Transparency News, 3/2/21


 March 2, 2021
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state & local news stories
"The governor's ability to demand records from OSIG illustrates that the agency isn't the independent watchdog it should be."

At the governor's demand, a state watchdog agency provided him with records related to the agency's investigation of how the Virginia Parole Board handled release of a man who killed a Richmond police officer in 1979. Gov. Ralph Northam's spokeswoman said Monday that the governor wants an outside investigation and will talk to lawmakers about next steps. The Office of the State Inspector General provided Northam with the records on Friday night after the governor's general counsel, Rita Davis, made several requests. In her third request, she told OSIG the state constitution required OSIG to turn over the records. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said Monday that the governor's ability to demand records from OSIG illustrates that the agency isn't the independent watchdog it should be, free of external pressure.
Richmond Times-Dispatch
A recently leaked draft report about an investigation into the Virginia Parole Board that was far more critical than the final version made public last year was never shared with Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, according to the state inspector general. Michael Westfall made that attestation under oath Friday in an affidavit shared with The Associated Press. Northam’s office and Westfall say the affidavit, which was sworn out at Northam’s request, shows the governor’s office had no knowledge of the draft report and played no role in editing it. In a series of letters last week, Northam's counsel, Rita Davis, wrote to Westfall demanding a copy of the draft report and later asking Westfall to provide a statement under oath saying he had never presented any findings about the Martin case before July 23, when a final six-page report was conveyed to the governor’s office. Separately, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police confirmed that the agency is reviewing “the manner and mechanism in which a draft report by the Office of the State Inspector General was publicly released without the agency’s consent.”
Associated Press
“After reviewing the preliminary findings, it is clear the public needs to better understand why and how the OSIG determined that these initial allegations were insufficient to include in their final report,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email. “Individuals named in this document also deserve the opportunity to defend their reputations against assertions that were never included in the final report. The governor welcomes further outside investigation.” The inspector general’s office had largely refused to explain the differences between the two reports until Monday, when Westfall said there were no official findings that required referral to a prosecutor. The attorney general’s office, which gives legal advice to both the Parole Board and the inspector general, declined to comment on whether it played a role in decisions about what to include in the report.
Virginia Mercury

Mecklenburg County Circuit Court Judge J. William Watson Jr. reviewed seven sets of documents South Hill said were exempt from release as personnel records and concluded that some were and some weren't. In the process, the judge reviewed past cases and FOIA's legislative history to determine that "personnel information" should be defined as "all information necessarily compiled and held by an employer, concerning an identifiable employee, which information directly relates to the commencement, continuation or termination of the employment relationship.”
VCOG website

The General Assembly on Monday formally capped a COVID-19-complicated session that featured landmark action on issues ranging from the death penalty to future marijuana legalization. Here are 26 reasons why the session mattered. FOIA. The Senate rejected a late attempt by House Democratic leadership to remove a guardrail from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that requires the legislature to meet in person. The House amendment could have led to more virtual legislative meetings, even after the pandemic.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Last spring, cybercriminals breached the state’s unemployment system. Washington was one of the states affected by the massive SolarWinds hack, which was discovered in December. And in February, the state auditor’s office disclosed that fraudsters had exposed the personal information of more than a million residents. Rocked by the massive SolarWinds hack, unemployment system breaches and other attacks, several states are trying to bolster their cybersecurity in the midst of the public health crisis. At least three state governments were breached in the SolarWinds attack, Bloomberg has reported. A spokesperson for the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, insurance and other institutions in the state, later confirmed it had been one of the targets. Carlyle, the Washington state lawmaker, told Stateline that his state also was hit. The third state has not been identified.

Are Portsmouth police treating the death of a Hampton Roads Regional Jail inmate as a possible murder? Two people with knowledge of the jail’s inner workings — who spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to get workers there in trouble — say one of the four deaths there last month is being investigated as a homicide. But police and the beleaguered jail’s new superintendent won’t say. Portsmouth’s police spokeswoman, Victoria Varnedoe, declined to say whether detectives are treating the case as a murder.
The Virginian-Pilot
stories from around the country
Five weeks into office, President Joe Biden has fallen short of his former boss, Barack Obama, in several areas, and is under pressure to do more to restore confidence in the federal government following Trump’s chaotic term in the White House. Among the critiques: The schedules for the president and vice president aren’t posted online. The White House comment line is shut down. There are no citizen petitions on the White House’s website. The White House has committed to releasing visitor logs. But it doesn’t plan to divulge the names of attendees of virtual meetings, which are the primary mode of interaction until the coronavirus pandemic eases.

The Herald/Times interviewed more than two dozen researchers, journalists and legislators about their experience with open records in the last year and the common conclusion was: Florida health officials are reluctant to release new data related to COVID-19 that contradicts the governor's upbeat narrative and they frequently withhold information until they are either threatened with a lawsuit, or convinced the trend lines have improved.  In addition to releasing only selective health data, the state has withheld millions of dollars in purchase orders signed by the state with vendors. Legislators also complained about the lack of transparency relating to how the state has spent nearly $5 billion in federal funds and the botched unemployment compensation system that took months to get money to eligible Floridians.
Miami Herald

For many University of Texas at Austin students who had spent months protesting and petitioning the school to get rid of "The Eyes of Texas," it was gutting to see then-Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger seemingly taking a stand. But hundreds of alumni and donors were more concerned about why Ehlinger was alone. They blasted off emails to UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell, calling the image of the abandoned quarterback "disgusting," "embarrassing" and "disturbing." "My wife and I have given an endowment in excess of $1 million to athletics. This could very easily be rescinded if things don’t drastically change around here," wrote one donor in October. His name was redacted by UT-Austin, citing open records laws that protect certain donor identities. "Has everyone become oblivious of who supports athletics??" Hartzell had already publicly stated the university would keep the song, but hundreds of emails obtained through public records requests show that decision didn’t quell the furor among some of the most ardent supporters of "The Eyes."
Texas Tribune