Troubling new details have surfaced regarding the county's handling of a report on a $100 million contract to administer one of its employee health plans. County officials may have intentionally skirted public records laws, a possibility that demands further investigation.

Kern County Superior Court Commissioner Linda Etienne ruled Wednesday that the county must release the report to the private citizen who sought it under public records laws. It's bad enough the county had to be sued to release a public report. But that's not nearly as egregious as this: It appears the county tried to prevent release of the report by claiming it had some bearing on the collective bargaining process. (Some documents related to collective bargaining are by law exempt from public release.) The commissioner wrote that the county's collective bargaining excuse was "developed very recently" and that the evidence showed the original purpose of the report was to investigate a possible conflict of interest in the delivery of health care services. And when the commissioner flat out asked how the report impacts labor negotiations, the county failed to provide a persuasive reason.

The big question is, then, how did references to labor negotiations get into later portions of report's final draft? Did someone from the county ask the report's authors to insert new language -- and even change the title of the report -- to give the county some cover? That's important to know because it could constitute falsifying or altering of public documents, which is a crime under the public records law.

These are questions that must be answered by an outside investigator with no links to the county. Whether a crime or not, the public deserves to know if county officials have engaged in deliberately deceptive practices.