Transparency News 5/14/13


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

State and Local Stories

Times-Dispatch: Norfolk State University has been unable to complete a financial audit for two consecutive years, prompting state legislators to call for greater accountability.
Martha S. Mavredes, the state auditor of public accounts, told legislators on Monday that her staff has been working at the university since late February to help it complete a financial audit of the past two fiscal years, but the institution lacks the administrative staff and adequate documentation to complete the work.

Times-Dispatch: While the IRS’s admission that it targeted conservative groups for additional scrutiny puts increasing pressure on President Barack Obama’s administration, Virginia lawmakers from both sides of the aisle condemned the agency’s actions and underscored their support for an investigation. In Virginia, meantime, the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party joined its counterpart in Richmond in charging that its organization was improperly targeted by the IRS.

Virginian-Pilot: The leader of the Hampton Roads Tea Party said Monday that it spent more than a year and a half trying to get tax exempt status before withdrawing its application to the IRS.

Roanoke Times: Curious to know if anyone in the Office of the Attorney General talked to the biotech firm CEO who gave $35,000 in gifts to the governor and the attorney general about the $1.7 million in taxes the company owed? Or for that matter if the governor and the AG or any of their staff exchanged thoughts on the subject? Turns out, finding out would likely cost plenty – since lawyers in the Office of the Attorney General office bill at $53.65 an hour to look through their files and emails.  And they set a thorough, deliberate pace, it seems.  It took, after all, six pages for senior assistant attorney general James Schliessmann to explain the challenges that would likely force the office to charge at least $14,400 to track down those records. And it was on page 6 of his response to a Freedom of Information Act request for records about the Office’s records on the Star Scientific tax dispute that he advised the bulk of those records, once located, probably couldn’t be released because they are subject to attorney-client privilege.

Virginian-Pilot: The number of non-Virginians obtaining state-issued concealed handgun permits has boomed in the four years since Ken Cuccinelli sponsored legislation making it clear that online testing meets the legal training requirement for them.

Daily Progress: The Thomas Jefferson Foundation will host a reception Tuesday to accept formally a donation of 2,500 manuscripts and materials related to Philip Mazzei, a longtime friend of the former president and famous Virginia statesman. Sister Margherita Marchione, a nun and professor emerita of Italian language and literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University, donated the printed and published artifacts, works of art and decorative objects.

News & Advance: Monday’s Bedford County Board of Supervisors meeting took an unusual turn when Chairman Steve Arringtonstepped down from the podium to stand before a group of teachers and address their anger over another supervisor’s remarks. Arrington said he did not want to “talk down” to a group that showed up to support two teachers who spoke out against a controversial remark by Supervisor Annie Pollard at an April 22 meeting. He then spoke for nearly half an hour in an impromptu speech that defended recent board budget decisions and called for an effort to “try to work together.” “I’m asking you, in spite of all … let’s just all move forward,” Arrington said. “Let’s get past it. Let’s move on.” Pollard at the April 22 meeting referred to a group of educators as “a bunch of crybabies” for pushing for more county funding to education.


National Stories

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news. The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP. It was not clear if the records also included incoming calls or the duration of calls.
The Associated Press
The U.S. Justice Department is defending its review of two months of phone records for a group of reporters and editors at the Associated Press, which called the government action "a massive and unprecedented intrusion" into newsgathering.
Blog of LegalTimes

A U.S. judge on Monday ordered the release of previously sealed documents in the criminal hacking case against deceased Internet activist Aaron Swartz. Swartz committed suicide in January before going to trial for allegedly stealing millions of academic articles from a private database using a computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz's estate asked for the documents to be released to shed light on what they have termed an overzealous prosecution of the 26-year-old. The documents, which include information about Swartz's purported hacking into the JSTOR database using MIT's computer network, must be stripped of the names of witnesses and law enforcement personnel, District Judge Nathaniel Gorton ordered. Information about weaknesses in the two institution's computer networks must also be redacted, Gorton said.CNET News

As lawmakers in Washington react to allegations that the Internal Revenue Service regularly targeted conservative groups when reviewing their requests for tax-exempt status, President Obama on Monday vowed to find out "exactly what happened" at the IRS during the period under scrutiny - and vowed that any wrongdoers would be held "fully accountable" if found to be operating "in anything less than a neutral and non-partisan way."
CBS News

Federal courts are "far too deferential" to the executive branch's claims that information classified on national security grounds and shouldn't be released to the public, a prominent federal judge said Monday. Speaking at a conference for federal employees who process Freedom of Information Act requests, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth said his fellow jurists usually rubber-stamp agency claims that disclosing information would jeopardize national security.

