Transparency News 10/7/13


Monday, October 7, 2013
State and Local Stories


Should Virginia place limits on gifts to politicians? The controversy surrounding gifts and loans by a wealthy businessman to Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family has revealed a lack of transparency in the rules that govern gifts that flow to elected officials. At the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s 48th Public Square, we want to hear your ideas about how to clean up gift-giving and reporting in state government. Our panel of experts includes Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government; Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association; and Andrew Cain, politics editor for The Times-Dispatch.

Virginia’s conflict of interest statute requires members of local governing bodies and school boards in jurisdictions with a population of more than 3,500 to file disclosure statements each year. But for the most part, scrutiny of the disclosures and how they relate to public business is largely left up to the public, the media and the officials themselves. For example, former Henrico County School Board member Diana D. Winston listed her husband’s promotional products company on her financial disclosure forms, but Henrico officials still seemed surprised to learn this summer that the company, TechnoMarketing Inc., was doing business with the school district to the tune of up to $22,366 per year.

The gift scandal that has engulfed the governorship of Gov. Bob McDonnell in recent months has increased public pressure to reform Virginia’s lax laws on what lawmakers can take and what they have to disclose to the public. McDonnell, in the last year of his four-year term, is under state and federal investigation regarding his acceptance and disclosure of gifts provided by a wealthy donor. While his future is in the hands of investigators, lawmakers and the men seeking to succeed the governor have charted their own course on what needs to change regarding the influence of gifts and gaps in transparency in existing law.

Henrico County schools Superintendent Patrick J. Russo has been paid almost $40,000 in his two months on leave, but the School Board members who put him there are still refusing to offer any details on why he was relieved of his duties and when they expect to reach a resolution.

The Daily Press filed a motion Friday challenging a judge's ruling that restricts publication of information revealed in open court. During a preliminary hearing on Wednesday, a judge granted a motion forbidding the media from publishing the names of witnesses who were testifying against Antwain Steward, 22, of Newport News. S Robin Farkas, senior assistant commonwealth's attorney for Newport News, requested the motion citing safety concerns for the witnesses, which included three inmates and two others. Two police officers and a forensic technician who testified during the hearing were not included in the provisions of the motion.
Daily Press

The Culpeper County Commonwealth's Attorney has a message for the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors: she's not sorry for calling them corrupt.  "There will be no apology," said Megan Frederick, less than a year on the job as the county's first-ever female prosecutor. "That's all I want to say right now."   Her statement to the Star-Exponent last week referred to a recent email she sent to her supporters in which said county supervisors attempted to bully her and referred to "incompetent and corrupt members of the board." When the county board learned of the email, they were outraged, and have since filed a complaint against Frederick with the Virginia State Bar.   "I have no problem telling anybody why I said what I said," Frederick said of her corruption allegation, "but out of respect for the bar complaint I really don't want to give details."

National Stories

Mug shots are merely artifacts of an arrest, not proof of a conviction, and many people whose images are now on display — on websites that charge a fee to remove them — were never found guilty, or the charges against them were dropped. But these pictures can cause serious reputational damage.
New York Times


Roanoke Times: A combination of poor preparation by Virginia election officials and melodrama from the state Democratic Party threatens to politicize what should be a common goal: clean voter rolls. At the center of the controversy is a new database containing the names of 57,000 individuals who may have duplicate registrations to vote in Virginia and other states. Virginia Democrats are suing Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, accusing them of using the database to try to keep legitimate voters from participating in this year’s elections. Several registrars have reported errors in the database, and most are struggling to wade through lists of hundreds of voters at a time of the year when they are already overwhelmed with election preparations. While Democratic leaders warn of dark conspiracies, registrars have a strong motivation not to carelessly cancel registrations. The last thing they need is a long queue of unhappy people on Election Day.

Del. Richard Anderson, Inside NOVA: As the eyes of the country focus on November elections in our commonwealth, the eyes of our fellow Virginians are focused on ethics reform in Mr. Jefferson’s Virginia state capitol. And that responsibility for reform rests squarely on the shoulders of the General Assembly. Having spent 30 years in the uniform of the greatest Air Force the world has ever known, and living under the exacting ethical standards imposed on military members, I am concerned about ethical guidelines for those who serve in public office. Now is the time to do the right thing.

