Transparency News, 5/2/2022


May 2, 2022

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It was done while Jerry Chambers was unconscious. The N-word was written in all caps behind his right ear. A swastika was drawn on his jawline. “White Lives MATTER” lined his head in black marker next to “F- — BLM.” What happened that Saturday night in September 2020 at a party in Powhatan County — a locality where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee once temporarily retired and whose residents are 88% white — stayed largely unknown to the public until last week. In front of at least 100 people on the parking lot of United Nations Church in South Richmond, Chambers spoke publicly about the impact of that night for the first time in two years and denounced what he called law enforcement’s refusal “to do their job.” The Sheriff’s Office told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in a statement that it encouraged the family to meet with the chief prosecutor the next day, but the parents didn’t show up. Police officials also disputed the claim that law enforcement hadn’t done their job, but any investigation or police reports are not made public.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Just 15 hours after 8News aired a second investigation into how a Henrico woman inadvertently had access to sensitive documents via her online profile with the Virginia Employment Commission, the commissioner of the beleaguered state agency said "sometimes there are going to be errors." VEC Commissioner Carrie Roth answered questions Friday afternoon after her agency provided no explanation for three weeks, how a 90-page document dump ended up on Sierra Williams' online profile after filing an unemployment claim. Roth agreed to answer questions from 8News reporter Jackie DeFusco Friday, but a spokesperson denied reporter Ben Dennis' multiple requests for an interview with the commissioner after reporter Ben Dennis went to the VEC in person to try and get answers. Roth did say why the issue was not spotted before the information was uploaded, but she made something clear several times during Friday's interview--the VEC took down the information, yet she still did not detail how the oversight was missed.

Fairfax County Public Schools now has a new layer of protection for undocumented students and their families. The Fairfax County School Board voted unanimously last night (Thursday) to prohibit employees from requesting, accessing, or disclosing information about a person’s citizenship or immigration status unless required by law or court order, or they get permission from the individual or a guardian.

“Extremely problematic,” “inappropriate,” and “disrespectful” was how Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. said School Board members handled edits of his plan to create a School Law Enforcement Advisory Group. In a March 9 email, Hutchings scolded a majority of School Board Members — Michelle Rief, Ashley Simpson-Baird, Adbel Elnoubi, Kelly Carmichael Booz and Chris Harris — for editing his SLEP proposal. He said that such “behind the scenes” operations raised transparency issues by violating the Virginia Freedom Of Information Act. The Board is allowed to discuss their positions on issues with each other outside meetings. “I didn’t come here to uphold the status quo or be a rubber stamp,” Elnoubi said. “There’s nothing wrong with members sharing and discussing ideas outside the board room as long as as long as it’s in a one on one setting to abide by the ‘Sunshine Laws’ and that’s what we did. In this situation here when I see a proposal that continues to marginalize people of color like me, I have an obligation to speak up.” Board Member Tammy Ignacio was not pleased to receive the edited document in a Board-wide email before the March 10 meeting from Harris, who asked that Board members look at it for discussion. Ignacio said she was not privy to the edited recommendations, and that they equated to “backstabbing” from her colleagues.

A judge has overruled another attempt by the former Prince William County Public Schools superintendent to dismiss a defamation lawsuit against him by the former School Board chair. After a hearing in Prince William County Circuit Court Thursday, Judge James Willett dismissed the motion filed by attorneys representing former Superintendent Steven Walts to have the defamation lawsuit thrown out. Former School Board Chair Ryan Sawyers, who served from 2016 to 2018, is suing Walts over comments the then-superintendent made in a video posted on Twitter in May 2020. In the video, Walts said Sawyers and others “have chosen to launch a partisan and personal attack on me. As part of their attacks, they have chosen to smear and slander me for purely political purposes. While I am not concerned about these attacks directed at me, I am significantly concerned they have chosen to bully and attack PWCS students online. Their actions reflect their character.” Sawyers has said the comments in the video, which had more than 29,000 views before being taken down, were “false and defamatory” and they “damaged Sawyers’ personal and professional reputation by alleging conduct that is reprehensible to him as a former school board chairman, businessperson, coach and father.” The school division paid $110,776 to law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP for an investigation into complaints about Walts’ use of the account. The results of the investigation were presented to the board in July 2021, but the presentation remains confidential because it involves a personnel matter.
Inside NoVa

stories of national interest

"Without things like time limits, controls, and transparency about what has been edited, Edit could be misused to alter the record of the public conversation."

Twitter recently announced that a feature that would enable users to edit published tweets is currently in the testing phase. But for government agencies on the platform, the exact impact of such a tool is difficult to predict — especially when paired with news about the platform’s ownership change this week. Such a feature raises questions about maintaining public records, the potential for the spread of misinformation and other issues. Now, with the headlines swirling around billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s plans to purchase the platform for a handsome $44 billion, things seem even more open to interpretation. The edit feature announcement came from an April 5 tweet from Twitter’s communications team, which said that the company has been working on the edit feature since last year. The tweet stated that testing will take place in the coming months to determine the specifics of the feature. “Without things like time limits, controls, and transparency about what has been edited, Edit could be misused to alter the record of the public conversation,” Jay Sullivan, the head of consumer product at Twitter, wrote. “Protecting the integrity of that public conversation is our top priority when we approach this work.”

editorials & columns

"FOIA records and analysis indicate that about half of these men died from inadequate withdrawal or detox medical procedures. "

The NAACP Arlington Branch filed a formal request in March for the Justice Department to open a civil rights investigation into the Arlington County detention facility. The NAACP did not take this action lightly, and it came after a long, sad and disturbing parade of deaths in our county’s jail under the watch of the same sheriff. The sheriff’s responses to Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking records regarding these deaths were shrouded in secrecy, with entire pages of redactions and the aggressive use of exemptions (without explanation) to thwart the public’s legal right to information. The records do, however, disclose that the death investigations conducted by (or in tandem with) Arlington County police from 2020, 2021 and 2022 somehow remain open. These delays, coupled with what amount to self-investigations, give us great pause. Several of the men who died had been arrested and incarcerated for minor misdemeanors. FOIA records and analysis indicate that about half of these men died from inadequate withdrawal or detox medical procedures. 
Julius D. "JD" Spain Sr., The Washington Post