Transparency News, 3/8/21


 March 8, 2021
follow us on TwitterFacebook & Instagram

state & local news stories
"Asked how the public would have known it could come, given that the notice for the meeting didn’t say it was in person, Martin said she hadn’t thought about it."
An ongoing investigation by Virginia’s state government watchdog agency has turned up more problems at the Virginia Parole Board, according to draft report summaries obtained by The Associated Press. The Office of the State Inspector General has been investigating the parole board for nearly a year, since prosecutors and victims’ families across the state began raising concerns about the handling of cases last spring. Previous reports, which state officials sought to keepfrom the public but were either released by GOP lawmakers or obtained by news outlets, have painted a picture of a board that for years or possibly decades did not properly notify victims when inmates were being reviewed for parole. The AP obtained two additional draft reports, dated in December and January, about investigations that have not previously been publicly disclosed. A spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, Kate Hourin, declined to answer questions about the status of the investigations or why final conclusions have not yet been presented.
Associated Press

The family of a woman who died shortly after receiving a coronavirus vaccine had a private autopsy performed on her last week because the state did not do one while investigating her death, her daughter said. Drene Keyes, a 58-year-old Gloucester resident who died following a Pfizer shot, was buried Friday. Lisa Jones, Keyes’ daughter, said they are waiting for the results from their own investigation, an expense they hope will shed light on her death and bring them closure. A comment in internal emails between state officials raises more questions. State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver told public information officers in an email Feb. 5 that if reporters asked whether an autopsy was done, they should say “a full autopsy was not needed in order to ascertain whether the death was related to the vaccination.” In a follow-up interview with The Virginian-Pilot, Oliver said he misspoke in that email. Oliver’s email was part of a public records request that also revealed some officials inside and outside the health department were concerned the death of Keyes, who is Black, could worsen vaccine hesitancy among minorities.
The Virginian-Pilot

Wednesday’s Norfolk School Board meeting was “momentous,” Chairwoman Adale Martin said when it started. It marked the first time in a year — almost to the day — the board met in person instead of over Zoom. Left unsaid is that no one from the public was present because the board — as it has repeatedly — ignored the state laws meant to ensure government bodies do their business in the sunshine. Despite privately deciding to change plans and meet in person, the School Board told the public it was still meeting virtually. Martin said Friday that the board “didn’t in any way hide” plans to resume in-person meetings once teachers and students returned to the buildings. They were expecting members of the public to attend Wednesday, and even told security officers the room’s capacity if more people showed up than could watch safely while ensuring social distancing. Asked how the public would have known it could come, given that the notice for the meeting didn’t say it was in person, Martin said she hadn’t thought about it. She said she figured people knew because of the board’s previous discussions about wanting to return in-person once students and staff were.
The Virginian-Pilot

Leesburg District School Board member Beth Barts (Leesburg) was the subject of a formal censure vote Thursday night. Following a more than two hour closed session held virtually, the Loudoun County School Board voted 7-0 to publicly reprimand Barts for her social media postings deemed to expose elements of the board’s private deliberations and to spread misinformation. As part of the action, the board approved Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan’s (Sterling) proposal to make public portions of closed sessions previously protected by attorney-client privilege dating back to June 2020 and dealing with concerns about Barts’ conduct—five meetings in all. The motion to permit that disclosure passed on a 6-0 vote, with Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn) abstaining and Barts and Denise Corbo (At Large) absent. “The reason I’ve made this motion is for the public to be aware of the board and the board chair’s efforts to address the behavior of board members, to train and retrain on policy and good boardsmanship,” Sheridan said.
stories from around the country
“I would be delighted to share information, but perhaps we can do this through the Big 10 portal, which will assure confidentiality?”

When the presidents and chancellors of the 14 Big Ten universities began discussing the prospects of students returning to their campuses last fall amid the coronavirus pandemic and with football season looming, they weighed many considerations, from public health to financial impact. But emails obtained by The Washington Post through public records requests reveal another priority: keeping their discussions from ever entering public view. “I would be delighted to share information,” Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank responded in an email chain begun in August by Michigan President Mark Schlissel, “but perhaps we can do this through the Big 10 portal, which will assure confidentiality?”
The Washington Post

New York’s attorney general’s office has instructed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office not to erase any documents or materials that could come under scrutiny during her probe into sexual harassment allegations dragging down the three-term Democrat. A spokesperson for Attorney General Tish James confirmed Friday the office sent an evidence preservation request to the governor’s office. Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi responded in a statement saying the governor's office received the request March 1 "and our counsel's office acted promptly and notified all chamber staff of their obligations associated with that." The Cuomo administration has regularly employed ways of keeping communications from the public eye. Staff for years used specific Blackberry phones to communicate with the governor, and the governor and his top aides often save their most choice words for phone calls.
editorials & columns
The alarming case of the Virginia Parole Board’s handling of decisions is attracting increasing concern — and rightly so. Meanwhile, there’s another complaint — this one against the inspector general’s office itself about the leaked documents. “OSIG is taking appropriate action to identify the person(s) responsible for improperly disclosing such information,” the office said. That provoked another retort from Obenshain. “This is the agency that is charged with protecting whistleblowers, not hunting for a whistleblower themselves,” he told the Times-Dispatch (emphasis added). The Office of Inspector General is charged with investigating fraud and corruption, government waste and inefficiencies. It also is responsible for receiving confidential whistleblower warnings about fraud, corruption or waste and for administering a reward program for whistleblowers whose actions result in recovery of at least $5,000 in state money..
The Daily Progress

WITH THE General Assembly’s passage of the Consumer Data Protection Act (SB 1392), Virginia has become just the second state in the nation besides California to address the ongoing problem of businesses and other organizations selling customers’ personal information without their knowledge or consent. The legislation gives consumers the right to obtain a copy of their data that is being collected, processed, and sold to targeted advertising and consumer profiling firms, which have become big businesses, and opt out if they so choose. Under the law, businesses in Virginia may continue to collect customers’ personal data only for specific and legitimate business purposes. Consent is required before any “sensitive data”—defined as racial or ethnic origin, religion, mental or physical health information, sexual orientation, citizenship or immigration status, biometric data, personal data collected from a known child and a person’s precise geolocation—is provided to a third party. However, besides not applying to small businesses with less than 100,000 customers, the new law exempts two of the most critical privacy categories: health care data and financial information used to determine an individual’s creditworthiness. That information can still be bought and sold—and most certainly will be. Also exempted are state agencies, political subdivisions, financial institutions, nonprofits and institutions of higher learning, which can continue to sell personal data to whoever will buy it.
The Free Lance-Star