FOIA triggered charter-flight disclosure

Citizen revealed Ramsey flight
Richmond Times-Dispatch 2.26.2006

Mention Brenda Stewart and watch Chesterfield County officials squirm.

Stewart, a Chesterfield resident and retired procurement analyst for the U.S. Defense Department, is the face behind last week's disclosure of County Administrator Lane B. Ramsey's $18,000-plus charter flight from Kansas the day before New Year's Eve.

In recent years, Stewart has become a familiar face to county officials, sparring with them at public meetings and digging quietly into how money is spent and how decisions are made.

On Feb. 12, using the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the 62-year-old requested documents detailing Ramsey's flight. She leaked a copy of the check and invoice for the flight to the news media last week.

"I wasn't grandstanding," she said. "This wasn't about me. This is about the use of the taxpayers' money."

Ramsey on Thursday paid the county $18,247 for the cost of the flight plus interest. He also returned an $18,000 check, which a group of business leaders had presented to the county in hopes of squelching criticism from residents and others about the costs.

"I think he did the right thing -- a little belated, but nevertheless, it's always welcome," Stewart said.

Ramsey decided to charter the jet on Dec. 30 through Dominion Aviation Services, located at the county airport, after learning that then-board Chairman Edward B. Barber had been charged the day before with sex crimes against a minor.

Supervisor R.M. "Dickie" King Jr. boarded the jet in Chesterfield and flew to Kansas to accompany Ramsey to Virginia.

Stewart, criticized by some county officials for her persistence and perceived agenda, has repeatedly stressed she is not interested in publicity. She would not be photographed for this article.

In recent years, Stewart has filed freedom-of-information requests numerous times, according to school and county officials. School officials counted at least 20 requests, many for minutes of School Board meetings since August 2004. County government officials could not immediately quantify Stewart's requests.

"As a citizen, [Stewart] has asked for more than most," School Board Clerk Carol Timpano said.

Her latest discovery impressed Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. "She hit it on the nose."

"This is why it's there," Landon said of the state's open-government laws -- "for citizens to keep their government accessible and accountable."

King said he believes that Stewart's requests for information show that she and others have a political agenda.

"I believe Ms. Stewart [and] her complaints are not always about the process but the fact that we don't agree with what she says," he said.

Supervisor Art Warren, a Republican who has been critical of the flight, praised Stewart as a "smart woman who gets at the facts."

He said he knew nothing about the flight's cost and details until he received a Feb. 16 memo from administration officials detailing the information that Stewart had requested and saying it was going to be released to her the next day.

"Since this could potentially become a news story we wanted to give you advance notice," the memo says.

"Had it not been for her filing a Freedom of Information request, I'm not sure we -- meaning all five board members -- would have been told the cost of the flight because this was six weeks after the flight took place," Warren said.

Stewart sees herself as a community servant. She said she retired with "enough adequate resources" that she does not have to work.

"Individuals who are in that position," she said, "need to give something back to the community."