Transparency News 2/17/14

Monday, February 17, 2014
State and Local Stories


Lawyers for Robert F. McDonnell say prosecutors pursuing a federal corruption case against the former Virginia governor overstepped when they moved to delay a related civil lawsuit, arguing that the action was intended to undercut McDonnell’s defense by keeping secret unflattering information about their star witness.
Washington Post

The tension between Spotsylvania County and the region’s transportation planning board has reached a boiling point. Some members of the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors say they don’t even see the point in belonging to the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, whose membership also includes elected officials from Fredericksburg and Stafford County. The conflict boiled over last week, after FAMPO members voted 6–5 Monday night to approve a change in the organization’s bylaws that Spotsylvania officials say will stymie debate. The new rule says FAMPO cannot vote on an issue unless a motion has been put forward and seconded by members from different localities. Spotsylvania Supervisor and FAMPO member David Ross, who has initiated at least a couple of votes that nobody outside of his county supported, says the measure was “clearly an act to silence the minority.”
Free Lance-Star

The University of Virginia could begin offering master’s degrees in data science and European studies if the Board of Visitors approves the programs at this week’s meetings. The board also expects to hear from a Harvard University higher education expert on governance, which has been scrutinized at UVa since the attempted ouster of President Teresa A. Sullivan in 2012. The board is scheduled to meet Wednesday through Friday. Board members have expressed interest in looking at other ways to improve governance, hoping to avoid a similar leadership crisis. Richard P. Chait of Harvard will discuss it with a special committee in a public meeting thisweek. He declined to talk about it in advance. Walt Heinecke, president of the association, said he’s disappointed that the special committee doesn’t have a faculty member.
Daily Progress

Peter S. Onuf tells people upfront that he is not “a Jefferson worshiper.” The University of Virginia scholar, who teaches a free online course on Thomas Jefferson that will debut Monday, is struck by the paradox of a slave-owning Founding Father who espoused liberty. Onuf’s own political sympathies lie with the party that opposed the nation’s third president. It is no accident, from a public relations perspective, that U-Va. timed the online course “Age of Jefferson” to begin on Presidents’ Day. It also is no accident that the university will offer subtitled versions in Chinese and Spanish in hopes of tapping audiences in Asia, Europe and Latin America.
Washington Post

Four journalists who revealed the National Security Agency’s vast electronic data mining operation were among the winners of the George Polk Awards in Journalism for 2013, announced on Sunday by Long Island University, which administers the prizes. Three reporters for The Washington Post — Rosalind Helderman, Laura Vozzella and Carol Leonnig — won for political reporting for exposing the relationship between Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and a political patron. Mr. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were indicted after he left office in January on charges of taking $165,000 in loans and gifts.
New York Times

National Stories

The days of turning in Freedom of Information Act requests for at least some Jackson, Mich., city government information may soon be over. City officials along with University of Michigan School of Information students are working on an open data policy for city government which – if enacted – would be the first of its kind in Michigan. No Michigan city and no city in the country with a population of less than 100,000 has such a policy according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization charged with increasing transparency in all sizes of governments – ranging from the U.S. Congress to small municipalities.

A federal judge ruled against an attorney seeking legal fees on behalf of his one-man nonprofit after it won access to CIA records. National Security Counselors, a nonprofit that disseminates information on government activity related to national security, sued the CIA last year when it failed to respond to the organization's two requests under the Freedom of Information Act for documents on the declassification program. U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer noted Wednesday, however, that National Security Counselors is just one man: Kelly McClanahan, who acts as the group's founder, CEO and attorney. In ruling against the CIA last year, Collyer found that the agency improperly withheld documents on "special procedure for the [Mandatory Declassification] review of information pertaining to intelligence activities ... or intelligence sources or methods' developed by the Director of Central Intelligence." Collyer was less keen, however, when it came to McClanahan's request for attorney's fees on behalf of National Security Counselors. "The court agrees that the record does not support Mr. McClanahan's asserted attorney-client relationship with National Security Counselors. Of course, a lawyer can submit FOIA requests and litigate their denial, but he cannot claim fees without a true, independent client. There is no such client here."
Courthouse News Service

I have written a number of times about ongoing difficulties with the New York Police Department's FOIL Unit. From rejecting routine requests to claiming "inability to locate" documents even when provided with a form number, NYPD seems hellbent on obstructing access to its records. But this latest rejection beats all, and flies in the face of Commissioner Bratton's numerous public statements since assuming office that "there should be no secrets in the NYPD." Last week, NYPD's freedom of information squad determined that its own handbook is exempt from disclosure under FOIL, New York's public records statute.

