Transparency News 2/15/17

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

State and Local Stories
Speaking to the Newport News City Council on Tuesday, a top airport official defended the Peninsula Airport Commission's trust in People Express when it decided to guarantee a $4.5 million loan for the startup airline — a decision that has prompted the state to pull certain funding from the airport and has inspired tighter rules for airports' use of state funds. Councilwoman Sharon Scott, who is currently on the commission but wasn't when the loan was guaranteed, said her "only regret" is that the airline was allowed to draw $4.5 million. She asked that airport officials provide bank records that show how the loan money was used. The Daily Press has requested that same information in a Freedom of Information Act request.
Daily Press

After years of operating with none, the Norfolk City Council will soon have some rules. During the second day of a strategic retreat, the council agreed to have the city manager and other officials draw up the first-ever written guidelines governing how meetings run and how members propose legislation. The proposed rules must be approved by the council before going into effect. Until now, city staffers turned off cameras before the public comment period began. Starting Feb. 28, Alexander said, the cameras will stay on. The full meetings will be aired on television and archived on YouTube. Some former council members, including longtime Mayor Paul Fraim, opposed televising public comments because they thought it would lead to grandstanding.

The Portsmouth City Council on Tuesday voted to hold a hearing at which they’ll consider firing five Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority board members. The council introduced the item at the conclusion of Tuesday night’s regular council meeting. It was not on the agenda.

A new state audit has found problems with the cybersecurity of Virginia Department of Taxation. The recently released audit said that the state’s information technology partnership with Northrop Grumman has not updated critical security patches to protect the tax department’s systems. The audit said that at one point in August 2016, one critical and 490 highly important security patches were absent. The state’s cybersecurity rules call for software updates to be installed within 90 days of release. The Department of Taxation said it’s working with the partnership to make sure its security patches are up to date.
Washington Post

National Stories

In 2015, the editor of a newspaper in Florida filed a public records request with the Broward County Sheriff's Office asking for the email of every employee during a five-month period to be searched for specific gay slurs. In response, the South Florida Gay News received a $339,000 bill. The office said fulfilling the request would take four years and require hiring a dedicated staffer. The exorbitant charge set off a year-long legal battle that attracted the Associated Press and its lofty resources. To show how arbitrary the number was, the AP and South Florida Gay News filed a similar request to the sheriff's office in other Florida counties. They were quoted fees ranging from as little as $37 to more than $44,000.  Why then is there such a big range of costs for similar information?

Sexual harassment isn't uncommon in state legislatures, although the number of complaints has never been compiled. Men hold, on average, more than 75 percent of the seats, along with most of the positions of power, while women compose a high percentage of staff members, office employees, interns and lobbyists. Just last month a South Dakota legislator resigned after admitting having sexual contact with two interns, and a Tennessee lawmaker was expelled last year over reported sexual advances involving as many as 22 women. Sex scandals roiled at least eight other statehouses in the last few years. Despite persistent incidents, many legislatures lack formal procedures for dealing with sexual harassment. While corporate America, colleges and government agencies have established processes for investigating complaints, state legislatures remain an often murky domain in which top leaders have broad latitude over how or whether to pursue allegations and can sidetrack them if they choose.
AP News

Private email for public business was a front and center controversy during the presidential election. Now the I-Team discovers some Maine lawmakers routinely bypass the state email server and use their personal accounts for state business, raising questions of transparency and accountability. Even when they're in session, most Maine lawmakers are never far from their devices and their emails, in constant contact with lobbyists, donors, and their constituents. "It has become so important in conducting business," said Grant Pennoyer, executive director, Maine legislature. "Legislative business is done on your legislative email," said Rep. Kevin Battle (I-South Portland). Battle said it's pretty straightforward, but the I-Team counted 14 of our 35 state senators listing a personal email address on his or her senate bio page and most told us they routinely use those personal accounts.


Under current law, Virginia’s elected officials can use campaign donations for pretty much anything they want: college tuition, expensive jewelry, even a downpayment on a yacht. Most officeholders don’t go to such extremes. But they still bill their campaigns for all sorts of dubious reasons, including thousands of dollars in cellphone bills, fancy dinners and expensive hotel stays — despite the fact that legislators, for instance, receive per diem allowances to cover travel costs and personal expenses when they’re on government time, in addition to a $15,000 office allowance.  The wide-open use of campaign funds for personal reasons is not only legal, it’s also not even checked. The state Board of Elections does not audit campaign expenditures. If this does not make the commonwealth unique in the nation, it certainly makes the state unusual. And unwise. This year a couple of lawmakers introduced bills to put guardrails on the use of campaign funds. They have gone nowhere.
Richmond Times-Dispatch


The House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a prohibitive majority, kills any effort to reform the redistricting process that has given them legislative control. Soon after cross-over, when House bills go to the Senate and vice versa, a subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee then kills the Senate measures near dawn. That happened on Tuesday morning while most Virginians were getting ready for work. If there’s any consolation in this process — and you have to look hard to find it — the vote was recordedthis year. So Virginia can get a good look at the legislators thwarting democracy in Virginia and defying the will of most voters.

It isn't always illegal for federal employees to use private email. But maybe it's about time it should be. There are a lot of strict rules about it already that are violated routinely. The government has a legitimate interest in discouraging the practice, based on both the need to retain government records for FOIA requests and obviously the handling of classified information. Federal employees are already required to make any private emails about government business available for FOIA requests, but as Hillary Clinton's sage showed, this is more theory than practice. And it isn't just about Clinton — in fact, it isn't a partisan issue, either. Other Cabinet officials in the Obama era were busted using private email, as were political employees in the Bush administration.
David Freddoso, Washington Examiner