Transparency News 5/15/14

Thursday, May 15, 2014

State and Local Stories

Little in the way of substantive discussion took place yesterday at the inaugural meetings of the FOIA Council’s subcommittees on records and meetings, charged with study FOIA’s exemptions, clarity and readability. The records subcommittee elected Division of Legislative Services head Bob Tavenner as chair, in his absence, while citizen member Chris Ashby was elected vice chair and presided over the meeting. Some on the subcommittee wondered whether the subcommittees were allowed to discuss policy and asked that the meeting schedule be pushed back. Even though council staff pointed out that the council already has authority to study all aspects of FOIA, the subcommittee agreed that it wanted to wait until the full FOIA Council gave it direction.

A similar discussion took place at the meetings subcommittee, where George Whitehurst was elected chair. However, this group decided there were aspects of the meetings section it could begin working on without guidance from the full council.

The next meetings will be some time in June.


Former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s attorneys are asking for access to some Virginia State Police records. In a motion filed Wednesday, McDonnell’s attorneys ask the court to issue subpoenas for state police communications — internal, or with the U.S. Attorneys’ Office, or with any other state or federal agency regarding “any potential or actual investigation” of the former governor, his immediate family, or his subordinates, or of Jonnie R. Williams Sr., Star Scientific, Inc., or its employees or affiliates. They seek communications from Jan. 1, 2010 to the present.

The future of The Free Lance–Star Publishing Co. could be determined today in Richmond, though the outcome may not be publicly known for another week. The company’s assets will be auctioned off today in Richmond. The venue has not been announced, and it will be closed to all but a small group, including attorneys, company principals and prospective bidders. The results are expected to be made public at a May 22 sale hearing in front of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin R. Huennekens in Richmond. 
Free Lance-Star

The state’s latest IT system problems have been fixed, the Virginia Information Technologies Agency said Wednesday. “At this point it appears that 100 percent of all systems have been restored and are operational,” said Samuel A. Nixon Jr., Virginia’s chief information officer. “We do still have work to do assisting agency application staff with server tuning,” Nixon said, “but all impacted servers have been confirmed to be operational.”
News & Advance

Pittsylvania County School Board Chairman Calvin “Bunky” Doss and Superintendent James McDanielcalled board member Wayne Robertson on the carpet last night for letters he wrote to the Star-Tribune. The most recent appeared May 7 and indicated that school principals are ineffective because they do not have the proper supervision from the central office, especially from the four assistant superintendents. The letter stated, “The rest of the school board gave full support to this looney arrangement. Do I need to mention that two of these assistant superintendents are old friends of the superintendent from the city of Danville? Considering their reputation, is that a place which we should draw our top school officials?” Doss said, “The letter you wrote to the newspaper was not very complimentary to those people,” indicating assistant superintendents Lillian Holland, Ann Cassada, Wanda Vaughan and Jeff Early, who were seated behind Robertson. Doss said Robertson’s words were disrespectful to them as individuals. Robertson declined to apologize to McDaniel or the assistant superintendents. He said he will do what he has to do to address issues people keep urging him to investigate.

A previously unknown letter written by President Thomas Jefferson offers a rare glimpse into the personal life of the Founding Father, a dealer of historical documents told The July 24, 1805, letter from Jefferson to Bowling Clark — his friend and real estate manager who once oversaw Jefferson's home of Monticello — details the then-62-year-old president’s desire to commission the appraisal of his 4,812-acre Poplar Forest plantation so the property could later be divided up for his eight grandchildren. “The time is now approaching when I shall wish to be parceling off some of my lands to my grandchildren,” Jefferson wrote. “This renders it necessary that I should understand the separate value of each portion of them distinctly. As no person is so well acquainted with them as yourself, I must ask a favor of you to consider the questions on the paper enclosed, and to write at the end of each the answer in figures, and to send me the same paper to Monticello, by the first post.”
Fox News

