Transparency News 4/15/19



April 15, 2019



state & local news stories




"The amendment [to UVA coach Tony Bennett's contract] was obtained by The Daily Progress through a Freedom of Information Act request."

A $1.4 billion proposal to replace the Richmond Coliseum and redevelop a broad swath of downtown remains secret as Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration enters its 14th month of negotiations with the nonprofit group that pitched the plans. Reporters and residents have turned to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to squeeze information out of the city about what Stoney has said could become the biggest economic development project in the city’s history. But those requests have met resistance. The Stoney administration has responded with a carve-out under the state open records law meant to protect from public disclosure documents pertaining to negotiations that could hurt its bargaining position. The exemption is discretionary, meaning the city does not have to deploy it, but is choosing to, even after the mayor endorsed the plans in November. Now, one of Stoney’s most persistent critics is challenging the city to defend its use of the provision in Richmond Circuit Court. On Thursday, Paul Goldman filed a petition arguing the city cannot use the provision to shield the legal structure of NH District Corp., a nonprofit entity led by Dominion CEO Thomas F. Farrell II that submitted the lone response to the city’s request for proposals. He is asking the court to force the city to release the information. Late last year, his administration fended off a separate legal challenge stemming from a Freedom of Information Act request that it denied. A resident asked for a copy of the full proposal; the city said releasing it would hurt its bargaining position. A Richmond General District Court judge sided with the Stoney administration at a hearing in December, but the resident who brought the challenge is appealing the decision.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Portsmouth has agreed to pay more than $300,000 to settle a pair of defamation lawsuits lodged by the city’s fired auditor, ending years of legal wrangling over comments that council members made about his job performance. Jesse Andre Thomas had sought $1.5 million apiece in the claims he filed two years ago against Elizabeth Psimas and Bill Moody. James Cales III, an attorney hired by the city to defend Psimas and Moody, declined to comment other than to say “the settlement is without any admission of wrongdoing on the part of either of our clients.” A Norfolk jury sided with Thomas in Psimas’ case last November, ordering her to pay $775,000 in damages. But a judge decided in January that amount was excessive and should be slashed by more than 80 percent to $150,000. In court records, Thomas' lawyer cited an interview with a WAVY-TV reporter in which Psimas “intended to suggest that Thomas had done nothing since he had been hired as the city auditor.”
The Virginian-Pilot

The suggestion made this week by Portsmouth city staff and council members was serious: that millions were unaccounted for from the school district’s coffers. “I can’t answer where the $11 million is,” City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton told the council. That amount is the difference between end-of-year balances listed by the school district in two different financial reports it files annually. The truth, as it so often seems to be, was far less dramatic: a quirk of bookkeeping.
The Virginian-Pilot

Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett’s contract is scheduled to be extended one additional year May 1, per the terms of an amendment agreed upon by Bennett and the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia signed June 6, 2017. The amendment was obtained by The Daily Progress through a Freedom of Information Act request. Bennett’s most recent employment agreement, agreed upon on in May 2015, stated his employment as lasting through April 30, 2021, with automatic one-year extensions on May 1, 2016, May 1, 2017 and May 1, 2018. The amendment added a one-year extension for May 1, 2019, adding a total of four years to the original terms if Bennett is at Virginia on that date. The amendment also, effective July 1, 2017, bumped Bennett’s annual base salary from $400,000 to $500,000 and his annual supplemental compensation from $1.7 million to $2.5 million.
The Daily Progress


stories of national interest

New details from the Southern Illinois University Carbondale Police Department about a domestic disturbance at Carbondale Mayor John “Mike” Henry’s home appear to contradict his public claim that “(t)here was never any violence, or threat of violence.” An incident report obtained from SIU Police via a Freedom of Information Act request describes injuries to Mayor Henry, and blood on the clothing of his wife, Theresa "Terri" Henry, when officers responded to their home in the early morning of Sunday, March 31. “John had a bite mark on his right hand and scratches on his chest from some type of struggle over a cell phone with Theresa,” described the reporting officer, Anthony Stein. Theresa, meanwhile, had “bloody clothing,” where she “reported being struck,” Stein added, in the heavily redacted documents obtained from SIU PD.
The Southern

The former governor of Maine pardoned two people in his last days in office without going through the traditional process of consulting the clemency board and holding a public hearing, according to the state’s corrections department. Maine’s Constitution says the governor has the sole power to grant reprieves, pardons and commutations, so former Gov. Paul LePage did not break the law in pardoning his late mentor’s grandson, Jeremy Mills, and a former GOP lawmaker, Jeff Pierce. But he broke with tradition: Leonard Sharon, who served as chairman of the Governor’s Board of Executive Clemency until June, said he never saw a governor grant a pardon without a board recommendation and a public hearing during his 27½-year tenure, which ended in mid-2018.
Associated Press




editorials & columns



"But in the 2018 reporting period, something odd occurred: The value of gifts reported by legislators almost doubled."

Giftgate, as the 2013 Governor Bob McDonnell scandal came to be known, shook Virginia’s political world to its core. The commonwealth had always had some of the most lax reporting laws in the country for gifts and the like to elected and appointed public officials. It was all part of the storied “Virginia Way,” the origin of which can be traced to George Wythe of Williamsburg, the nation’s first law professor and a Founding Father credited with creating the first training program for future political leaders. He emphasized civility, honor and integrity in public service. Today, the “Virginia Way” is still referenced, but, sadly, modern-day reality has made it more of a myth. In the years since Giftgate broke and Assembly enacted tougher ethics laws, the value of gifts reported by members of the General Assembly tumbled. In 2013, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, the total value of gifts to lawmakers was $364,000; four years later in 2017, the value reported was a mere $77,000. Fear of public embarrassment and voter wrath seems to have worked miracles. But in the 2018 reporting period, something odd occurred: The value of gifts reported by legislators almost doubled to $132,000. A Fairfax delegate visited South Korea on Seoul’s dime; three delegates traveled to Taiwan on that government’s tab; and a political magazine paid for another delegate to attend a conference in Great Britain. All legal, all considered “official business.”
The News & Advance

From time to time this Editorial Board takes the opportunity to remind our readers of the principles that guide the stances we take in these pages five days a week – including a progressive sense of fairness on social issues, a more conservative sense of responsibility on fiscal matters, and a strong opposition to a concentration of power in a small number of hands. Underlying all of them, the rock-solid foundation of all we print on these pages is a belief that government must be accountable to the people. That is why we will always call for transparency, for the freedom of information as it relates to the peoples’ business. We believe in open government. When the public’s business is being conducted, it must be expected to take place in full view of that public. When residents’ tax dollars are being allocated, or when their rights are being discussed, those citizens should be privy to and be allowed to play a role that discourse.
Daily Press

There are over 10,000 illegal immigrants in the United States from nations designated as terror sponsors, according to documents obtained by an immigration reform group. The Immigration Reform Law Institute revealed Friday that it has received documents under the Freedom of Information Act that show that the illegals have either been ordered deported or have pending final orders of removal, but are still in the U.S. The group, which focuses on immigration legal avenues, said that ICE said the illegals were here from Iran, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea.
Paul Bedard, Washington Examiner