Transparency News 6/20/14

Friday, June 20, 2014

State and Local Stories

Sandton Capital Partners closed on its $30.2 million purchase of The Free Lance–Star Publishing Co. Thursday and installed veteran newspaperman Gene M. Carr as interim publisher and chief executive officer. The sale ended the Rowe family’s 130-year tenure as owners of the media company. But Sandton said it would continue “business as usual” in operating the newspaper, radio stations, websites and commercial printing plant. Former Publisher Nick Cadwallender and former Associate Publisher Florence Barnick, members of the Rowe family, were offered jobs with the new company but did not stay. Cadwallender said he could not work for the new owners because of litigation involving other issues
Free Lance-Star

A 25-year-old California woman stands accused of sending threatening emails and making harassing phone calls to Culpeper’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Megan R. Frederick. Emalia Mirand Bevil faces two counts of making threats in writing, a Class 6 felony punishable to a prison term from one to five years and/or a fine up to $2,500.

Attorney General Mark R. Herring yesterday announced steps to improve the office’s efficiency, including a new procurement policy for outside counsel. “While there is no reason to believe that any outside counsel has been engaged improperly or inappropriately compensated, pre-existing records and tracking/accounting procedures make it difficult to judge the effectiveness of the state's outside counsel expenditures,” Herring said in a statement. He said records show costs for outside counsel totaled $23.3 million in fiscal year 2013, $14.8 million in fiscal 2012, and $14.4 million in fiscal 2011. Invoices for outside counsel are paid by the agency receiving services, not the Office of Attorney General. He said his new procurement policy for outside counsel includes a “contribution blackout” that blocks any financial contribution to the attorney general by any employee of a firm that has sought outside counsel work, a documented determination of need for outside counsel, competitive procurement and an objective evaluation of competitive proposals.

News of another corruption investigation in Virginia has many public officials wondering whether federal prosecutors are subjecting elected leaders in a state with scant history of political graft to higher standards than in the past. “I wish they’d send a memo out,” said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), one of several legislators who asked why federal investigators were probing last week’s surprise resignation of then-state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, a Democrat from Southwest Virginia. “I’m just not getting what the investigation is about,” he said. “This has happened a number of times in the past.”
Washington Post

If federal investigators are hoping to build a public corruption case against former Virginia state senator Phillip P. Puckett or Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), they might have an uphill climb, legal experts said. In 2010, the Supreme Court decided that the government could not prosecute legislators or government officials for what is known as “honest services fraud” simply because they participated in some sort of self-dealing, conflict-of-interest arrangement. Prosecutors had to prove, the court decided, that the officials took bribes or kickbacks as part of a quid pro quo. