Transparency News 5/15/13


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

State and Local Stories

Daily Press: When a wrongful termination lawsuit involving six former employees of Hampton Sheriff B.J. Roberts goes before a federal appellate court on Thursday, those employees will have a prominent backer in their corner: Facebook. Aaron M. Panner, an attorney representing the world's largest social networking site, has been granted permission from the Circuit Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to speak for three minutes about why clicking the "Like" button on Facebook is a form of constitutionally protected free speech. Panner, based in Washington, is a Harvard educated lawyer who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Roanoke Times: Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said he never discussed a $1.7 million lawsuit against the state filed by a friend’s company with that friend, but his campaign and office still would not say whether he ever talked about the tax dispute before the lawsuit.

Martinsville Bulletin: A group of area residents has started a petition drive to try and have Martinsville City Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge removed from office over comments they say she made which they believe hurt the community. The controversy erupted at the April 23 council meeting after juniors in a Piedmont Governor’s School research class created a quilt to highlight their experiences in doing a citizens survey for the city. They gave the quilt to the city to be displayed at the municipal building. On Tuesday, city council adopted a motion to accept and hang it in city hall. During the presentation, Hodge said she was offended by a square on the quilt that depicted a dark-colored person on one side of Philpott Dam and a gold-colored person on the other. It wasn’t Hodge giving her opinion that has people upset with her, but how she voiced her opinion, speaking angrily to the students, plus comments she has made since then which have inflamed some in the community, the group’s spokesperson said.

News & Advance: Seven people spoke on behalf of the former Altavista police chief at Tuesday’s town council meeting. Clay Hamilton was fired last Wednesday, just a couple months shy of when he was set to retire on July 1. Hamilton was let go shortly after he released a list of grievances he had with the town officials to local media outlets. Some of his grievances were directed at the police committee, which is comprised of three council members. None of the grievances were specifically mentioned or addressed at the meeting.

News & Advance: Lynchburg City Councilman Jeff Helgeson showed up for a committee meeting Tuesday, ending a 10-month-long absenteeism streak. Helgeson had not attended a committee meeting since July when new Mayor Michael Gillette removed him as chair of the finance committee and reassigned him to a committee on property and infrastructure issues.

Herald Courier: The Ten Commandments could soon hang on a wall at the county government building, after a unanimous Washington County Board of Supervisors vote Tuesday night. More than 300 people turned out in support of a motion by the Rev. Jerry Eggers, of Greendale Chapel, to ask the board to post the Scripture on a wall of the public building. His request was prompted, he said, by the Barter Theatre’s recently unveiled painting of the Hindu deity Shiva, which was installed to represent the theater’s multi-culturalism. Board member Joseph Straten said that the potential for a lawsuit against the county for the action could put taxpayers’ money at risk. Across the country, boards and school systems have been asked to remove their religious texts and icons in public buildings.


National Stories

Kenneth T. Scott opposes abortion, and he says so in public. Sometimes he holds up large pictures of aborted fetuses. Sometimes he makes his points near churches that he believes are not doing enough to combat abortion. On Palm Sunday in 2005, he and other protesters turned up near an Episcopal church in Denver. As the parishioners re-enacted Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in an outdoor ceremony, Mr. Scott stood on a parked car on public property and addressed the procession from about 20 feet away. Some observers said he was loud. Others said he was screaming. He showed large pictures of aborted fetuses. About 200 children were present, and some of them became upset. The church sued, and a Colorado court issued an order barring Mr. Scott from engaging in various kinds of disruptive conduct near the church when services are under way. Most of the restrictions were not based on what he had to say. Those parts of the order were, as lawyers would put it, content neutral. But one part of the order raises a difficult First Amendment question: It bars Mr. Scott from “displaying large posters or similar displays depicting gruesome images of mutilated fetuses or dead bodies in a manner reasonably likely to be viewed by children under 12.”
New York Times

The seizure of the two mobile phones used to record the beating death of a man by policein California has led to accusations that the sheriff’s department is trying to cover up the episode.
New York Times

Stacks of opt-out forms are piling up in county clerks' offices as the statewide freeze on the release of gun permit holders' names and addresses ends Wednesday. After May 15, permit holders who have not filed "opt out" forms are at risk of seeing personal information disseminated in response to Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, requests.
New York Daily News

Here’s a potential mini-scandal to add to the list of President Barack Obama’s problems this week: The Environmental Protection Agency often refuses to waive fees for Freedom of Information Act requests from conservative groups, while almost always waiving them for environmental groups. That’s according to an analysis of a year’s worth of FOIA requests by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based public policy group that advocates limited government, free enterprise and individual liberty. The waivers are significant since FOIA fees can run into the thousands of dollars – enough money to discourage groups from going forward with their requests for emails and other government documents. Federal agencies usually waive fees on FOIA requests by the media or public-interest groups.
The Business Journals

The Federal Communications Commission has routinely favored progressive organizations’ transparency requests during President Obama’s time in office. The Daily Caller previously reported that, in 2011, the Federal Communications Commission expedited the transparency requests of the progressive non-profit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which was seeking information about the political activities of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The agency provided CREW with 233 pages of documents within 30 days of the request and waived the processing fee. Meanwhile, conservative government watchdog groups like Americans for Limited Government (ALG) and National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) say they were stonewalled, or left wanting by the agency, in their own transparency investigations.
Daily Caller

Colorado authorities will have expanded access to cellphone locations without a warrant in cases of emergencies under a new law. The measure requires phone companies to give authorities call locations in certain cases. Authorities would have to show that the time required to obtain a search warrant could put a person at risk. Law enforcement would have to show a court within 48 hours that they had probable cause after the fact.
The Republic

The National Organization for Marriage announced Tuesday it planned to sue the IRS over what it alleges was the illegal leaking of donor information. “Not only has the IRS retaliated against conservative, small-government and tea party groups as they apply for recognition of tax exemption and lied about it, but it has criminally released our confidential tax return including the identity of dozens of major donors to a political enemy,” NOM President Brian Brown said in a statement.



