Transparency News 10/14/13


Monday, October 14, 2013

  State and Local Stories


A wealthy political donor has told federal prosecutors that he believed that Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was helping his company get state research funding at the same time the executive was providing McDonnell’s family with gifts and money, according to two people familiar with the donor’s account. E-mails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act also show that researchers and scientists working with the company thought that McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, wanted the company to receive the funding from the state’s tobacco commission. The researchers were in communication with Star Scientific Inc. officials during the same months that Chief Executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. said he believed McDonnell was helping, the e-mails show.
Washington Post

An email intended for applicants to a new online program at the University of Virginia instead wassent by a third-party vendor to a marketing list of people with no connection to the program, officials said. U.Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce intended for the email to inform about 85 people that their applications to a business certification program had been received.

Local officials would have little influence over uranium mining if Virginia decided to end a decades-long prohibition, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli concluded in an advisory opinion. Cuccinelli issued the nonbinding opinion in response to a request by Del. Donald Merricks, who represents Pittsylvania County, home to one of the largest uranium deposits in the world. In the lengthy opinion dense with case law citations, Cuccinelli states that Pittsylvania County would have no authority to regulate uranium mining “in any fashion” while the moratorium is in place and would have very narrow powers should the General Assembly lift the moratorium.
Roanoke Times

National Stories

A program in Oakland, Calif., is one of the latest and most contentious examples of cities using big data technology, and federal dollars, for routine law enforcement.
New York Times

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by 36 other news media organizations, filed public comments calling on the president’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies to more carefully balance the secrecy sometimes required in national security investigations with the public’s right to know what its government is doing. In response to a call from the Review Group to comment on how government can utilize technology to protect national security while protecting privacy and civil liberties, the Reporters Committee-led media coalition made several suggestions, including increased transparency in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (the FISA court) and the creation of a media advocate to oversee public interests in the secret court.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

For many contractors, big data has become an emerging market, a new area in which they can sell technology and services that help federal agencies manage chunks of information too huge for typical computer programs. But only recently have these contractors found that big data can be equally useful in their own work. New companies have emerged that provide analytics around government spending data, meant to help contractors identify upcoming opportunities, the most competitive prices and top competitors.
Washington Post

Administration officials are weighing whether to replace part of the website’s registration system this weekend, the Wall Street Journal reports. The requirement for users to register an account before viewing plan choices created an early bottleneck to entering the federal exchange website. The paper reported that some of the repair attention is on where the registration systems intersect with an Oracle software component.

The White House Twitter account has more than four million followers. It helps the president broadcast news and other information, and provides his staff with a new way of understanding what constituents really want. In 2011, President Obama used Twitter to ask Americans which government programs he should cut as he sought to reduce the federal deficit. That single tweet garnered more than 1,850 replies. Over the course of 2011, the White House account received a total of 125,832 Twitter replies from 42,902 people. The problem is finding a good way to sort through all that social media. The White House staff has a not-so-secret weapon: an open source social media analytics tool called ThinkUp, a tool anyone — not just government agencies — can use to learn more about their friends and followers.

Privacy advocates are urging Congress to take steps to safeguard sensitive student information, warning that new rules by the Department of Education leave student data vulnerable. In an October 9 letter to members of the House and Senate committees that oversee education, the Electronic Privacy Information Center said that the Department of Education in 2011 moved to modify the definition of key terms in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The result, according to EPIC, is that "data is now flowing to private companies that operate far outside the direct control of school systems."
Blog of LegalTimes


Roanoke Times: Roanoke County Supervisor Butch Church should withdraw his application for a job as the county’s public information officer or resign at once from the county’s governing board. If Church persists in seeking the job, he can do his part to ensure a fair hiring process by quitting the board and removing the implicit risk of retaliation against county employees should the decision go against him. His — or any supervisor’s — potential to do mischief in that case is quite real, especially given that the staffing decision rests ultimately with the county administrator, who is hired by and can be fired by the board of supervisors.

Free Lance-Star: IN A YEAR when the candidates for governor of Virginia seem most adept at mudslinging, it seems we'll have to depend on the guy who isn't running for ideas. Lieutenant Gov. Bill Bolling rolled out some good ones recently via his Virginia Mainstream Project. Here's a sampling: "Require the Freedom of Information Advisory Council to review all current FOIA exemptions and make recommendations on which exemptions should be removed or amended in order to ensure that Virginia has the fairest open government standards." Mandating a FOIA check before exceptions are passed is in the public interest. Let the sunshine in.

Daily Progress: Candidate Obama criticized lack of government transparency under the Bush administration and said he would do better. President Obama has proved such an enemy to transparency that his attitude toward freedom of information has been called the worst since the Nixon administration. George W. Bush looks quite candid by comparison.

News Leader: We can accept that federal prosecutors do not wish to influence next month’s Virginia elections and therefore will delay any criminal charges against Gov. Bob McDonnell. These outrages are harder to swallow: that McDonnell ever thought it ethical to receive such lavish gifts, especially from someone as shady as Star Scientific’s Jonnie R. Williams Sr.; that in Virginia, expensive gifts to politicians are perfectly legal; and finally, that the Commonwealth is paying McDonnell’s impressive legal fees through this ugliness, because our Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli also lacked the sense to stay away from Williams. We can only hope that good comes from this sad scandal, and the General Assembly strengthens the Commonwealth’s lax ethic laws next session.

Sen. Stephen Newman, Roanoke Times: Starting on March 1, 2014, Virginians will be able to purchase a certified copy of their birth certificates from their local Department of Motor Vehicles office. The result of a partnership between the Virginia DMV and the Virginia Department of Health, made possible by legislation that I sponsored during the 2013 Virginia General Assembly session, this program will revolutionize the way we serve our constituents in Virginia. One of the basic tenets of modern government is that all citizens should have equal access to the services their government provides, regardless of where they live. Yet, I often ask myself why Virginians living in my district should be forced to drive more than 100 miles to obtain a copy of their birth certificates or other vital records in person. Currently, more than 9,000 Virginians each month are served by the Virginia Division of Vital Records (housed within the Health Department). Many of these customers must make the trip to the division’s sole office, located in Richmond, to purchase documents that they need (usually immediately) to obtain crucial government services. For some, the trip can take longer than seven hours. Surely, I hoped, we could do better than this.