Transparency News 10/29/13


Tuesday, October 29, 2013
State and Local Stories


Portsmouth City Council members wanted to have a closed meeting with Mayor Kenny Wright on Monday night to discuss the mayor's communication - or lack thereof, as several council members described it. But, just as the council prepared to close the meeting to the public, Wright took the floor, saying that he'd done nothing wrong and that he wouldn't discuss the issue with his fellow council members unless it was in public. "It's not true," Wright said of accusations that he'd shielded information from council members."I would rather we discuss this in open session." And, for a few minutes, the council did. Wright shared a handful of documents - including correspondence with Virginia Department of Transportation officials - that he said served as proof that he had kept the council in the loop.

In its early days, the little website that Ben Schoenfeld built to track buses around Hampton Roads was so fragile it would break when his wife got on his computer at their Portsmouth home. About a year and a half of tweaks, fixes and design work later, Schoenfeld and his fellow volunteers are now confident enough in their creation to announce it to all transit riders. Like many U.S. cities, the region now has its own mobile, web-based application by which people can see how close a bus is on any route. The app uses public data that each bus transmits every two or three minutes via GPS technology to Hampton Roads Transit, the public agency that runs the region's bus network. The app can be found at

The list of publicly funded lawyers hired to deal with issues related to federal and state investigations into Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is growing — as is the price tag for Virginia taxpayers. According to documents released Friday by the attorney general’s office, a private lawyer charging $250 an hour was hired in August to handle inquiries at Virginia Commonwealth University from federal prosecutors examining McDonnell’s relationship with a wealthy donor.
Washington Post

James City County's treasurer was busy Monday assuring residents that their private information was not compromised after they received erroneous real estate property tax bills. Residents began receiving the bills Friday and noticed that a "care of" line had been inserted onto the bills and seemingly random entities had been inserted. In fact, Treasurer Ann Davis' bill itself was wrong, and had a local timeshare listed as the contact, she said.
Virginia Gazette

Perhaps the best information on the costs -- though not necessarily the benefits -- of Medicaid expansion in Alaska under the Affordable Care Act are contained in a report prepared under a state contract by the Lewin Group of Falls Church, Va. The finished report was delivered to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services April 12. Though it was prepared with $80,000 in public funds, was designed to inform public policy, is owned by the state, contains no reference to national security, doesn't mention the names of undercover officers or informants, and doesn't reference intelligence gathering techniques, it remains virtually a state secret. The governor’s administration has refused at least eight requests from legislators, the media and nonprofits for a copy of the Lewin report, saying it is nondisclosable because it forms part of the executive branch's "deliberative process."
Anchorage Daily News

While the Richmond School Board allotted for 3,888 employees in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, school officials used a staff as large as 5,236 one month, according to the report from Richmond Auditor Umesh Dalal. Dalal’s report on the payroll function in the school system painted a picture of a dysfunctional, disorganized approach to hiring, supervising and paying employees. It said the school system has no consistent means of tracking time and attendance, made liberal use of overtime pay, has little if any command of the recording and use of comp time, and exercised inconsistent hiring and supervisory control in its more than 60 schools and departments.

Virginia’s hunting and fishing department, which collects money for some other agencies and then reimburses them, overpaid one agency by nearly $1 million in one month — and later underpaid that same agency more than $500,000. Those are among the findings of an audit of the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. A report of the audit was released Monday. The audit found, among other things:
• The game department did not adequately track and reimburse money collected on behalf of other agencies.
• The department “does not secure one of its databases,” which stores sensitive information such as Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers, in accordance with state and industry standards. There was no indication that any personal information was compromised.

National Stories

For years, a school principal’s job was to make sure students were not creating a ruckus in the hallways or smoking in the bathroom. Vigilance ended at the schoolhouse gates. Now, as students complain, taunt and sometimes cry out for help on social media, educators have more opportunities to monitor students around the clock. And some schools are turning to technology to help them. Several companies offer services to filter and glean what students do on school networks; a few now offer automated tools to comb through off-campus postings for signs of danger. For school officials, this raises new questions about whether they should — or legally can — discipline children for their online outbursts.
New York Times

Indiana State Board of Education members Troy Albert, David Freitas and Sarah O’Brien have joined Gary attorney Tony Walker in asking a lawsuit brought by the state superintendent be dismissed. Glenda Ritz filed suit against the other 10 members of the State Board Tuesday, alleging a letter they set to Republican lawmakers last week violated Indiana’s Open Door Law. In a letter released by the governor’s office, the four board members denied that a secret meeting took place.
Indiana Public Media