Roanoke Times: Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office is proving that there’s nothing free about Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, certainly not when it comes to requests about communications with Star Scientific and its embattled but generous CEO, Jonnie Williams Sr. Roanoke Times reporter David Ress was informed that the attorney general’s office bills at a rate of $53.65 an hour to look through its files and emails, and that fulfilling his request would cost at least $14,400. That amount of money could almost pay for five family getaways at Williams’ Smith Mountain Lake vacation home, based on Cuccinelli’s gift disclosure reports.

Daily Press: We have cautioned many times on this page that U.S. citizens should be wary of surrendering their personal privacy to our government in exchange for the illusion of increased safety and security. Two recent events in the national news bring home the point rather painfully: handing over our privacy encourages an arrogant and overreaching federal government.

Times-Dispatch: Even the administration’s knee-jerk defenders cannot help noticing the Nixonian overtones. The New York Times says the abuse of IRS power is “a far cry from” Richard Nixon’s use of the agency to intimidate opponents. “Not as bad as Tricky Dick” hardly qualifies as the highest of praise.What’s more, the inexcusable fishing through reporters’ private phone logs has a more recent precedent that Obama’s supporters should find equally unflattering: During the Bush administration, the FBI collected phone records of four reporters for The Washington Post and The New York Times, ostensibly as part of a terrorism investigation. The Justice Department’s more recent sweep of phone records is considerably broader.

Kerry Dougherty, Virginian-Pilot: Troubled by revelations that the Internal Revenue Service hounded conservative groups that attempted to secure the same nonprofit status that other organizations enjoyed? Don’t be. Look on the bright side. After all, this sort of bureaucratic brutishness is enough to make some of us feel young again. You may also feel like a kid – if that’s what you were during the Richard Nixon era. Suddenly it’s the 1970s all over again. Everywhere, pundits are invoking America’s paranoid Prince of Darkness. Listen closely and you can almost hear the strains of “American Pie.”

Free Lance-Star: “Outragaeous, if true.” That’s what President Obama called revelations that the IRS had been targeting conservative groups for special scrutiny. He’s right—andAmericans of all political persuasions should be equally outraged.

Daily Progress: Conclusion No. 1: The Obama administration is not the open, liberal, progressive government it claims to be. It is in fact manipulative, oppressive and hostile to constitutional values when those values get in the way of its agenda. Conclusion No. 2: The Obama administration doesn’t want reporters doing their jobs.

News Leader: The latest installment in the Star Scientific soap opera engulfing Richmond has a July 8 hearing to decide if the mansion chef embezzlement case should be tossed out because Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s involvement tainted the case too much to pursue. If not, the trial is set for Oct. 15. Three weeks before voters have to go to the polls where Cuccinelli is on the ballot, they will hear four days of details, likely including former chef Todd Schneider's argument that he’s been targeted for blowing the whistle on Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams’ gift-giving ways. It sounds like a “Law & Order” case on TV, but it’s really an example of what can happen when state leaders prize secrecy and money over doing the right thing.

Gene Policinski, First Amendment Center: What The Associated Press calls “a massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice” into its news gathering activities is more than an affront to a free press — it’s a direct challenge. If the seizure of telephone records from offices and personal lines is as broad and unfocused as AP CEO Gary Pruitt describes, the DOJ move to seize records of calls made from offices and personal phones of AP journalists marks a new and threatening move by an administration already facing  reports that the IRS has targeted groups simply for educating others about the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and a record of the most prosecutions ever of government employees over leaks to the press, under the nearly-100 year old Espionage Act.

Nicholas Weaver, Wired:  With the recent revelation that the Department of Justice under the Obama administration secretly obtained phone records for Associated Press journalists — and previous subpoenas by the Bush administration targeting the Washington Post and New York Times — it is clear that whether Democrat or Republican, we now live in a surveillance dystopia beyond Orwell’s Big Brother vision. Even privately collected data isn’t immune, and some highly sensitive data is particularly vulnerable thanks to the Third Party Doctrine. So how can one safely leak information to the press? Well, it’s hard. Even the head of the CIA can’t email his mistress without being identified by the FBI. With a simple subpoena or warrant, the FBI can obtain historical calling information (and with cellphones, location history); email messages (and records revealing the pattern of where and when the target accessed these accounts); internet activity; and much more. Since even separate, innocuous contacts between a reporter and source may be sufficient for the FBI to establish a relationship in its investigations — and who knows what kind of leak triggers a crackdown — here’s my guide for potential leakers.