Transparency News 2/24/14

Monday, February 24, 2014
State and Local Stories


The Shenandoah County School Board responded to recent news about Freedom of Information Act requests for employee salary data at its meeting Thursday night. In December, District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey had asked for detailed salary data of school employees and did not want to pay the $700 price that Division Superintendent Jeremy Raley had quoted for producing the data. The price was said to be proportionate to the time and resources used to fulfill the request. School board Chairman Richard Koontz opened the meeting by addressing the headlines and comments regarding the price. "There's been a lot of publicity and a lot of talk about the ability to get information from the School Board and I just want to make sure we all understand the facts and understand how we do things when it comes to getting information out," he said. "We have always done this the same way. We have policies in place to handle requests for information." "This board is not trying to thwart information to citizens or the community," she said. "We have a policy for FOIA. There's a simple form to be filled out and that form will be returned with information on it. That's all there is to it."
Northern Virginia Daily

The Supreme Court of Virginia will allow easier access to some of its less prominent decisions. The court has agreed to start posting its unpublished orders on its website, the court’s clerk said Friday. Clerk Patricia L. Harrington said she does not yet know when the orders will be posted, but she said the website will have all of this year’s orders when the information goes up. There have been six unpublished orders issued by the court so far in 2014, Harrington said. She counted 30 in 2013. Harrington said she has been getting more requests for copies of the orders. “It just seems like we’re getting more people showing interest in them,” she said.
Virginia Lawyers Weekly

The General Assembly could be on the verge of approving the first ethics commission in state history, but the reform won’t pull Virginia out of the shadows. Complaints will continue to be investigated by House and Senate advisory panels, which appear not to have levied any public judgments since their formation in 1987. “There are no publicly available [decisions] that I’m aware of,” said Robert L. Tavenner, who as state director of the Division of Legislative Services is tasked with fielding all ethics-related complaints involving lawmakers.
Daily Progress

It may be the biggest single department of state government where everyone is -- at least under the Code of Virginia -- considered a political appointee. Now the first Democrat to serve as Attorney General in two decades is convening a blue ribbon panel to look into ways to make the Office of Attorney General act more more like a law firm. Attorney General Mark R. Herring has asked three prominent Virginians – including the president of William & Mary – to look at possible reforms in the Office of the Attorney General. The review panel will look at the office’s budget and finances of the office, use of outside counsel and the way it has handled Freedom of Information Act and conflicts of interest law.
Daily Press

Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) will return to court for conference the morning of March 4 in the ongoing effort by hundreds of his constituents to have him removed from office, according to Circuit Court records. Earlier this month, the Virginia Supreme Court assigned retired Arlington County judge Paul Sheridan to hear the recall attempt against Mr. Delgaudio; this after local Circuit Court judges requested recusal from the case.
Loudoun Times-Mirror

A spat over who should profit from collection of delinquent court fines has made its way into the proposed state budget, pitting local city treasurers against private law firms. A budget amendment approved in the House this week would bar treasurers' offices from earning a profit on money they collect from people in debt to courts. In cities such as Virginia Beach and Arlington, public collection of such profits has cost law firms lucrative contracts

Two Fairfax County school board members participated in what was described as an “off the record” community meeting Saturday morning at Luther Jackson Middle School to discuss the budget for the next school year. The purpose of the meeting, attended by about a dozen parents, education advocates and teachers, was to talk about ways to lobby county supervisors for more education funding.
Washington Post

National Stories

Last year’s revelations over the U.S. tapping of phone and internet data gave telecoms firms pause for thought over whether they should sell their “big data” for gain, but the commercial potential could prove irresistible. Although figures are scarce, analysts think selling data on mobile users’ locations, movements, and web browsing habits may grow into a multi billion-dollar market for the business.

 “My clients have no interest in seeing Mr. Bieber’s penis,” media attorney Deanna Shullman told a Miami-Dade Court Thursday morning during a hearing brought by multiple media organizationsseeking access to videos recorded by Miami Beach Police of the pop star. At issue are four clips out of 10 hours of tape that shows Justin Bieber in Miami Beach Police custody. The four video clips in question reportedly show Mr. Bieber during the time he was asked to provide a urine sample to Miami Beach Police as part of his DUI arrest on January 23rd. Attorneys for CBS4 and its news partner the Miami Herald, along with attorneys for media outlets including CNN and the Associated Press, argued that since the tapes have been turned over to the defense as part of the discovery process in the case; the videos are now public record, and therefore open to being viewed in their entirety.
CBS Miami

