Transparency News 4/15/15

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


State and Local Stories

Yesterday, a volunteer group to which I belong, Transparency Virginia, issued a report documenting some of the less-than-transparent practices at the General Assembly. Links below are articles about the report, but you can read the report yourself by downloading it at the Transparency Virginia website.

In February, Delegate Jeffrey Campbell tried to revise Virginia’s “reckless” driving threshold so motorists couldn’t be criminalized for driving six miles over the speed limit on I-95. His bill never made it out of the Courts of Justice Committee. Like so many others, the Marion Republican’s measure was “left in committee,” where bills that lawmakers just don’t want to risk an up-or-down vote go to die, with no recorded tally. That way, constituents who couldn’t make the middle-of-the-day meeting in Richmond have no clue where their lawmakers stand on that bill or hundreds of others. It might be one thing if that was a rare occurrence. But a new report from Transparency Virginia backs up what anyone who’s spent time in the General Assembly knows well — both parties and chambers are rife with practices that thwart transparency and accountability in the legislative process.

Virginia's lax ethics laws mean it can be tough to watch for officials' conflicts of interest, but the job is even tougher with the General Assembly's tendency to kill bills without recording how legislators vote. On top of that, General Assembly committees and subcommittees that are supposed to hear public views on legislation often give little notice of their meetings and agendas, and frequently block any public comment, according to a study of this year's legislative action by Transparency Virginia, a coalition of citizen groups. The coalition released its report Tuesday. "People are being left in the dark," said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and author of the Transparency Virginia report. (Marisa Porto, the vice president of content for the Daily Press, is on the Coalition for Open Government's board of directors.)
Daily Press

The House of Delegates and Virginia Senate routinely called public meetings of legislative committees with little or no notice and denied scores of bills a hearing, according to a report released Tuesday. The House either did not take a recorded vote, or any vote at all, on 76 percent of the bills that were killed in subcommittee or committee, according to the report by Transparency Virginia. A volunteer coalition of 29 nonprofit groups and associations that advocate and lobby in the General Assembly, it compiled the report after spending hundreds of hours monitoring the recently concluded 45-day General Assembly session. The group said its goal is to promote discussion about how to improve transparency in government, keep residents better informed and make participation easier.

Fairfax County Executive Edward J. Long tried to block the appointment of a longtime community activist to a newly formed police commission out of concern that he would push to establish a permanent civilian review board, internal county e-mails show. Long sought to convince Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the board of supervisors, not to place Nicholas Beltrante on the commission, which was created in response to controversy surrounding the 2013 fatal shooting of John Geer, an unarmed man. “You know he will use the group to push for the police review board and I [am] not sure you really want to give him this platform,” Long wrote to Bulova in a Feb. 20 e-mail concerning Beltrante. Bulova responded: “Right! However, I’m not sure we can avoid having him on the commission.”
Washington Post

The State Board of Elections announced Tuesday that several thousand WinVote touch-screen voting machines used statewide can no longer be used due to security concerns. The board's decision poses a major challenge to 30 localities using the WinVote Direct Recording Electronic voting machines. Ten of the localities, including the city of Richmond, and Henrico County, must replace their devices in time for the June 9 primaries - a costly undertaking the localities have to fund themselves.

Charlie Judd, former State Board of Elections chairman, expressed concern that the state board previewed the WinVote audit in closed session. “This board has gone into executive session every time I’ve come here,” he said. Participants were instructed not to relate what was said during the meeting. In recommending the closed session, Cortes advised the board against releasing “details of the security vulnerability” of WinVote machines.

A who's who of Culpeper officials are slated to take the witness stand at next week's trial pitting the county's longest-serving supervisor against the county's top prosecutor in a case alledging libelous words. Supervisor Bill Chase is seeking $1.75 million in the libel suit he filed in November 2013 against Commonwealth's Attorney Megan Frederick for an email she wrote that previous September referring to members of the elected board as "incompetent and corrupt." The case goes to a jury trial in Culpeper County Circuit Court April 21 and 22 with retired judge James Howe Brown, Jr. presiding. Though not specifically named in Frederick's widely distributed email, Chase — in office for more than three decades  — claims that the negative characterization has tarnished and destroyed his name and reputation, according to court documents. Frederick intends to rely on the defense that her speech was constitutionally protected.

