Transparency News, 4/1/21


 April 1, 2021


state & local news stories

Republicans in the General Assembly slammed a proposal by Gov. Ralph Northam to hire an investigator to look into how a state watchdog agency investigated the Virginia Parole Board, calling it a “whitewash” because of its limited scope. Northam had said he wanted an independent investigation as a scandal unfolded involving the parole board violating state law and policy last year in processes used for release of certain convicted killers on parole, according to findings by the Office of the State Inspector General. But Northam’s proposal calls for the attorney general — in consultation with him and Democratic leaders — to choose an investigator who will look only at how OSIG handled its investigation of one parole board case. Northam unveiled his proposal in a budget amendment Wednesday evening that lawmakers will consider April 7 when they convene to address the governor’s proposed amendments and vetoes to legislation passed earlier this year. The investigation would cost $250,000.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

In March 2018, the Virginia Department of Corrections (VA DOC) was trying to gain more control over the mail its approximately 30,000 incarcerated people received. A contact at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections recommended they talk to a Florida company called Smart Communications about its product, MailGuard. Smart Communications offered VA DOC a suite of products that would make it possible for prison officials to monitor and search all inmate communications with the outside world. The proposal and other documents were obtained through a public records request. When Motherboard asked Smart Communications for comment on this article, a lawyer for the company demanded that we not publish any of the documents, which were obtained using freedom of information laws that journalists regularly use to procure public documents about how taxpayer money is being spent and the general dealings of a democratic government: "Please be advised that this proposal and the information therein was provided pursuant to a confidentiality understanding / NDA and was clearly and prominently designated as CONFIDENTIAL, PROPRIETARY, and TRADE SECRET," David Gann, general counsel with Smart Communications wrote in an email. "It should never have been shared with you or anyone else by the recipient. We will deal with that issue separately, but regardless, Smart Communications demands that you, Vice Media, Motherboard, and any other affiliated companies or entities immediately cease and desist all efforts to further disseminate or distribute any information obtained in that confidential proposal. Smart Communications further demands that you immediately destroy all copies of its proposal."

In the summer of 2018, the Delta Chi fraternity at Virginia Commonwealth University faced a four-year suspension. It had been accused by VCU of committing a litany of infractions, according to documents obtained in an open-records request: twice giving alcohol to underage students; throwing illegal and unregistered parties; conducting an underground recruitment while banned from adding new members and failing to achieve sufficient grades. Emails obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch make clear the university was aware of troubling behavior at the fraternity. They don’t reveal precisely why VCU reduced the planned four-year suspension in 2018. A VCU spokesman said last week that the decision was part of a standard appeals process. By the fall of 2019, Delta Chi was back.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

For the first time in three months, the public will be allowed to attend an Elkton Town Council meeting in person starting Monday. Council members reverted to hosting meetings virtually in January due to an increase of COVID-19 cases in the area. Meetings were held at the Elkton Area Community Center, but in-person attendance was not allowed. COVID-19 cases have been on a downward trend since January, according to data provided by the Virginia Department of Health. On Wednesday, Rockingham County reported an increase of seven new cases and a seven-day average of eight cases. On Monday, council members will meet for a work session to discuss several items, including the proposed fiscal year 2021-21 budget, electric vehicle charging stations and cost increases for the Stuart Avenue sidewalk extension project. The meeting will be held at the Elkton Area Community Center. All attendees will have their temperatures checked before entering the building and social distancing must be maintained. Visitors are required to wear a mask while in the building unless prohibited by a medical condition, according to the meeting’s agenda.
Daily News Record
Winchester City Council will resume in-person meetings in the Rouss City Hall Council Chambers beginning in April. These meetings will be open to the public but space is limited. Social distancing and masks are required. All meetings will be available to stream live and on-demand using the agenda portal: Public comment will continue to be accepted in writing. Please email to by the prior Monday at 8 a.m.
The Winchester Star

Six of the buildings that Augusta County reeled into the Augusta County Courthouse expansion plan last year are back on the market after the government paid close to $100,000 to put them on hold for purchase. Before submitting the application that would validate the expansion, the county purchased options for nine properties surrounding the courthouse. The options ensured that if the expansion project moved forward, the property owners and the county were in agreement that they would purchase the buildings. Once the county and the owner signed into the option contract, the county is obligated to pay the option fee, regardless of whether it pursues to project or not. After the application for expanding was rejected on Oct. 27, the county had to walk away from its expansion plan and spent almost $100,000 before it even began.
News Leader

A recent private meeting between two town officials and a lawyer sparked outrage during a Boyce Town Council work session Tuesday night and prompted three officials to express mistrust in colleagues. Mayor Richard Kibler and Town Manager David Winsatt participated in a meeting Friday morning with David Griffin, the town’s part-time attorney. Minutes taken during the meeting show that various issues and ideas involving municipal government were discussed. Councilman Floyd Hudson and Councilwoman Whitney Maddox became incensed upon hearing about the meeting. They accused Kibler of trying to withhold information relevant to other council members. However, they didn’t accuse the mayor of breaking any laws. Kibler said he asked Griffin if it would be appropriate for him to make comments as a private citizen — rather than a public official — during a public hearing the council will hold next Tuesday night about street matters.
The Winchester Star
stories from around the country
The Los Angeles County sheriff says detectives have determined what caused Tiger Woods to crash his SUV last month in Southern California but would not release details Wednesday, citing unspecified privacy concerns for the golf star. Sheriff Alex Villanueva told the Associated Press during a live social media event that "a cause has been determined; the investigation has concluded," but claimed that investigators needed permission from Woods -- who previously named his yacht "Privacy" -- to release information about the crash. Later Wednesday evening the sheriff's department attempted to clarify its position, saying in a statement on Twitter that "the release of accident reports is governed under California Vehicle Code Section 20012. When we are able, we intend to release the information learned during the traffic collision investigation involving Tiger Woods." California has rather restrictive public records laws when it comes to law enforcement agencies. By law, it can withhold copies of accident reports, although generally it releases basic information.

A Pennsylvania federal judge has expressed empathy for a corrections officer but says there is nothing the court can do about his personal identification information mistakenly being given to an inmate. The court does not have jurisdiction because the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA) is the exclusive remedy in cases like Randall L. Spade’s, the judge wrote. That law precludes any federal employee from bringing suit for personal injury sustained in the performance of duty. It is another defeat for Spade, who for 10 years has been fighting what the Justice Department calls a mistake. He learned on Sept. 12, 2011, an inmate at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary through a Freedom of Information Act request had obtained his personal information. He made the discovery, he said, when the inmate, who was serving a life term for murder, mentioned his hometown and then recited his Social Security number.