Transparency News, 10/13/21


October 13, 2021
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state & local news stories

A recent document from Dominion Energy in the ongoing review of its finances highlighted Virginia’s weak law when it comes to public disclosure of how much lobbyists are paid. State lawmakers require companies or entities who hire lobbyists to report who the lobbyists are and how much they’re paid. But because there are several ways to calculate the payment amounts, the public disclosures generally are far below the actual dollar amounts the lobbyists earn. Dominion’s document came in the ongoing “triennial review” of the investor-owned monopoly’s finances at the Virginia State Corporation Commission. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on it last week. Steve Haner, a former lobbyist for Newport News Shipbuilding and others, wrote on the right-leaning blog Bacon’s Rebellion in response that the document illustrates the dramatic difference between the money lobbyists actually get paid versus the amounts that are publicly disclosed on forms filed with Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Following a closed session Tuesday afternoon, Charlottesville City Council accepted the resignation letter of City Manager Chip Boyles — 10 months after announcing his hire.  Boyles’ resignation comes after he received intense backlash from Mayor Nikuyah Walker and some community members for his decision to fire Police Chief Rashall Brackney.  In his resignation letter, Boyles said he was hired to help bring stability to the city, a goal that he said he felt he has been successful in. “The public disparagement shown by several community members and Mayor Walker has begun to negatively affect my personal health [and] well-being,” Boyles continued. “Continuation of the personal and professional attacks that are occurring are not good for the City, for other City staff, for me or for my family. Therefore, it is best that I resign effective [at] the end of this month.” After Boyle’s announcement, Walker told Charlottesville Tomorrow that his exit perpetuates a narrative that “it’s a toxic environment basically created by me and that he’s deciding to exit now.” “They could all say that they have left because of me. But if morale is down because I have stayed true to the course of ‘unmasking the illusion’ and pushing people past their limits of comfort regarding conversations around race, then I’ll take whatever label people want to place on me,” Walker said. 
Charlottesville Tomorrow

Over the last two years, employees at a CVS Pharmacy in Virginia Beach have raised repeated concerns over patient safety. “Now, in my 32 years of practice in retail pharmacy, this is a classic symptom of going too fast, too distracted, to pay attention to what you’re doing,” Virginia Board of Pharmacy member Kristopher Ratliff said during the hearing. At one point, he described the working conditions as “unacceptable,” but the board’s secretive disciplinary process makes it difficult to determine how widespread the problems are across Virginia.  Diane Powers, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Health Professions, said that board investigations are complaint-driven. However, complaints against pharmacies are considered confidential under Virginia state code, she said, making it impossible to know whether other CVS stores have experienced the same problems.  The board did release its final order in the case, but refused to provide the Mercury with a copy of the full investigative report, which was referred to repeatedly during the public hearing. Powers also said the report was exempt from disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act laws. “Investigations are confidential under law and therefore, the board can neither confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigations,” she added in a follow-up statement.
Virginia Mercury

A candidate for Virginia’s 78th House District was arrested Monday on trespassing charges during a Chesapeake school board meeting. Melanie Cornelisse was escorted from the podium shortly after she began her public comment, in which she criticized board chair Victoria Proffitt for being investigated for collecting unemployment benefits while serving in her elected role. The Virginian-Pilot reported Tuesday that the investigation into Proffitt ended after she returned $984 that she was overpaid to the Virginia Employment Commission. No charges were filed against her. Chesapeake police confirmed that Cornelisse was charged with trespassing and released on a summons. Getting arrested wasn’t her plan, Cornelisse told The Pilot in an interview. She says the move was not a political stunt but an attempt to shed light on what she sees as an important issue. Cornelisse was escorted from the podium Monday at the board’s request but stopped outside in the parking lot and refused to leave, said police spokesperson L. C. Kosinski. Cornelisse said she was waiting to talk with a reporter. When an officer told Cornelisse that she’d be arrested for trespassing if she continued to refuse, Cornelisse said something “similar to, ‘then arrest me for trespassing,’” Kosinski said. Cornelisse was arrested.
The Virginian-Pilot

