Transparency News 5/23/14

Friday, May 23, 2014

State and Local Stories

An new opinion from the FOIA Council says that records related to a suicide fall under the criminal investigations exemption. In the process, the council rescinds prior opinions that said otherwise. The council also said that while an incident is investigated as a crime – but then the nature changes to something non-criminal – records generated after that determination would be subject to FOIA. 

Colonial Beach School Board Chairman Tim Trivett announced at the May 14 School Board Meeting that he had denied the CB Town Council’s request for copies of a letter from Vacorp, the school’s insurance company, which gave reasons for denying the school’s claim. Trivett said he did this on the advice of the school’s attorney.  At a prior meeting of the council on May 8, School Board Superintendent Kathleen Beane was on hand to answer questions from council members. Councilwoman Linda Brubaker, Council’s point of contact (POC) for the school, asked Beane if they had heard any news from Vacorp concerning the claim. When Beane revealed that Vacorp had sent a letter listing reasons for denying the claim, Brubaker and other council members seems surprised and later felt they were not being informed properly by the school system.  Councilwoman Linda Brubaker, Council’s point of contact for the school, asked Beane if they had heard any news from Vacorp concerning the claim. When Beane revealed that Vacorp had sent a letter listing reasons for denying the claim, Brubaker and other council members seems surprised and later felt they were not being informed properly by the school system. Brubaker requested a copy of the letter, and Beane agreed to send one. However, Trivett interceded that request, stating that the school board had been advised not only to deny the request, but to cease all open comments concerning the school fire, as well. 
Journal Press

A Center for Digital Media Innovation will be launched at Hampton University with $245,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The center, by Hampton's Scripps Howard School of Journalism, will provide students digital training needed in today's newsrooms and help increase diversity in journalism, according to a release on the Knight Foundation's website.

Chesterfield County’s long-contentious and previously litigated prayer policy is facing new allegations that it violates the U.S. Constitution despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this month that upheld a New York town’s right to hold Christian invocations before its board meetings. The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent county leaders a letter Thursday stating that the county’s policy must be changed to allow any person from any faith to pray before public meetings for the county to comply with the First Amendment.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board wants greater transparency – and possibly a greater role -- in the public private transportation project process. The 17-member body on May 14 passed a resolution asking the director of the Office of Transportation Public Private Partnerships to undertake “an extensive and exhaustive review of the processes, policies, manual, and guidelines” used in soliciting, developing, negotiating and implementing the public-private projects. The review is aimed at increasing transparency, the competitive process and public involvement, as well as more direct involvement by the CTB in the development, negotiation and implementation of such transportation projects.

Virginia owes roughly $17,800 to a Washington-based law firm still representing state employees on matters linked to former governor Bob McDonnell's gift scandal. Two invoices reflecting that amount were publicly released Thursday for work by the Washington-based Baker & McKenzie firm from February through March.

Fredericksburg city police officers are now carrying a new high tech weapon in an effort to combat crime. About the size of a cigar and attached to the lapel or sunglasses, the new Axon body cameras made by Taser International are designed to capture video and audio of an officer’s actions and perspective during an investigation or enforcement encounter. Officers will not be activating the cameras for every random conversation or minor citizen encounter, and recordings that are not useful for evidence or training will automatically be purged from the storage system after thirty days
Free Lance-Star

National Stories

The state Court of Appeals says the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association, made up of auto insurers, is exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act, overturning a lower court ruling granting access to its records. The Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault filed a FOIA request with the association in 2011, seeking information about all open and closed claims serviced by the MCCA. In 2012, the coalition sued in Ingham County Circuit Court to force release of the records, and was later joined by other plaintiffs whose requests for records were rejected, including the Brain Injury Association of Michigan.
Detroit Free Press

Nearly half of the financial reports federal appellate judges filed last year included redacted information, according to a review of the annual disclosures. Of the 257 reports provided to The National Law Journal by the judiciary late last year and early this year, 112 included redactions. Several judges shielded the sources of thousands of dollars in outside income, travel reimbursements and gifts, the reports show. The disclosures highlight potential financial conflicts between judges and the lawyers and litigants who come before them. Judges can ask to black out information only for security reasons — if, for instance, they can show that revealing information about places they visit or assets they own would pose a physical or financial threat to themselves or family members. The latest reports available covered information for 2012.
National Law Journal

The Illinois Supreme Court has declared that state's attorneys are government officials subject to state public-records law. The unanimous ruling released Thursday forces county prosecutors to release public records under the Freedom of Information Act. The law is intended to improve government transparency. The case began when a reporter asked for emails between employees in the Kendall County State's Attorney's office. The office denied the request, claiming it was part of the judicial branch of government, which is exempt from the act.
Journal Gazette & Times-Courier

House lawmakers easily passed an NSA surveillance reform bill Thursday but without the support of some civil liberties groups and tech coalitions who called it watered down. Even chief sponsors lamented that the end result was less than perfect. The 303-121 vote came almost a year after Edward Snowden first thrust the National Security Agency’s activity into the national spotlight. Proponents billed the measure, which is chiefly designed to ban the government from obtaining phone records in bulk, as a historic opportunity to curb the government’s surveillance authority. Still, many of them said they had hoped for a stronger measure.

A state judge in Pennsylvania has ruled that the names, property addresses, billing addresses and other information about delinquent sewer customers is subject to the state’s Right-to-Know Law. Last August, a Patriot-News reporter requested the information, which also includes the amount owed to the sewer department and how many days past due the customer is on paying its bill. At the time of the request, the PA Media Group, which owns The Patriot-News, said residents had an interest in seeing how billing was handled as sewer services costs rise. Costs had recently increased between 37 and 62 percent for 1,800 customers in the region. The borough to which the newspaper submitted the request indicated it was concerned about violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and Pennsylvania Fair Credit Extension Uniformity Act if it released the information.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The North Carolina Senate on Thursday voted to make it a crime to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, even as big U.S. oil companies elsewhere consider releasing more information about the fluids to address public concerns about the environment. The legislation, proposed by three Republican state senators and passed by a vote of 35-12, aims to protect trade secrets about fluids used to extract oil or gas from wells using fracking, which blasts sand, water and chemicals deep beneath the earth's surface. Environmentalists concerned about groundwater contamination and health risks want more information made public.

Minnesota lawmakers will no longer be issued a “Get Out of Jail Free” card by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who said Wednesday that there is no law on the books that requires him to hand out the controversial cards that have long been a prized perk. His decision brings an end to the wallet-sized cards that carry a simple but powerful statement of privilege: Under the Minnesota Constitution, lawmakers “in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest” while the Legislature is in session.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Documents unsealed Thursday by a federal court in Seattle reveal that late last year, Microsoft successfully challenged an FBI National Security Letter. NSLs allow FBI officials to send requests to Web and telecommunications companies requesting account information, with the assumption that the information is relevant to a national security investigation. The NSL Microsoft received was in regard to one of its enterprise customers and it sought basic subscriber information, Microsoft's general counsel Brad Smith said in a blog post.


In September, Sen. Mark Warner introduced the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act), which would mandate publication of all accounting data, using a uniform reporting standard, on a website easily accessible to the public. It is a substantial — and overdue — step toward openness. Sen. Warner, a Democrat, cosponsored the measure with Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and it is a companion bill to one introduced by California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa and Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings. This is bipartisan legislation which won near-unanimous approval. The Daily Press Editorial Board gives the Open Door Award each month to a public official or organization in recognition of dedication to transparency and public access. With his leadership on this action to open the curtains on the federal budget, Sen. Warner is a deserving recipient this month.
Daily Press