A children's advocacy group went to court Friday in hopes of forcing Kansas' attorney general to disclose information about how much the state can expect in tobacco settlement funds as lawmakers consider how to spend those dollars. Kansas Action for Children filed a petition in Shawnee County District Court, accusing Attorney General Derek Schmidt of violating the state's Open Records Act. The group wants Schmidt's office to release an accounting firm's report on revisions to a 1998 legal settlement between states, including Kansas, and tobacco companies.
The Republic

Soon after Susan Stuckey called Prairie Village, Kan., police three years ago and said she wanted a cop to kill her, more than 15 officers in riot gear surrounded her apartment building.  When they left the complex several hours later, Stuckey, who had suffered for years from mental illness, was dead, shot three times by one of the officers. In most other states, including Missouri, those records would have been easily accessible. But the Kansas Legislature has closed most criminal records to the public. The law even makes it a misdemeanor crime for a law enforcement agency or prosecutor to release those records without a judge’s order.
Kansas City Star

The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, which serves more than 11 million passengers on a typical weekday, moved its 6,200-plus subway cars to higher ground, along with more than 500 locomotives and work cars. The agency identified more than 20 areas at risk for flooding as Hurricane Sandy approached. It used wind speed as a gauge for when to shut down operations. Many other moves took place, all detailed in a hurricane plan released as a part of a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. What NJ Transit did to prepare for Sandy remains largely secret. The agency that operates bus and light-rail and commuter rail services declined to release its strategy when requested under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. When asked for communications regarding Sandy preparations, NJ Transit released a 3½-page “Rail Operations Hurricane Plan” that was stripped of all information except for the title.
The Record

If you pick up the phone and hear, “Hey, it’s Walt Cronkite, with CBS News,” don’t pinch yourself. Cronkite, the grandson of the legendary newsman, is a full-time associate producer with CBS News in Washington, D.C., and he knows the kind of weight his name carries. Cronkite’s connection to his grandfather is, in part, the impetus behind his new book, “Cronkite’s War: His World War II Letters Home,” which details his grandfather’s correspondence during the Second World War.



Virginian-Pilot: There is no excuse for the politically motivated targeting of more than 100 conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service. No apology from the agency or the White House of President Barack Obama will be enough. An investigation has already begun in Congress, though it's far more likely to produce heat than light. A special independent counsel should be appointed immediately.

Roanoke Times: Whether or not the actions of the IRS were initiated in the White House, they further poison a political climate that Obama promised to cleanse when he ran for the presidency in 2008. The backlash makes it less likely that the federal government will take legitimate steps to curb abuses by political groups of all stripes that exploit the “social welfare” exemption solely to conceal their donors.

Daily Progress: Now, as taxpayers we want the IRS to catch scofflaws. But in this case, the IRS singled out some 75 organizations seemingly not because their tax paperwork suggested some irregularity, but solely because the names of the organizations included the words “tea party” or “patriot.” By all appearances, the IRS was looking for ways to make life difficult for them. That is unconscionable.

News & Advance: It is nothing short of shocking and is deeply disturbing. American citizens must have faith in their political institutions and be assured that the rules are applied equally and fairly to all. And that goes double — or even, triple — for the IRS and the application and enforcement of the tax code. There must be a full, transparent, far-reaching and quick investigation of the IRS to determine the extent of the problem and uncover those responsible for it. How high up the chain of command at the agency did knowledge of the practices go? And why was nothing done to stop it?

Register & Bee: The IRS and just about everyone in Washington is now falling all over themselves to apologize, but the key issue is timing; the IRS was taking a long look at applications for tax exempt status of a lot of conservative groups at the start of 2012. Even if this was just heat put on these groups by some heavies in the IRS’s Cincinnati office — and that’s as far as it went — the net effect was the federal government asking a lot of questions of people during a time when the presidential election campaign was gearing up. It’s a combination of coincidences that’s going to give this story legs. It’s reasonable to expect Republicans and conservatives — especially members of the targeted groups — to think this was simply a case of government intimidation.

Gene Policinski, First Amendment Center: The news that an office of the Internal Revenue Service had targeted for review a number of groups with names that included “patriot” or “tea party” is chilling enough to  hear  – but there’s even more reason to be concerned from a First Amendment perspective. But did anyone at the field office where this activity began ever stop to “check”  the 45 words of the First Amendment, which speak specifically to the very subject matter being “targeted:” Criticism of the government and contrarian issues with how much or how little government we need?