Transparency News 2/11/20



February 11, 2020

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state & local news stories


A majority of the Richmond City Council voted Monday night to strike the downtown redevelopment proposal from its docket, citing a lack of transparency, financial risk to the city and other issues. The council vote came after more than two hours of public comment from supporters and opponents of the project that centered around replacing the Richmond Coliseum. Some who spoke showed up three hours before the meeting to address the council. 
Richmond Times-Dispatch 

proposal to revise part of the Virginia Constitution that provides immunity from certain criminal charges for legislators won’t be dealt with this year. The Senate Rules Committee voted Friday to halt the legislation. Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, proposed the amendment to the constitution in response to a recent incident involving Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, that drew attention to the legislative immunity. Nearly all of the Republican senators signed on to the legislation. No Democrats did. At the committee meeting, Reeves said Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, asked him if he brought the proposal “in a political nature.” Reeves said he didn’t. “I had no idea we had immunity as legislators,” Reeves said. A reporter asked Reeves after he filed the legislation if he learned about legislative immunity when he went through the police academy, and he said he recalled learning that.
The Roanoke Times 

In an unprecedented move, Fauquier County government’s long-time No. 2 administrator last week got placed on administrative leave. Deputy County Administrator Catherine M. “Katie” Heritage’s suspension apparently took effect Friday. Mrs. Heritage, 57, couldn’t be reached for comment. Her supervisor County Administrator Paul S. McCulla refused to discuss the abrupt action. Out of the office Monday for personal reasons, Mr. McCulla said in a text: “I have no comment (on) any story you might be doing.”As a county administrator, Mrs. Heritage’s areas of responsibility have or continue to include emergency services, public safety, courts, social services, economic development, parks and recreation, the Warrenton-Fauquier Airport and the county landfill. Mrs. Heritage also has overseen Fauquier’s human resources, information technology, finance and budget offices. Since 2003, she has served as the government’s public information officer and General Assembly legislative coordinator. 

Winchester City Council member John A. Willingham is seeking to get his public intoxication arrest expunged. “I’m human like everyone else,” Willingham said on Monday about the arrest. “I want go get on my life, which is why I’m going through with the expungement.” Willingham was stumbling drunk and unable to stay on the sidewalk when he was arrested as he walked down Indian Alley between East Piccadilly and North Loudoun streets on Nov. 16, according to a criminal complaint written by police Officer Nicholas P. Handl. He said Willingham’s speech was “slurred and incoherent,” his eyes were glassy and he smelled of alcohol. Willingham’s case was dismissed in Winchester General District Court on Dec. 6. Because the case was dismissed, the Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office was not involved in the case, according to Heather Hovermale, deputy commonwealth’s attorney. While not disputing the police account, Willingham’s attorney William A. “Beau” Bassler noted on Monday that Willingham has no prior record and was cooperative with police. In those circumstances, Bassler said it’s typical for public intoxication charges to be dismissed without the defendant pleading guilty or paying a fine. Bassler and Williingham said no favoritism was shown to Willingham because he’s a councilman.
The Winchester Star 

stories of national interest

A federal judge Monday dismissed a lawsuit brought by historians and watchdog groups to compel the White House to preserve records of President Trump’s calls and meetings with foreign leaders, saying that Congress would have to change presidential archiving laws to allow the courts to do so. Federal courts have ruled that the Presidential Records Act is one of the rare statutes that judges cannot review, and that another law, the Federal Records Act, does not specify exactly how agency heads should preserve records, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said in a 22-page opinion. “The Court is bound by Circuit precedent to find that it lacks authority to oversee the President’s day-to-day compliance with the statutory provisions involved in this case,” Jackson wrote of the U.S. Court of the Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. However, the judge added pointedly, “This opinion will not address, and should not be interpreted to endorse, the challenged practices; nor does it include any finding that the Executive Office is in compliance with its obligations.”
The Washington Post 

During a City Council meeting last week, Chula Vista, Calif., Police Chief Roxana Kennedy told a story about how officers avoided tragedy while responding to a 911 call about a man waiving a small gun around in front of a taco shop on Broadway Street. The first thing the department did was send a drone. It arrived in less than a minute and before any patrol vehicles got to the scene. As the only law enforcement agency that is part of the FAA's Integration Pilot Program, a program that seeks to establish the ground rules of incorporating drones into the national airspace, the Chula Vista Police Department is shaping drone policy that police departments throughout the country could one day adopt. When the department began telling the community about the drone program back in 2017, there was some reservation from the public. "We had questions," said Norma Cazares, local activist and co-chair of the police department's Community Advisory Committee. "One of the things the majority of the group was concerned about was private issues." However, those concerns were put at ease when the department told the commission that it had been in contact with the ACLU and reviewed best practices while coming up with its drone policy. The department committed to not using drones for general surveillance. Instead, drones are dispatched when a 911 call comes in. Additionally, the department committed to transparency measures. Specifically, it established a publicly-accessible website that tracks each drone's flight path including the time and reason for the launch. On top of that, the department keeps daily statistics on how often drones are used and for what reasons.

Last week's cyberattack on Louisiana ITI College in Baton Rouge — which followed similar attacks in New Orleans and elsewhere in the state — suggests that hackers have no intention of leaving Louisiana alone. If that's the case, the state is in good company. More than 110 local and state governments across the country have faced similar problems, as cybersecurity, once a low priority for many jurisdictions, has become a top concern in the last year. The attack method of choice is ransomware: malicious software that locks up computers and demands payment from its victims to allow them access. While it is not a new phenomenon, it has boomed as some governments, overwhelmed by sophisticated technology, have paid out big sums that have kept the thieves coming. Though finding the hackers can be difficult, many FBI investigations have traced attacks to organized crime syndicates in Iran, China, North Korea and Russia. Vorndran said these international mobsters were behind most of the more than 40 attacks on Louisiana agencies since last July. Their motives are "purely financial," he said, adding that ransomware has become to mobsters these days what bank heists were to their predecessors decades ago. Ransomware attacks are up across all types of organizations, but there has been a particularly noticeable increase in attacks on local governments, Liska said. In part that's because local governments are more likely than private industry to publicly admit when they've been compromised, and those reports become used in advertising for various malicious software schemes, he said. Agencies that don't back up important data to external hard drives, the internet or the cloud are more at risk, Vorndran said. And any organization can be compromised if it doesn't train its employees to avoid dubious emails, the most common trigger of such attacks.