Daily Progress: The Albemarle County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office must make better progress toward meeting fundamental standards. Repeatedly failing to do so is alarming and unacceptable. And that’s what we said last year (“Clerk’s office in need of a serious look,” The Daily Progress, Sept. 23, 2012). For the fourth consecutive year, the state auditor’s office reported errors that might have realized money for the county or commonwealth. It’s not uncommon for audits to find problems; no office can be managed perfectly. But a pattern of errors, year in and year out, is troubling.

Ginger Stanley, Times-Dispatch: Citizens expect their newspaper to report human interest stories, spotlight worthwhile causes and show every phase of life from cradle to grave in the printed pages. We celebrate a child’s first art project award, highlight the high school football team’s win and the loss of a loved one — all on our pages. Strong and growing communities rely on their local newspaper to hold public officials accountable because that is our role and it makes “home” a better place to live. We advocate more openness in government on our opinion pages and praise elected officials when they do the right thing. Government accountability is vital to a strong community and is what we strive to protect — the citizens’ right to know what their public officials are doing or planning to do that will affect how we go about our everyday living. We report on crime at every level with our readers’ safety as the prime motivation. We place this role, partnering with law enforcement to highlight dangers in the reader’s area, on high priority.

Peter Funt, News VirginianThe biggest threat to newspapers today might be newspapers themselves — or, to be more precise, the companies that own them. This week Gannett’s USA Today doubled its cover price from one dollar to two. Can you think of any other struggling business that would raise prices 100 percent? Many publishers have concluded, perhaps correctly, that ink-on-paper editions will not survive too far into the future. What is reckless — for papers and their readers — is that management is taking misguided steps to try and speed the process.

Josh Gerstein, Politico: A federal judge has rejected, for now, much of a bid by two drug companies tokeep under wraps reports they submit to the federal government detailing episodes where employees may have violated federal laws or regulations. Pfizer, Purdue Pharmaceuticals and HHS all argued to keep secret the companies' submissions under so-called corporate integrity agreements, where firms settle criminal and/or civil charges by agreeing to rigorous federal oversight. The oversight includes mandatory reporting on all allegations the company learns of regarding improper activities involving drug sales, marketing, pricing and the like.

Leonard Downie, Washington Post: In the Watergate era, the Nixon administration’s telephone wiretaps were the biggest concern for journalists and sources worried about government surveillance. That was one of the reasons why Bob Woodward met with FBI official Mark Felt (a.k.a. “Deep Throat”) in an underground parking garage in Arlington, and why he and Carl Bernstein did much of their reporting by knocking on the front doors of their sources’ homes. Except for the aborted prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg for the leak of the Pentagon Papers, criminal culpability or pervasive surveillance were not major concerns, especially after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974. Not so now. With the passage of the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a vast expansion of intelligence agencies and their powers, the aggressive exploitation of intrusive digital surveillance capabilities, the excessive classification of public documents and officials’ sophisticated control of the news media’s access to the workings of government, journalists who cover national security are facing vast and unprecedented challenges in their efforts to hold the government accountable to its citizens. They find that government officials are increasingly fearful of talking to them, and they worry that their communications with sources can be monitored at any time.

Ken Paulson, First Amendment Center: A University of Kansas journalism professor has blown up his own career with a tweet following the shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. His tweet: “blood is on the hands of the #NRA.  Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”  The tweet was insensitive, disturbing and dumb, and elicited exactly the kind of reaction you would expect. Kansas legislators are calling for Associate Professor David W. Guth to lose his job.  Kansas Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce told the Associated Press, “Wishing death and damnation upon parents and their children is reprehensible and not befitting an employee of such a distinguished university.” Of course, the rush to fire Guth faces one significant obstacle.  It is precisely the kind of free speech that the First Amendment is intended to protect.