James City County supervisors have deliberated in public meetings, and they've hosted individual forums that have produced large turnout on the upcoming budget vote scheduled for April 28. Hidden from the public view, however, has been the vigorous and sometimes rancorous campaign to lobby the board waged through emails sent to the Board of Supervisors and county staff. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Gazette recently reviewed nearly 300 emails sent or received by the board regarding the budget. The messages paint a portrait of the intense political debate going on as James City County ponders raising its real estate tax rate for the first time in nearly two decades. Supervisors have engaged in correspondence with everyone from homeowners associations to outside special interest groups and political party activists.
Virginia Gazette

Gov. Terry McAuliffe set out to impose stricter ethics standards on Richmond, but he seems to have gone farther than he intended. McAuliffe (D) made an amendment to an ethics bill, seeking to limit the value of gifts that any individual lobbyist can shower on a single public official to an aggregate of $100 a year. Instead, the amendment seems to impose a $100 lifetime limit. Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) uncovered the error Monday, just as legislators were preparing to return to Richmond on Wednesday for their annual “veto session,” where they consider action on the vetoes and amendments the governor made to bills passed during the General Assembly session. Gilbert alerted the governor’s office to the issue on Tuesday, and all sides said a fix can be made Wednesday — either through some unusual parliamentary maneuver or by calling a mini special session that would wrap up in a matter of hours.
Washington Post

National Stories

Hillary Rodham Clinton was directly asked by congressional investigators in a December 2012 letter whether she had used a private email account while serving as secretary of state, according to letters obtained by The New York Times. But Mrs. Clinton did not reply to the letter. And when the State Department answered in March 2013, nearly two months after she left office, it ignored the question and provided no response. The query was posed to Mrs. Clinton in a Dec. 13, 2012, letter from Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Mr. Issa was leading an investigation into how the Obama administration handled its officials’ use of personal email. ncy official ever used a personal email account to conduct official business?” Mr. Issa wrote to Mrs. Clinton. “If so, please identify the account used.”
New York Times


Have the members of the Virginia House of Delegates forgotten whom they work for?That may be a logical conclusion after reading a report by Transparency Virginia, a group of two-dozen mostly nonprofit organizations that closely monitor the activities of state Senate and House of Delegates during the legislative session earlier this year.
Free Lance-Star

Virginia's part-time lawmakers have long portrayed themselves as being limited to the $18,000 in annual pay for senators, and $17,640 for delegates, without acknowledging the per-day payments, office allowances and full-time benefits they enjoy. The lack of an independent body to review campaign filings and hold politicians accountable for their spending leaves too much power in the hands of elected officials, and poses too much risk for impropriety. The governor and state lawmakers must work together to provide greater oversight and strengthen public trust in Virginia's tarnished government.

This newspaper has not rendered a verdict on the university’s latest foray into tuition increases, as part of its adoption of the Affordable Excellence program. But we back [departing Board of Visitors member Der. Edward D. Miller] 100 percent in his evaluation of transparency, or lack thereof, in that adoption. “I was surprised it was done so quickly, without more discussion,” he said of the vote taken just hours after the program was introduced, with no forum for public input. Dr. Miller also had opposed a previous effort by the board to undermine transparency: a proposed “code of conduct” for board members that would have prevented them from sharing minority opinions with outsiders, including the media — and even with state legislators whose decisions help fund and guide the university. And this at the university founded by Thomas Jefferson, a father of our democratic freedoms. The proposed “gag” policy was quickly revised, following swift criticism from a variety of constituencies, from lawmakers on down.
Daily Progress