Transparency News 4/20/15

Monday, April 20, 2015


State and Local Stories

In a proceeding under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, to obtain a copy of a suicide note contained in a criminal investigative file opened by a sheriff’s office under its lawful authority to investigate the unexpected and unattended death of a senior United States Air Force official, the sheriff had the discretion, but not the duty, to disclose documents within this file and eventual closure of the file did not change its character. Nor did the suicide note, standing alone, constitute a compilation subject to disclosure under Code § 15.2-1722(B). The judgment of the circuit court denying a writ of mandamus to compel disclosure of this document is affirmed.
Supreme Court of Virginia

Then-Gov. Tim Kaine had just arrived in Tokyo for a trade mission. Back in Richmond, it was Monday morning. Bill Leighty, Kaine’s chief of staff, wrote an email to members of the governor’s inner circle at 8:48 a.m.: “There is a preliminary and unconfirmed report that a student was shot and killed on the Virginia Tech campus this morning. Campus Police have reportedly called in the VSP to investigate.” If only that had been the extent of the bloodshed. But this was April 16, 2007 – the date of the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S history. Over the next several hours, state officials would come to realize the horrific nature of the event: 32 people at Tech were killed by a deranged student, who then killed himself. Kaine abruptly canceled his trip and returned to Virginia. That night, his staff prepared for his arrival. The gubernatorial staff’s emails of April 16, 2007, offer a unique window on how state government operates in a crisis. The emails are part of a special collection at the Library of Virginia. Roger Christman, a senior state records archivist, culled the messages from 1.3 million emails that the Kaine administration turned over to the library for posterity.
Loudoun Times-Mirror

Week after week, Danny Lee Ginn attends Norfolk City Council meetings with Councilman Paul Riddick in his sights. The retired pharmaceutical salesman regularly berates Riddick from every direction: He's a bully. He's a racist. He's a tax scofflaw. He assaulted a person with some sliced ham. You name it; Ginn has gone there. Ginn contends that his rants are rooted in fact. Riddick does have a temper. He did once call a white member of the housing authority board a "cracker." He owed thousands to the IRS for failure to pay taxes. And he was convicted of misdemeanor assault many years ago for tossing a pound of sliced ham at a store clerk. Ginn used to berate former City Manager Regina Williams. For the last three years, however, in the three-minute increments allotted to public speakers at council meetings, Ginn has heckled Riddick. The embattled councilman has remained silent, sitting back in his chair as Ginn unloads. On Tuesday night, however, Riddick ended his silence. The longtime councilman lost his temper, threatening Ginn by daring him to "get within 5 feet of me." Riddick didn't hide behind his words when Ginn asked whether it was a threat. "It is a threat," Riddick said.

The apparent embezzlement of more than $250,000 in seized drug money by a Loudoun County sheriff’s deputy, still unresolved after nearly 18 months, is now becoming an issue in the sheriff’s first reelection campaign. A former top commander for Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman (R) is alleging that Chapman failed to stop the deputy from stealing $50,000 after the problem was noticed, and that Chapman has wrongly claimed credit for uncovering the embezzlement, while also attacking Chapman’s management of budget and staff. Chapman has fired back at retired Maj. Eric Noble by noting that he sought to fire Noble last year for being untrustworthy, after Noble and another major posted anonymous statements critical of Chapman in the comments section of online news stories and for writing e-mails discussing a potential run against Chapman. The sheriff alleges that Noble undercut him from the start by failing to warn him about budget problems.
Washington Post

National Stories

The debate in the nation’s capital and across the country over whether police should wear body cameras has quickly evolved into a new and perhaps more difficult question: Who gets to see the video? Officials in more than a dozen states — as well as the District — have proposed restricting access or completely withholding the footage from the public, citing concerns over privacy and the time and cost of blurring images that identify victims, witnesses or bystanders caught in front of the lens. In the District, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) tucked a proposal into a budget bill to exempt videos from the Freedom of Information Act, effectively barring access to the public. That came weeks after she announced a new era of open government and a police force held accountable through the widespread use of body cameras to allay fears of misconduct that are roiling other American cities. “I applaud the mayor’s decision to introduce cameras here in the city, but to exempt the footage from FOIA requests is just silly,” said Delvone Michael, director of D.C. Working Families, who has spent most of the last month in Ferguson helping with elections. Lawmakers in several states have offered different approaches to find the right balance between transparency and privacy — an issue that became an afterthought amid the rush to pin cameras on officers’ shirts.
Washington Post