The South Washington County, Minn., school district recently came under fire from parents, community members and open-government groups over Superintendent Keith Jacobus’ call for revisions to the state freedom of information laws. As of last week, however, Jacobus said he planned to back off the issue after talking with legislators. Jacobus told board members that the district often found it difficult to comply with the Data Practices Act, which guarantees the public’s access to government records, because of limited help and an unprecedented surge in information requests. He said the school district should be given more flexibility in deciding whether to grant data requests to keep district officials from being overwhelmed by frivolous requests or those that are too narrow in scope.
Minneapolis Star Tribune

The United States isn’t at the top when it comes to freedom of the press. That’s what a new study by Reporters Without Borders suggests, anyway. The U.S. was ranked at No. 46 on the list, with Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg and Andorra rounding out the top five.
Deseret News

Frustrations are mounting more than a week after a breach of the Oregon secretary of state’s website caused elections and business databases to go offline. State officials say they’re still investigating how the intrusion from a foreign entity occurred and don’t know when the databases will return. The attack "appears to be an orchestrated intrusion from a foreign entity and not the result of any employee activities," the agency reported on its website this week.


This year lawmakers at the General Assembly introduced a passel of bills affecting the public’s right to know. Most of them deal with the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Roughly half of them would expand FOIA; roughly half would restrict it. That looks like a fairly even split. But the Assembly’s collective attitude seems much more sour at the output end of the sausage factory. With only a couple of exceptions – one relating to the State Corporation Commission and another ordering up a study of FOIA exemptions – bills that would expand the law were carried over, passed by, left in committee, tabled and subjected to other synonyms for “killed.”

Here's the question that state senators overwhelmingly agreed voters ought to answer at the polls this November: "Should Virginia enact a law to establish a bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Commission that will propose redistricting plans and bills for House of Delegates, state Senate, and congressional districts?" Simple enough, and it carries the additional political cover of being nonbinding, so legislators won't be required to act on the message voters send. Democratic Sen. John Miller's proposal, SB 158, drew the support of every one of his Democratic colleagues and all but four Republican senators. The House of Delegates should likewise approve it and send the bill to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his signature.

News articles last week proclaimed the passage of "sweeping ethics reform legislation." Hm, perhaps in the sense that true reform is being swept under the rug in a bipartisan scramble to get this issue out of the headlines without creating more than a minor inconvenience for legislators. Embarrassingly, legislators are insisting on rules for themselves that fall well short of those issued by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to cover members of his administration.
Roanoke Times

Due to political aspirations, taxpayers here in Virginia already covered a hefty bill for McDonnell's legal troubles. Former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli felt it was a conflict of interest for his office to represent the governor and the commonwealth in the case, so outside legal teams were hired, at a cost of $785,000 through December. In January, Cuccinell's successor, Mark Herring, terminated those contracts. But at this point, taxpayers have already covered more than three quarters of a million dollars in this situation, which has nothing to do with the state. McDonnell and his wife Maureen were indicted Jan. 21 on charges that they violated federal corruption laws by using the governor's position to benefit Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who was then the CEO of Star Scientific. In exchange, Williams gave the McDonnells more than $135,000 in gifts and loans. Since then, Williams has been removed from his position and the company renamed itself, in an attempt to gain distance from the scandal.
News Virginian

State lawmakers approved two measures last week that indirectly complemented each other: A bill to reform Virginia's weak financial disclosure and ethics laws, and a bill to preserve Dominion Virginia Power's finances through development of a third nuclear reactor at the utility's North Anna plant. The bills share little in terms of substance. One focuses on transparency and ethical conduct in government, the other on Virginia's energy sources. But the effects of the bills highlight a disconnect between Virginia's political class and the rest of Virginia, and they feed the perception - fairly or not - that politicians are quite satisfied with a system that links big money to big results.
Shawn Day, Virginian-Pilot