Transparency News 12/16/13

Monday, December 16, 2013
State and Local Stories


As attorneys and judges in Richmond carved out the ground rules for the statewide recount in the attorney general race last week, Spooner Hull logged more than 2,000 miles on Virginia roads in five days to make sure that the voting equipment will be ready to process tens of thousands of ballots in the coming days.
News & Advance

Virginia’s top mental health official clashed with the state inspector general for behavioral health last year over a report that faulted the mental health system’s handling of emergency services for people who posed a danger to themselves or others, according to documents obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The report sounded an alarm over gaps in Virginia’s emergency services for people in psychiatric crisis that now grip the attention of state policymakers. Last month, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, was attacked by his 24-year-old son, Austin C. “Gus” Deeds, who then killed himself — 13 hours after being released from emergency custody because an appropriate bed in a psychiatric hospital couldn’t be found. Internal documents obtained Friday by The Times-Dispatch under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act show disagreement between James W. Stewart III, commissioner for behavioral health and developmental services, and then-Inspector General G. Douglas Bevelacqua, who is investigating the Deeds case for the Office of the State Inspector General that was created last year.

The National Park Service has refused to honor Freedom of Information Act requests regarding conversations on barricading Mount Vernon during the government shutdown. The reason? It would have a “chilling effect on the agency’s deliberative processes,” according to a statement given to National Review.
Washington Times

After weeks of legal wrangling, a recount of the closest statewide election in Virginia history begins Monday. By the end of the week, Virginians should know who will serve as their next attorney general — unless the loser chooses to prolong the fight. At 7 a.m. in Fairfax County and the cities of Alexandria and Chesapeake, election officials will begin tallying the votes — again — under the watchful eyes of observers from the campaigns of state Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) and Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg).
Washington Post

Virginia’s largest voting jurisdiction is set to begin a recount Monday for the tightest race in state history, even as one candidate raises concerns about the conduct of the election. Fairfax County is scheduled to start recounting more than 300,000 ballots cast in the state attorney general’s race between Republican Mark D. Obenshain and Mark R. Herring, a Democrat who leads his opponent by a mere 165 votes out of more than 2.2 million ballots cast last month. Brian W. Schoeneman, secretary of the Fairfax Electoral Board, said the board was investigating Mr. Obenshain’s claims, “but we are confident that the issues here were simply the result of inadvertent errors by Election Officials, the integrity of the ballots was not compromised, and there is no evidence of any tampering.
Washington Times

National Stories

A Maine legislative panel is examining whether to set a deadline for government officials to release documents sought under freedom-of-information laws, but those officials argue it can take months to fulfill such requests because of a bombardment of queries seeking hundreds of pages of records. The Republican governor's office says responding to requests from news organizations and advocacy groups takes up a lot its time and resources. Under Maine's Freedom of Access Act, officials must acknowledge within five days that they've received a request. Records for inspection or copying must be produced "within a reasonable amount of time," but there's no law saying how quickly they have to produce the documents. A lack of specificity in the law opens it to interpretation and abuse, say advocates for freedom of information.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Wicomico County, Md., used executive privilege to deny part of a Freedom of Information Act request from The Daily Times regarding the county’s policy on making mug shots public. Submitted in October, The Daily Times request asked for emails by county staff regarding how and when the detention center released photographs of detainees to news organizations. The county responded this week with some emails but said any involving County Executive Rick Pollitt would not be released.

American intelligence and law enforcement investigators have concluded that they may never know the entirety of what the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden extracted from classified government computers before leaving the United States, according to senior government officials. Investigators remain in the dark about the extent of the data breach partly because the N.S.A. facility in Hawaii where Mr. Snowden worked — unlike other N.S.A. facilities — was not equipped with up-to-date software that allows the spy agency to monitor which corners of its vast computer landscape its employees are navigating at any given time.
New York Times

“On Thursday I served Rob Ford with a libel notice, the first step in the process of pursuing a defamation lawsuit,” Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale wrote in an article Thursday, explaining why he’d chosen to take legal action against Toronto’s controversial mayor. “As my libel notice says, I’m asking Ford to immediately retract the false insinuation that I am a pedophile and all of his false statements about my conduct on May 2, 2012. I’m also asking Ford and Vision owner ZoomerMedia to apologize immediately ‘publicly, abjectly, unreservedly and completely.’”

School districts across the United States are failing to properly protect troves of sensitive student data as they rush to adopt new online systems pitched by private companies, a report released on Friday found. Most of the 23 school districts studied had inadequate privacy protections and poorly defined contracts with outside vendors that left student data vulnerable, said the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School, which conducted the review.

A contractor that worked on the Obama administration's health care website agreed to turn over documents subpoenaed by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, determining that a request by the Department of Health and Human Services to keep the documents private did not apply.
Blog of LegalTimes


Open Virginia Law: As we recently noted in praising the Fairfax Electoral Board’s transparency, the race to be the next Virginia Attorney General is not over.  The current venue is Richmond Circuit Court, where a three-judge panel is presiding over a statewide recount that will take place starting today in Fairfax and tomorrow across the rest of the Commonwealth. Although there are many cases that have a public impact or are otherwise newsworthy, it’s hard to imagine a circuit court case that the public has more of an interest in observing closely than the recount case (Obenshain v. Herring, Richmond Cir. Ct. case no. CL13-5272).  But an erroneous legal interpretation means that if you want to follow that fast-moving case and are not a Virginia attorney who has paid the Richmond Circuit Court for remote access, you’re essentially out of luck.

Register & Bee: From a political standpoint, voting to raise your own wages can give a challenger a ready-made issue during the next election. From a public policy standpoint, though, it makes little sense for anyone on the city payroll — whether that person is putting out fires, collecting electric bills or enforcing laws — to have to work for the same wages, year after year. This is an opportunity for the members of Danville City Council to apply some different thinking to this old issue.Rather than just raise compensation rates, a better system would allow the citizens who elect each member of City Council to know how much they will be paid.

Bob Gibson, Times-Dispatch: The Virginia General Assembly that I covered for 20 years occupies the same physical space but is a different place today. Every 10 years, a partisan majority that redraws district lines drives a sharper stake through the heart of each chamber, as if trying to vanquish the vampire that has been cast as the other party. Some of the unhealthiest changes in politics during the past three decades are related to the super-partisan redistricting that follows each federal census. The aisles separating Democrats and Republicans in the legislature are growing wider and more hazardous for members to cross. Areas where compromise and cooperation could be reached are harder to find.