Throughout 2012, a drama has been unfolding behind the scenes at one of San Diego’s most respected oversight institutions, the Utility Consumers’ Action Network (UCAN). Glimpses of the financial turmoil, internal conflicts and leadership vacuum have leaked into the press, with much of the attention surrounding UCAN’s former leader, Michael Shames. Less focus has been on UCAN’s semi-independent subsidiaries.
As we report in our feature, New Media Rights left UCAN to become an independent program of California Western School of Law, where it foresees long-term stability as a legal clinic. But the transition hasn’t been as smooth for one of UCAN’s largest projects, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC).
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the research and advocacy organization that scours the fine print that most consumers would rather not think about—privacy policies, data breaches, credit reports, medical records, identity theft, legislation and rule-making. If it has to do with sensitive personal data, PRC has a consumer fact sheet for it.
As UCAN was placed in a legal receivership and was headed toward a settlement over whistleblower lawsuits, PRC founder Beth Givens and members of the PRC’s advisory board began the process of establishing a new organization, also called Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, that would function as a fully independent nonprofit. Under the terms of the agreement, PRC would keep approximately $1.18 million in cy pres money (funds awarded to relevant nonprofits as the result of class-action lawsuits) but return $300,000 to UCAN for administrative costs.
In May, UCAN’s board signed an agreement approving the separation and UCAN’s lawyer sent a letter notifying the Attorney General’s office of UCAN’s intent to set PRC free. All that was left was formal approval in Superior Court.
On May 30, 2012, UCAN filed a motion for a hearing to approve the settlement but, two weeks later, withdrew the motion, claiming it needed to take another look at its accounting. Six months later, PRC is still in limbo, as new members join UCAN’s board and a new executive director—one of three this year—Don Kelly, assumes the helm.
UCAN is being private about the future of the privacy organization.
“What I can say is the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has been associated with UCAN for many years, and the board and I will be discussing this issue and many more in the months ahead,” Kelly said. “I have nothing but great admiration for Beth Givens and a lot of respect for the work that they do.”
Givens, caught between being an employee of UCAN and pursuing a separate PRC, was similarly vague.
“It’s unclear which direction the board will go,” she said. “I trust that they will do the right thing.”
At least one person, however, has reached the breaking point and is speaking out—Mari Frank, an Orange County-based privacy attorney who’s served on the old PRC’s advisory board since the mid 1990s and would be a board member of the new PRC. She says she’s written two letters to UCAN demanding to know the status of separation but has received no response.
“They’ve been delaying and delaying and creating all kinds of havoc and taking Beth away from all the great work she does by having to deal with this,” Frank says.