It was a first: A County Board member participating via speakerphone. Board member Libby Garvey took part in the May 13 board meetings (at 3 and 6:30 p.m.) while calling in from her home in Fairlington, where she is recuperating from injuries sustained in a bike accident. “I have the iPad on my lap on a pillow. Have my arm on a pillow. Have a pillow at my back,” Garvey told the Sun Gazette on May 13. “Pillows are very important for me right now.” Virginia law recently was changed to allow board members to participate telephonically under certain circumstances. Garvey’s status on injured-reserve allowed her to phone it in.
(Note: the provision allowing someone who's temporarily disabled to phone in has been on the books for several years.)
Inside NOVA

National Stories

More than 1,900 pages of e-mails and documents help tell a story about what’s happened to people with mental health issues in King County in Washington, and what the county’s doing about it — not bad for a collection of documents the county couldn’t seem to find. Reporter Brian M. Rosenthal first requested those emails last fall after he wrote a Seattle Times series about psychiatric “boarding”, which left people who were involuntarily committed and in need of psychiatric treatment in the emergency room for hours or even days. Many readers wrote him emails about the story afterward. A few weeks later, he was told there were no responsive records. Maybe he’d asked for the wrong phrases, he thought, so he tried again, requesting all communications between the head of the involuntary committment system and the head of the prosecuting attorney’s office. By April, the newspaper had 1,900 documents. Recently, the county employees involved were reprimanded, and the Times settled for “$41,560 in legal fees and public-records-act penalties,” according to the newspaper.

Anonymously spilling personal gossip and corporate secrets online is all fun and games–until someone gets a subpoena. Startups like Secret and Whisper have defined a buzzy new category of social media, attracting millions of users and tens of millions of dollars in venture capital investments with the promise of allowing anyone to communicate with anonymity. But when it comes to actually revealing corporate and government secrets–a “whistleblowing” function that the two services either implicitly or explicitly condone–users should read the fine print.

In 2009 and early 2010, a telephone company raised questions about the legality of the then-secret National Security Agency program that is systematically collecting records of Americans’ calling habits, according to court documents declassified on Wednesday. The disclosure reveals for the first time that a phone company pushed back against the bulk collection of its customers’ calling records, adding a new chapter in public understanding of the secret history of the program. The episode also calls into question a statement by Judge Claire Eagan of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The statement, made in an August 2013 opinion, left the impression that no one had raised any legal concerns about the program.
New York Times

In an effort to beef up protections for the personal details about students that schools may share with app developers and other companies, two prominent senators said that they intend to modernize a decades-old federal education privacy law. The law, called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Right Act of 1974, or FERPA for short, generally requires schools that receive public financing to obtain parents’ permission before sharing intimate details about their children with third parties.
New York Times


Not long ago, the working definitions of “open government” and “open data” barely overlapped. Open government was all about holding up government to public scrutiny via Watergate-era methods—namely, making sure that meetings were held in public and that agencies responded to requests for information. Open data was about providing information in formats that computers can understand.Today, open government and open data overlap so substantially that it’s routinely necessary to explain that they’re different.
Waldo Jaquith, Knight Foundation

So far (see the April 22, 2014 meeting documents), FOIA Council staff are driving the review bus, and we’re all along for the ride. Under staff’s plan, changes to FOIA’s general provisions are not set for consideration until 2016, when they will occur “as needed” and under the gun of the November 30, 2016, final report deadline. That’s a mistake.
Open Virginia Law

Oftentimes we see a person's true character, not in victory, but in how he or she handles defeat. Adversity can bring out the best in a leader and, it's been said, the strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire. That proverb has particular resonance in the wake of the disputed school board election in Newport News. Amid the justified alarm over incorrect vote totals, reported on Election Day and later reversed, we have learned a great deal about those who aspire to serve, and those in office, by how they have handled the controversy. Rick Jones said he never imagined "people could be able to influence the election process" and there was "certainly some malfeasance associated with it." And Pricilla said she had "a major concern with the irregularities." What began as questions about irregularities veered into a dangerous display of histrionics. At a Monday news conference, City Council Woman Pat Woodbury alleged something sinister was at work. She cast blame on shadowy puppeteers — whom she called the "Newport News mafia" — determining election results in the city. 
Daily Press

Score one for Mark Warner. The House of Representatives has passed his Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA), a bill to increase citizens’ ability to track how the federal government spends their money. A unanimous Senate passed DATA previously. The legislation has gone to President Obama for his signature.