Members of the General Assembly evidently think very little of you, Virginia. They don't think you should be involved in their work. Don't worry your little heads about what goes on in Richmond. Better that you leave so complicated a task to the professionals. How else might one explain this week's report by Transparency Virginia, a coalition of 29 open government advocacy grounds and nonprofits? In a study of the recent legislative session, they found lawmakers routinely conduct business in a way that effectively discourages public participation and flouts state law. It's an aspect of The Virginia Way that — along with legislators' lack of candor about conflicts of interests, sulkiness about limiting the gifts they get from special interests and refusal to end gerrymandering and free-for-all campaign fundraising — undermine our democracy.
Daily Press

In Richmond, lobbyists have been married to legislative aides; lobbyists have been married to reporters; lobbyists have dated other lobbyists; lobbyists and legislators have been co-investors in business; lobbyists have quit lobbying to go to work for the government; and legislators have quit legislating to go to work for lobbying firms. Some of this is publicly disclosed, because, by law, it has to be. The conflict-of-interest law requires that elective and appointive officials list their investments and debts. Details can be sketchy. The just-passed ethics rewrite, like the statute it replaces in January, relies on the politicians to police themselves. That means the breadth of disclosure is for the politicians to decide. A lot can be left to the imagination — of legislators, other lobbyists, the press and voters.
Jeff Schapiro, Times-Dispatch

MISS An opaque Assembly    It is a hallmark of how business is done in Virginia’s General Assembly, the western hemisphere’s oldest continuously operating legislative body: A handful of legislators kill a proposal on an unrecorded, voice vote.    Too often, votes are cast in poorly advertised meetings, or rescheduled on short notice, or exclude speakers who’ve traveled to advocate a cause. Those are among many practices that destroy civic engagement and block Virginians from witnessing or tracking their lawmakers’ actions in Richmond.    A report issued last week by a coalition of lobbyists and advocates for transparent, effective government catalogued the legislature’s failure to conduct the public’s business in a way that accommodates the public.    In the House of Delegates, nearly half of all bills died in a committee or subcommittee, the majority without a recorded voice vote; 117 simply didn’t get a vote and, therefore, died, according to Transparency Virginia’s report.    Elected officials ought to have the courage to record their votes for posterity and for the public’s perusal at election time. Virginians deserve better.
Virginian-Pilot (scroll down in article)

Last week, when Republican Del. David Ramadan shocked his colleagues by announcing his resignation after two terms representing the 87th District, he indirectly highlighted the importance of competition, campaign finance reform and the preservation of modest pay for Virginia's part-time legislators. Ramadan said he simply couldn't raise a half-million dollars needed for a competitive re-election campaign, deliver the service constituents deserve, maintain a successful business career and be there for his family. He had to choose. Republican Del. Todd Gilbert, who has twice led the thankless task of negotiating reform of state ethics laws in the wake of former Gov. Bob McDonnell's conviction in a gift scandal, pointed out Ramadan's public service came at a huge personal expense. He "literally sacrificed a fortune," Gilbert said. But elected office was never designed to be a lucrative career. It's public service. And that's increasingly lost in the debate over legislators' pay, or whether they should be able to accept gifts, or whether Virginia's campaign finance laws - which permit limitless donations, and provide few checks on politicians' use of the money - should be reformed to provide greater transparency and less opportunity for impropriety. Every candidate for the state House and Senate knows the compensation before he or she runs for office. But Ramadan doesn't think legislators should earn more than they do now. Nor does he have qualms about capping the value of gifts elected officials can receive. "It's not supposed to be a career," Ramadan told me. "The problem in the system is not the low pay. The problem is how much it costs to run.... It's just absolutely insane how much money has to be spent on these races. That's what's making it a full-time job, not necessarily that you only get paid $17,640."
Shawn Day, Virginian-Pilot

Make no mistake: No stepped-up reform would have occurred had not the public demanded it. Public opinion still matters in politics; voters and taxpayers still can influence their elected officials. When the demand is strong enough, politicians will respond. That’s encouraging news for anyone who might have grown jaded about government.
Daily Progress