Julie Brill, a Democratic commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission, on Thursday called on companies to deploy "more aggressive" actions to safeguard consumer privacy, urging businesses to install mechanisms to ensure they are handling data appropriately and protecting the anonymity of individuals. Speaking at Princeton University, Brill said companies should focus on ethical monitoring at their businesses and employ "robust deidentification" in an effort to prevent linking data to particular individuals. "We are all eager to reap the potential benefits of big data," Brill said, according to prepared remarks [PDF] for her Big Data and Consumer Privacy: Identifying Challenges, Finding Solutions address at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "Yet consumers, policy makers and academics also see threats from these vast storehouses of data."
Corporate Counsel

Connecticut Probation officers asked lawmakers Wednesday to consider preventing the release of their employment records to people who are under court supervision or incarcerated in the state’s prisons. Several officers testified at a hearing of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, which has raised a bill that would add an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act for probation officers, shielding their personnel and medical records from inmates and people under court supervision. Sara Basford, a probation officer working out of the Judicial Branch’s Danbury office, told the committee that an inmate obtained her personnel records in 2012. She said her former home address—where her mother still resides—was released along with her records as well as enough information to piece together her Social Security number.
CT News Junkie

The White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA) takes issue with the White House again releasing an official photograph of President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama today. Despite repeated requests from various news organizations, the White House did not open this meeting, which was deemed “closed press”. A government photographer is no substitute for an independent, experienced photojournalist. We are disappointed the White House has reverted to their old strategy of announcing a closed press event and then later releasing their own photo. The WHNPA also urges news organizations to refrain from publishing and circulating this handout photo, which is a visual press release of a news worthy event.
White House News Photographers Association

An initiative to ban the independent newspaper Marine Corps Times at base exchanges or move it to a less-prominent position at the stores originated in May "on a rather tight timeline" at the behest of Gen. Jim Amos, the service's commandant, newly obtained e-mails show. The e-mail exchange occurred just days before Marine Corps Times published an investigative report spotlighting allegations Amos abused his authority. Marine Corps Times authenticated the internal discussion from May 15, 2013, that contradicts official statements offered recently in response to the service's abrupt decision in December to relocate the newspaper away from checkout lines at Marine Corps Exchange stores worldwide. Officials have described the move as an effort to "professionalize" checkout counters, refuting the suggestion it was retaliation for the newspaper's ongoing coverage of allegations surrounding Amos.
USA Today


All in all, Virginia has peppered the Freedom of Information Act with 172 different exemptions under which transparency is prevented. Many of these exemptions are understandable: closed meetings for personnel issues such as hiring or firing, protected documents that show security plans. But many might not, in fact, be necessary. Circumstances might have changed since their enaction, rendering them unwarranted.
They might be the result of “mission creep” — the slow, steady, cumulative advance of changes that might have once seemed justifiable in isolation, but have now proved to be overburdensome in aggregate. Or perhaps they were simply bad ideas to begin with. Appropriately, the General Assembly is moving toward a re-evaluation of these 172 exemptions.
Daily Progress

The purported “ethics reform” bills sliding easily through the Virginia legislature include a curious, little-noticed provision. Under language approved by the Senate and House of Delegates, legislators would no longer be obliged to have their financial disclosure forms notarized. Why is that important? It means lawmakers would be charged only with a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, for making a false statement about their investments or gifts they’ve received from lobbyists. Well, isn’t that convenient.
Robert McCartney, Washington Post

Some city of Beaufort, S.C., officials say they will consider formal training to teach board and commission members about public-meeting and public-records law. The need for instruction was made starkly evident when the Historic District Review Board violated the S.C. Freedom of Information Act byadjourning a recent meeting and continuing to discuss board business with a quorum present.
Hilton Head Island Packet

I have been a fan of National Review and its founder, the late William F. Buckley ever since I was a teenager. No single publication, aside from the Bible, has had a more profound impact on my thinking and my worldview than the magazine founded in 1955. Indeed, without it my views and opinions would probably not be as refined as they. And now I find the magazine under attack from the unlikeliest of sources – “Scientist” Michael Mann. Professor Mann, most famous for his now disputed and thoroughly discredited “hockey stick” graph that once upon a time proved mankind’s influence on the earth’s temperature increases (and thus our responsibility for global warming), is suing the magazine for defamation. In a column Mark Steyn took on Mann and his claims, and accused him of perpetuating a fraud on society. He then took his attacks a step further by quoting another column which referred to Mann as the “Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data.” Tasteless? Absolutely. But defamation? Hardly. It’s nearly impossible to prove defamation cases, next to none are ever won. Really, the bottom line here is that it doesn’t matter if Steyn, Jonah Goldberg, Richard Lowery or whomever National Review staffer wrote a highly intelligent, thought-provoking piece on climate change or whether the entire piece in question was merely a list of insults leveled against him (insults such as humorless buffoon, half-wit, nimrod, red diaper doper baby, immediately spring to mind but I digress), the issue at hand is one of freedom of speech.
Carl Tate, News Virginian