Transparency News 5/24/19



May 24, 2019


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state & local news stories


"Those exemptions are discretionary meaning they don't have to use them.” -- Megan Rhyne, VCOG

Earlier this month an inmate walked away putting a community on high alert and the Virginia Department Of Corrections isn't talking. Inmate Jason Day was on the run for two days in Nottoway County.  8News wanted to know how Day was able to just step away from a worksite and what's being done to assure the public it doesn't happen again. But the Department Of Corrections won't release the records. 8News filed a FOIA or Freedom Of Information Act request for a copy of the incident report. The Department of Corrections told us they have two pages of information still 8News' request was denied. DOC cited a section of law that allows the state agency to deny "all records of persons imprisoned.” Yet, Megan Rhyne who is a FOIA expert and the Executive Director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government told 8News they don't have to invoke that. "Those exemptions are discretionary meaning they don't have to use them,” said Rhyne.

Lawmakers have pushed the Library of Virginia to speed up its process of cataloging emails from former governors. But the library says it’ll need more funding -- and help from artificial intelligence -- to tackle a backlog of over 25 million emails.  Roger Christman sometimes feels like he’s living in 2008. As the governor’s records archivist at the Library of Virginia, it’s Christman’s job to sift through emails from past governors to screen out personal information and the inevitable clutter. He’s currently still going through the emails of now-Sen. Tim Kaine, whose term as governor ended in 2010, getting to know the quirks and senses of humor of administration officials who left their posts over a decade ago. Christman has mastered the art of a quick scan, even if it the task feels like something out of The Office.  Artificial intelligence helped cut Christman’s workload, but he’s still got almost 25 million emails left from Kaine as well as their successors, Bob McDonnell and Terry McAuliffe. The slow pace has irked some lawmakers, who came close to passing a bill last year that would have required the library to process the emails within a year of receiving them.

A woman who stole nearly $22,000 while working in the King George Commissioner of the Revenue office was ordered Thursday to serve 18 months in prison. Rachel Lynn Jenkins, 35, of Rappahannock Academy in Caroline pleaded guilty in King George Circuit Court to four counts of embezzling public funds. As part of a plea agreement, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison with all but a year and a half suspended. In addition, a number of charges were dropped. The 18 months far exceeded the recommended state sentencing guidelines, which called only for probation. Commonwealth’s Attorney Keri Gusmann insisted that Jenkins do jail time because she “violated the public’s trust.”
The Free Lance-Star


stories of national interest

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt defended on Wednesday the agency’s policy allowing politically appointed officials to review and comment on public records requests that relate to them. Appearing before a Senate appropriations subcommittee to testify about his department’s budget, Bernhardt said the so-called “awareness review” policy was legal. “It’s a process that’s very long-standing in the department,” Bernhardt told the committee. “We definitely formalized it,” he said. “It’s completely legal.” An office within the National Park Service warned in a December memo that the policy was “preventing” it from meeting its legal deadlines under FOIA.
Roll Call

An Illinois judge Thursday ordered Jussie Smollett's criminal case file be unsealed. Smollett was accused of filing a false police report claiming he was the victim of a hate crime attack carried out by two men on a city street in January, but less than three weeks after being indicted on 16 felony counts, Chicago prosecutors dropped all charges against the actor. On the same day the charges were dismissed in late March, Smollett's defense team requested that the evidence and records in the case be immediately sealed, and the state did not object, according to court documents. Lawyers for media outlets argued that the sealing of the records "violates the public's right of access to court records and proceedings" and "the matter has been widely publicized and the defendant and his attorneys have appeared on national television discussing the case," Thursday's decision document said.
NBC News

President Donald Trump won’t release White House visitor logs, he refuses to hand over his tax returns, he made staffers sign non-disclosure agreements and he’s balking at congressional investigators. Yet during a Rose Garden speech on Wednesday, he again proclaimed himself “the most transparent president” in U.S. history, adding to the reporters gathered before him, “I think most of you would agree.” It may be true that Trump reveals more of his personal thoughts and emotions than any of his predecessors. But by most other measures of presidential transparency, including the congressional oversight at issue during his White House appearance Wednesday, Trump operates behind dark-tinted windows. Trump isn’t the first president to throw around transparency-related superlatives. Soon after winning the presidency, Barack Obama vowed to make his administration the most transparent in history. And he did take steps toward that goal, including through the first-ever release of White House visitor logs. But watchdog groups often complained that Obama was betraying that promise when he blocked access to records or his Justice Department prosecuted government leakers.


quote_2.jpg"Trump isn’t the first president to throw around transparency-related superlatives."