May. Shall. They’re two simple words, yet each plays a specific and critical role in the language of law. And now those two words are at the center of a Central Indiana prosecutor’s challenge to a new state law that can wipe away someone’s old criminal record. Indiana’s “expungement” statute is intended to provide a second chance to Hoosiers struggling to overcome old, relatively minor criminal convictions that can stifle employment, housing and volunteer opportunities. Erasing the record can help clear the way. Morgan County Prosecutor Steve Sonnega’s concern, which prompted him to challenge the constitutionality of the law, centers on the legislature’s use of “shall,” rather than “may,” in describing how a judge can rule on an expungement request. In legal lingo, “shall” is a must-do directive, while “may” denotes some degree of judicial discretion.
Indianapolis Star

Connecticut’s regional garbage agency won a victory this week when the state Freedom of Information Commission blocked the release of additional emails by former House Speaker Thomas D. Ritter on the grounds that they were covered by attorney-client privilege. The FOI battle, which has already lasted for nearly two years, could now extend longer if, as expected, it heads to Superior Court in an appeal. The clash could have potentially broader implications at the state Capitol if some communications between lawyer-lobbyists and their clients are deemed secret.
Hartford Courant

Health care workers, medical groups and even a few patients pressured Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon before he halted what would have been the first execution with the anesthetic propofol. The anticipated use of propofol in administering the death penalty fueled concerns that the anti-death penalty European Union could limit its export. Before he halted a planned October execution, Nixon's office received several dozen letters and messages asking him to put off the execution and to order development of a new death penalty protocol. Nixon's office provided The Associated Press with correspondence it received before the decision. Many messages to the governor took little position on the death penalty and instead focused on propofol.
News Tribune

The executive order from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that set up the Moreland Commission spells out that the three co-chairs must unanimously approve any subpoena prior to its issuance. But two of the co-chairs are district attorneys who have collected campaign contributions and may be recusing themselves to avoid potential conflicts, according to the Moreland Commission's spokeswoman. How can the trio of leaders issue subpoenas proposed to go to campaign contributors of the co-chairs if they are rendering themselves ineligible on certain probes?
Albany Times Union


Virginian-Pilot: There are enormous issues for Portsmouth as the terrible deal between the state and ERC begins to take shape in concrete and steel. So it's worth asking why the City Council will waste lung power and time in an internecine fight that has less to do with the matter at hand and more to do with tiresome political battles, the kind endemic and paralyzing to Portsmouth progress. If it is entirely reasonable to question the resulting decision and certainly its method, the outcry on the council - from Danny Meeks, Paige Cherry, Bill Moody and Elizabeth Psimas - can't conceal the lingering political divisions among the city's leadership. "There's no communication between the mayor and council," Meeks told Eberly on Friday. "He's on a runaway train with his own agenda." Wright too casually dismisses such concerns by characterizing them as "politics." But a larger point is inescapable: The concern from the City Council is coming largely from members unlikely to support many moves by this mayor.

Virginian-Pilot: It's hard to know where to focus anger over widespread spying by America's National Security Agency, which increasingly appears to be out of control. On Monday, a Spanish newspaper reported that the NSA had collected information on 60 million phone calls in Spain between Dec. 10, 2012 and Jan. 8, 2013. A U.S. State Department official says more reports are likely "given the quantity of classified information leaked by (Edward) Snowden," a former NSA contractor. Had Snowden not disseminated records of the spying, most Americans would never have known the extent to which their government was keeping track of their lives. His sharing of top-secret documents was criminal, and Snowden is living in Russia to avoid U.S. attempts to arrest him. But even as he must pay for his actions, they provide an unprecedented glimpse into the U.S. government's intelligence efforts. That view is embarrassing, a danger to American freedoms and to our standing in the world.

News & Advance: Let’s be realistic for a moment: Nations, both friends and enemies, have been spying on each other since time immemorial. Whether adversaries spying for military and defensive purposes or allies snooping for economic gain or strategic advantage, it’s nothing new. Just look at the famous case from the 1980s of American intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard, a spy on Israel’s payroll. And why did Israel snoop on its greatest benefactor? Because they thought Washington was holding back on information Tel Aviv wanted. But the global data sweep the N.S.A. has been conducting for years goes far beyond the “normal” spying. Communications data for tens of millions of citizens in foreign countries collected. Metadata of American citizens collected on the authority of secret orders issued by a secret court. And now monitoring of the communications of the head of state of one of the United States’ most important allies in Europe.