Transparency News, 12/6/21

December 6, 2021

follow us on TwitterFacebook & Instagram

state & local news stories
In virtually every federal court in the United States, members of the public can access court documents — lawsuits, indictments, judge’s orders — from their home computer, at a cost of 10 cents per page. In 37 states and the District of Columbia, according to Courthouse News Service (CNS), the public can also call up dockets and actual legal filings online, often for free.  But not in Virginia or Maryland. In both states, access is granted only to attorneys, and to the individual parties to a case. Now, CNS has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Richmond challenging Virginia’s restricted access to online records, citing First Amendment precedents that guarantee public access to the courts, and 14th Amendment and federal civil rights laws ensuring equal protection for all. “We have long been complaining about the dual system of access,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. The courts have said they fear that public users will access people’s private information, whether it’s their birth date or Social Security number, and abuse it. Rhyne said the answer to that is to require lawyers to redact such information before filing a document or posting it online.
The Washington Post

A Suffolk Circuit Court judge has awarded just over $19,500 in attorney’s fees and costs to a woman who he previously ruled was denied access to a July School Board retreat in violation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. During a Nov. 23 hearing, Judge Matthew A. Glassman awarded $17,520 in attorney’s fees and $1,983.56 in costs to Dr. Deborah Wahlstrom, who he ruled Sept. 20 “was denied free entry” into the July 22 retreat at the College and Career Academy at Pruden. Deborah Collins, who along with School Board attorney Wendell Waller represented the board, argued that Wahlstrom “was not entitled to an award of attorney’s fees and costs as she has not substantially prevailed on the merits of the case.” The brief also stated that an award of attorney’s fees and costs was unjust because it “did not affect the substance of any action taken by the School Board, the violation did not prevent the public’s knowledge of the people’s business, the School Board made good faith, reasonable efforts to conduct its business in the open and in view of the public and the School Board relied on an opinion and guidance letter by the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.”
Suffolk News-Herald

A parent was told by Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia that it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to gain access to all the public records relating to sexual assault and rape incidents across several months this year. The parent, Michelle Mege, was informed $36,000 would be the tab for the county to respond to her Freedom of Information Act request fully on Oct. 18, according to the Daily Caller . In particular, she requested access to "all communications, including press releases, statements, emails, or other correspondence in any format within the LCPS possession" that contained the words "sexual assault" or "rape" between May 1 and Oct. 18. Wayde Byard, a public information officer with Loudoun County Public Schools, said there were 100,065 “potential documents” in response to her request. “Retrieving these documents would take a half hour’s work by the supervisor of information technology at a cost of $36.08,” he added. “Review of these documents, at the rate of 200 per hour, is estimated to take 500 hours. This work would be performed by the public information officer at the rate of $72.15 per hour. Loudoun County Public Schools estimates it would cost $36,111.68 to fulfill this request.”
Washington Examiner

The pedestal that held the now-gone statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — and that last summer became a vivid display of frustration toward police violence and systemic racism — will be removed from its place on Richmond’s Monument Avenue by state officials before the end of the year. The decision, which state officials announced suddenly on Sunday, was the product of behind-the-scenes deliberations between the state and the city of Richmond. It’s not clear how or why the state and the city arrived at the sudden decision to remove the pedestal, but a Northam aide said it was important to the governor to see the land transferred to the city before he left office.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Republican Glenn Youngkin’s wealth helped catapult him from political nobody to Virginia’s executive mansion, investing $20 million of his own money into his campaign. It was a drop in the bucket of a fortune valued over $450 million, with his financial holdings eclipsing the annual budgets of several state agencies he’ll soon manage. The money now poses potential conflicts of interest as Youngkin prepares to be sworn in as governor, with only some of his holdings in a blind trust. And while the businessman has complied with state disclosure laws, he has declined to hand over tax returns that would paint a fuller picture of his wealth. Youngkin will inherit a state government with some of the laxest ethics rules in the country, according to one ranking, with promised reforms making little headway under generations of Democratic and Republican leaders. Youngkin is not the first wealthy governor to use a blind trust. Democrat Mark Warner, who entered the executive mansion with his own unprecedented wealth in 2002, took the same step. Neither of his successors -- Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Bob McDonnell -- used a trust. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe sold his assets of GreenTech Automotive, a firm he co-founded that faced federal investigation and a lawsuit from Chinese investors, after winning office in 2013. He also moved his sizable assets into a blind trust. As a state senator, Gov. Ralph Northam took votes related to Dominion Energy while also holding the company’s stock. The stock became an issue on the campaign trail and the Democrat ultimately put all his assets in a blind trust.
stories from around the country
"Emails obtained by the newspaper document the administration’s shift in tone."
Although nothing in the Constitution or federal law explicitly says presidents are immune from indictment while they remain in office, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has asserted that they are. A newly disclosed legal memo from the office of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Clinton, challenges that analysis. The National Archives made the memo public in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The New York Times.
The New York Times

Before blaming the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was preparing to thank the newspaper for discovering a significant data vulnerability, according to records obtained by the Post-Dispatch through a Sunshine Law request. In an Oct. 12 email to officials in Gov. Mike Parson’s office, Mallory McGowin, spokeswoman for DESE, sent proposed statements for a press release announcing the data vulnerability the newspaper uncovered. “We are grateful to the member of the media who brought this to the state’s attention,” said a proposed quote from Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven. The Parson administration and DESE did not end up using that quote. The next day, on Oct. 13, the Office of Administration issued a news release calling the Post-Dispatch journalist a “hacker.” Emails obtained by the newspaper document the administration’s shift in tone.
editorials & opinion
"The opacity surrounding the Youngkin transition, especially in its dealings with lobbyists, is a sharp contrast with other transfers of power — Democratic and Republican."
Those selective disclosures by Youngkin, who earned $39.8 million last year and will donate his $175,000-a-year gubernatorial salary to charity, are not confined to his finances. They apply to his unannounced enlistment of lobbyists, most with Republican pedigrees, for advice on fashioning his government. These lobbyists — from firms large and small — must sign non-disclosure agreements, muzzling them from discussing publicly their role in the Youngkin transition. The NDAs also deny the lobbyists, a number of whom were aides to McDonnell and Gov. George Allen, a selling point for generating business: proximity to those at the highest level of the new regime. The NDAs appear to be working in another respect. Texts, emails and telephone calls from yours truly to several of these lobbyists — their clients include energy, education, construction, health, tobacco, and manufacturing interests — went unanswered. The opacity surrounding the Youngkin transition, especially in its dealings with lobbyists, is a sharp contrast with other transfers of power — Democratic and Republican.
Jeff Schapiro, Richmond Times-Dispatch