Transparency News 2/28/14

Friday, February 28, 2014

State and Local Stories


A vote in the House of Delegates today illustrates the magnitude of the task facing a new nonprofit group promoting a nonpartisan redistricting system for Virginia. The group, Virginians for Fair Redistricting, wants to wrest the power to redraw legislative district lines away from the General Assembly and give it to an independent organization. State Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, proposed a much more modest measure. His legislation (SB158) called for a nonbinding statewide referendum on whether to create a bipartisan advisory commission to assist the Assembly in the task.  “I think that it’s time we let the people weigh in on this issue,” Miller told a House subcommittee. His bill passed the Senate this month on a bipartisan 36-4 vote. The Republican-controlled panel, calling Miller’s measure overly broad and unworkable, killed it on a 5-2 party-line voice vote.

An anti-bypass group that spent thousands of dollars targeting Republican candidates who backed the project will have to pay up for breaking the law, the county’s electoral board ruled at an emergency meeting Thursday. A day before Republicans were expected to lose their 2-1 majority on the board, the panel voted to impose a $100 fine on the nonprofit Charlottesville Bypass Truth Coalition. “We thought it was best for the county electoral board who was involved in that election to settle it,” said Clara Belle Wheeler, board secretary.
Daily Progress

Dublin Town Manager Bill Parker caused quite a “ruckus” recently when he questioned a federal agency about a new policy requiring the town to use a “Non-Discrimination Statement” on “all correspondence.” Parker received an email from the Wytheville Rural Development office for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) informing him of the new policy from Washington D.C. The email “was written so that you didn’t really know what they were asking us to do, so I emailed back and asked if (the USDA representative) could clarify” the requirements, Parker told Dublin Town Council. In an effort to clarify what “all correspondence” includes, Parker said he emailed the woman to ask if the statement has to be on all town letterhead and the water-billing card. He noted that the full statement wouldn’t fit on both sides of the water bill, much less one side. It was his next question, made in jest, which caused the ruckus. “I asked if it had to be posted in the office, could they please send us a suitable copy for framing,” the town manager said.
Southwest Times

Creditors in The Free Lance–Star Publishing Co.’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case will meet this morning in Richmond federal court. The FLS, which filed for bankruptcy Jan. 23, has two primary creditors—New York City-based Sandton Capital Partners and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.—as well as a number of much smaller ones. Sandton owns a loan made to the FLS in 2007 that now has an outstanding balance of about $38 million. The FLS used the loan to build Print Innovators, a state-of-the-art commercial printing plant on Belman Road in Fredericksburg. The largest unsecured creditor is the PBGC, a federal agency that may end up taking over the company’s pension plan. The plan is currently underfunded by about $5.3 million, according to the bankruptcy petition. Assuming the PBGC does take over the pension plan, just about all FLS employees would continue to receive their full expected benefits.
Free Lance-Star

National Stories

For the first time, video footage of U.S. Supreme Court proceedings has been recorded and posted online. The Supreme Court has always barred any type of cameras, including news media, from recording proceedings. The video shows a protester who disrupted an oral argument on Wednesday. The shaky, low-quality video, just over two minutes long, shows a brief disruption that occurred in the courtroom during an oral argument in a patent case. It also appears to show video taken at a separate oral argument, held last October 8 in a campaign-finance dispute, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, that has yet to be decided.

Two people at the heart of a traffic scandal dogging New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joked weeks earlier about causing traffic problems in front of the home of a rabbi, documents released on Thursday show. Christie's former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein, an ally to the governor at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, lost their jobs over their involvement in the "Bridgegate" scandal last September that is threatening Christie's White House aspirations. Documents released by Wildstein to a state legislative committee probing the incident, in which lanes were shut near the busy George Washington Bridge, causing a huge traffic jam, reveal that on August 19 he and Kelly discussed another traffic scheme. "We cannot cause traffic problems in front of his house, can we?" Kelly wrote in a message to Wildstein. "Flights to Tel Aviv all mysteriously delayed," Wildstein wrote in reply.

Two Oklahoma death row inmates are challenging the constitutionality of the law allowing the state to keep secret its source of lethal injection drugs. According to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Oklahoma County District Court, Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner have reason to believe Oklahoma’s execution method carries with it “a substantial risk of inflicting severe pain,” which would violate their constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Oklahoman


What’s good for the goose: I’ve written up a short primer for the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors and School Board. The two have been at odds over a BOS member’s request for salary data and other records from the school board. The school board has said it will take 14 hours of staff time and cost around $700 to get the salary data because of the financial software the board uses. Neighboring localities charge $0 for the same salary information and some use off-the-shelf management tools like Excel.
Megan Rhyne, VCOG

A healthy democracy is dependant upon informed citizens and an aggressive press. Freedom of information laws are the most potent weapons available in the ongoing battles to keep government transparent and accountable to its citizens. LeMunyon’s legislation has garnered near-unanimous support in both the state Senate and House of Delegates. Soon it will be on the desk of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, waiting for his signature. After that, the hard work begins. The FOIA Council would be required to finish its review by Nov. 30, 2016, and submit a full report to the General Assembly on the first day of the 2017 session. And you can follow the work of the FOIA Council online at its website, It’s out there ... in the open ... for one and all to see. As it should be.
News & Advance

Attorney General Mark Herring, the first Democrat to hold that office in two decades, reportedly has initiated an effort to make the agency function more like a law firm. Independent determination of the office's efficacy as the legal arbiter and defender of the commonwealth is long past due. As we've noted on these pages, some interpretations of state attorney general responsibilities have gone astray. We are generally skeptical of concentrations of power, whether in public or private hands. A reset makes sense. Three notable Virginians have been given the task of restructuring the attorney general's office: W. Taylor Reveley II, president of the College of William and Mary; Bill Leighty, former chief of staff for Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine; and Katherine Busser, executive vice president of Capital One. Mr. Herring has asked the trio to consider a number of areas for potential reform including conflict-of-interest laws and the Freedom of Information Act — an area near and dear to us. Any audits involving state agency transparency has potential benefits for the commonwealth. We're looking forward to the outcome.
Daily Press

Another of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s appointees has been plunged into an ethics tangle. Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones violated the internal policy of the federal agency for which he once worked and might have violated federal law as well, a federal investigative office has reported. Mr. Jones had been deputy secretary of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Mr. Jones said he was unaware of the internal policy prohibiting presidential appointees, as he was at the time, from lobbying Congress on pending legislation. He said he consulted with staffers on the appropriateness of the emails and acted according to “their best advice to me at the time." He added: "I would never intentionally violate the laws, policies or codes of conduct that govern public officials, and I regret that this email has raised even the appearance of any impropriety." Too bad Mr. Jones didn’t have the wisdom to see the inherent conflict of interest that was about to entangle him.
Daily Progress

To understand the ethics bill’s shortcomings, it is useful to know that the vast majority of perks and handouts lavished upon lawmakers take the form of dinners, galas, banquets, trips, sporting events and other “intangibles”; collectively, they amount to a movable year-round feast for the commonwealth’s elected officials. The measures that have cleared both the House of Delegates and the Senate would do little about all that. Nor would the bill do anything about a quirk in Virginia law that allows lawmakers to live off their campaign accounts, redirecting donations mainly intended for electoral purposes to groceries, gasoline and virtually anything under the sun.
Washington Post