An investigation into Chesapeake School Board Chair Victoria Proffitt’s collection of unemployment benefits ended after she returned $984 that she was overpaid to the Virginia Employment Commission. Proffitt, who was laid off from her adjunct mathematics teaching position at Tidewater Community College in May 2020, said she didn’t intend to get more than she was supposed to from the unemployment system. She and her attorney described the situation as an error stemming from an oversight by the VEC. Southampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke, the special prosecutor assigned to the case, saw things differently. In an Aug. 18 letter to Chesapeake police detective T.N. Adams, Cooke wrote that it was apparent “Proffitt was either being intentionally dishonest or was just exceedingly careless in her benefits application in this case.” Cooke, however, did not file criminal charges and ended his investigation after Proffitt paid back the VEC. He asked Adams, the detective who investigated the case, to “please close your file.” The Pilot obtained a copy of the letter and other documents from a Chesapeake resident who got them through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Virginian-Pilot

The Culpeper County School Board is pushing back hard against the National School Boards Association and the U.S. Department of Justice over federal assistance to stop threats against public-education leaders. Meeting Monday night, the local board voted 7-0 to reject U.S. law-enforcement assistance investigating harassment of teachers, school staff or school board members, as well as the National School Boards Association’s position on the issue. The School Board called the Justice Department action and NSBA’s move an effort to “criminalize dissent and protected speech.”Desilets acknowledged that the Culpeper School Board has weathered some “raucus” meetings, hearing vigorous comments and criticism from county residents since the summer of 2020, when it debated reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, she said, “it’s our duty to listen.” Threats are not appropriate, Desilets said, but Culpeper school officials would consult with local law enforcement if they occurred.
Culpeper Star-Exponent

School boards across Hampton Roads aren't standing for bad behavior at their meetings, and they're putting new public comment protocols and safety measures into place to make it clear. Starting on Oct. 12 in Virginia Beach, speakers only have three minutes to address the board instead of four. Comments will stop at 8 p.m. and resume later in the meeting if there are more speakers. Chesapeake school officials said new protocols for its board meetings started September 27. “Go through a metal detector and a bag search,” said Samantha Lester, a parent. “Just like you would see, a regular metal detector at the airport. If it buzzes, you’ll get wanded...” Lester said people also get yellow cards before each meeting stating rules for addressing the board. Officials with Suffolk Public Schools and Newport News Public Schools said they’ve asked for additional officers to attend meetings. A spokeswoman for Hampton City Schools said depending on a meeting size, more officers are assigned to stand guard. School divisions in Norfolk and Portsmouth said they have the same security presence as they've had.
stories from around the country
More than a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape of state government technology has changed — and a new survey from the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) has shed some light on how. The annual survey, which included responses from 48 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, reveals steadfast confidence in telework becoming a more permanent option in state government, as well as redoubled efforts to deploy digital services. Perhaps as a consequence, there’s also great interest in strengthening digital identity tools and cybersecurity structures to make sure those programs can work as intended. When asked which efforts they expect to last beyond the pandemic, the No. 1 answer state CIOs gave was remote work. A large majority also expect work to continue deploying web-based services, as well as to secure those tools and prevent fraud associated with them. Though many CIOs have pointed out that remote work creates new security challenges — how secure are employees’ home Wi-Fi routers? — the survey found that, at least thus far, it hasn’t resulted in more security incidents for most.
editorials & opinion
"The lobbyist disclosure and ethics laws in Virginia would embarrass a backwater, third-world dictatorship."
Add up the reported payments to all the other outside law and lobbying firms Dominion hired, compare them to the official disclosures, and a similar pattern of under reporting will be evident. The reporter missed the best part of this story — that information gap. What do we learn here?  Anything we didn’t know? Even the great and powerful Dominion has to tell the truth to the State Corporation Commission. It can duck and weave and deceive down at the state Capitol, or with state media dependent on its ad revenue (or consulting fees), but it must show its cards to the regulatory body. “Under oath” matters. The lobbyist disclosure and ethics laws in Virginia would embarrass a backwater, third-world dictatorship. They are beyond meaningless and rise to the level of outright lies. There is no real push from any direction to change things. Both political parties and the lobbyists love being able to hide the boodle. Most lobbying principals also fail to honor the request to list the specific bills, resolutions or appointments they sought to influence. Nobody makes them. Even the “independent” media can be bought, an editorial writer no less. Dominion is not the only one buying. Claims the money didn’t influence journalistic output defy basic psychology. Most of the firms, associations and lobbying groups hide the real amounts they spend. The rules allow them to disclose only that part of their expenses tied to direct lobbying, and they use the narrowest definition possible and claim most of the time is spent on other activities. Anybody who fully discloses suddenly stands out, and appears to be the biggest spender, when in most cases they are not. Basically to level the playing field, everybody uses some method of pro rating the costs (and I have, I admit). For once, though, with that SCC filing we get a rare glimpse at just how completely we are lawfully lied to.
Steve Haner, Bacon's Rebellion