Transparency News 4/8/15

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


State and Local Stories

Oops. A Virginia Beach city employee had online access to nine municipal bank accounts holding hundreds of millions of dollars for years without anyone knowing, the city announced Friday. There's no indication that money is missing, but nobody really knows yet, according to the city treasurer and an auditor who uncovered the problem. "At this stage, we think nothing is missing, but I'm not going to jump out there and say that for sure," Treasurer John Atkinson said. "I'd like to think we would have caught any money being taken, but we have to do a complete investigation to make sure." The problem began when Bank of America improperly gave the employee access to all nine accounts about five or six years ago, Beach Auditor Lyndon Remias said. The unidentified employee was setting up a modest human services account for petty cash and small expenses - it never held more than $5,000 - when the bank gave her an online access code that worked for all the accounts.

Federal prosecutors looked into allegations of public corruption involving state Sen. Tommy Norment last year but found no evidence he broke any laws, according to a source familiar with the investigation. Last January, as part of an investigation into an extortion attempt on Norment, the top Republican in the Senate, authorities learned of a personal relationship between him and a lobbyist. The U.S. Attorney's Office examined allegations raised by Christopher Burruss, who tried to blackmail Norment. They found no evidence of public corruption, according to a source familiar with the investigation who would speak only on condition of anonymity.

A string of personnel changes including the firing of a student leader and the resignation of another, as well as financial challenges at Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech have raised questions about the future of independent student media at one of the state’s largest universities. EMCVT is a private, nonprofit organization that produces five student-run media products for the Tech community under a 1997 contract with the university, including The Collegiate Times newspaper, The Bugle yearbook, VTTV television programming, WUVT radio broadcasting and Silhouette Literary & Art Magazine. The company is overseen by a board of directors made up of student leaders, alumni and professionals. The board approves all student leadership and professional hires and is responsible for overall company financial management. Since the beginning of the year, the board has terminated two professional staffers — reportedly for financial reasons — and a student editor was fired while she was working on a story about EMCVT’s financial problems. The company’s general manager, Carrie Cousins, has given notice that she will leave in June.
Roanoke Times

National Stories

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has submitted an administrative appeal to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser urging her to overturn the Metropolitan Police Department’s decision to withhold footage from police body-worn cameras requested by the Reporters Committee under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act. In discussing the department’s body camera program last week during her State of the District address, Mayor Bowser said that “accountability is embedded, and will be embedded in everything this administration does.” Mayor Bowser also stated that the use of body cameras will be expanded to cover all patrol officers over the coming months. In January, the Reporters Committee submitted a D.C. FOIA request for certain types of police body camera videos, including videos that were retained for supervisory review, used for training, or used in connection with civil or criminal cases.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

For those who have spent more than a decade fighting for stricter regulation of the Internet, the official publication of the rules in the Federal Register will give reality to their latest victory. For those opposed, it is likely to touch off a flurry of lawsuits.
New York Times


The board members at U.Va. are the worst offenders of transparency over tuition decisions. A subcommittee of the board and and some university financial officials quietly planned a new tuition model that will substantially raise costs for incoming in-state students. Some students were hearing rumors of major changes and wanted a chance to be heard. But the board of visitors made sure that wouldn’t happen. It typically releases meeting materials, which includes reports, summaries, graphics and proposals, on its website in advance of meetings. The tuition proposal—one of the most critical decisions it faces annually—was not among the documents posted. UMW’s board of visitors at least discussed tuition costs in a public meeting in February and had the item on its agenda in advance of the meeting. But students were not invited to discuss the increase or the impact it would have.
Dick Hammerstrom, Free Lance-Star

When I was re-appointed to the board, I committed to legislators to advocate for real affordability and transparency. If I learned anything while I was rector, it’s that we shouldn’t make big decisions for a public institution with a $2.5 billion annual budget without listening to stakeholders and clearly communicating our direction. This massive tuition hike was handled in exactly the opposite way. The administration failed to provide specifics of the plan to many board members in advance — and nothing at all to the public. There’s a world of difference between hypothetical models briefly tossed around in a subcommittee and sharing an actual plan and its impacts with a deserving board and public. Moreover, the decision was not able to be considered in the context of an acceptable long-range financial plan — which we’ve requested since 2011. No wonder people are upset.
Helen Dragas, Times-Dispatch

There is clearly misinformation about the data LPRs capture and how it can be used. LPRs do not collect personally identifiable information. When an LPR scans, collects and stores license plate information, it cannot be de-coded until it is run separately against a DMV database, for which access is strictly regulated by state law. If the database is inappropriately accessed or information is misused, cases are reported to the Virginia State Police. At the time of this writing, the Virginia State Police have received no such reports. McAuliffe’s amendments will also alleviate the LPR bills’ vast overreach. By reaching beyond LPRs and limiting all surveillance technology, the bill would seriously affect the ability to utilize courthouse security, jail security, body-worn or in-car police cameras, as well as many other types of technology that protect Virginians every day. During a time when the media and the public are scrutinizing the actions of law enforcement and correctional officers, it is astonishing that the commonwealth would limit the use of surveillance technologies that have proved invaluable in protecting citizens from unconstitutional interactions with law enforcement officers.
Michael R. Doucette, Brian K. Roberts and Stephan M. Hudson, Times-Dispatch

News organizations know what happens when government agencies have discretion to release information. Could it be, then, that Rolling Stone in this case fell victim to restrictive FOIA laws — that, if only the police department had released more information, perhaps it would have developed more suspicions about the stories it published? Bad reporting + strict FOIA laws = bad combination.
Erik Wemple blog

When you touch the steering wheel of that used car you just purchased, you might be taking your life in your hands — literally. That car might be subject to a company recall, with a problem that could pose safety risks down the road. But sellers are not required to attend to any recalls before they sell their vehicles. They’re not even required to tell you that there is a recall. "It's a very major public safety problem," Chris Basso, a used-car specialist for Carfax, told The Associated Press. Federal regulators want to curb that danger. They want sellers to fix recall problems before the cars are sold to unknowing new owners. Used-car companies object to that proposal. But they might be willing at least to disclose that a recall exists. Buyers should insist on such transparency as the minimum acceptable standard.
Daily Progress