reached out to district spokesperson Jessica Hull about it, and she responded: “We are not aware of any lawsuit initiated by nor involving CUSD on this matter.” I sent over a copy of case number 21CV003180. Superintendent Ted Knight responded with an emailed statement: “The Carmel Unified School District did not authorize the filing of this litigation against Mr. Sandoval. We were first made aware of the suit when it was sent to us by the Monterey County Weekly. We are currently looking into the matter and hope to address the underlying request without continuation of this lawsuit.”

I was confused – a school district files a lawsuit against a member of the public, but doesn’t even know it happened? – so I asked a couple of first amendment attorneys. “This is strange, a real head-scratcher,” says David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Any significant step in litigation really requires the client’s signoff. This is a big deal.”

Free speech attorney Kelly Aviles was similarly bewildered, and adds: “The agency is not allowed to sue the requestor. It’s prohibited.”

None of this stopped law firm Lozano Smith from filing the suit, however.

In a separate public records case, Sandoval sued Hartnell College in January, seeking to compel the college to hand over disciplinary records. (It’s because of his interest in that case that he bothered filing a records request in Carmel – he thought it might be illuminating for his Hartnell suit.) Hartnell, like Carmel Unified, is represented by the law firm Lozano Smith. Sandoval thinks maybe they’re trying to bully him, with a hearing in the Hartnell case coming up on Oct. 25.

I called Lozano Smith to ask what they were thinking, and how they could sue without client authorization, but they didn’t call back. (Before you think Lozano Smith is just trying to rack up billable hours, know that they’re doing OK; the firm received $3.28 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program funds.)

Sandoval worries about legal expenses; after a pandemic slowdown, he closed his Salinas dress shop in July, and his unemployment ran out in September.

Back to the lawsuit itself. CUSD has already received similar records requests about Stewart, from anonymous requestors using the names A.N. Onim and Sine Nomine. Stewart sued CUSD in what’s known as a reverse Public Records Act case, and succeeded in getting a judge to block the release of records. The district could’ve simply responded to Sandoval and told him as much. Instead, he’s in a legal dilemma, and he’s more suspicious than before: “It makes me think they’re trying to hide something.”

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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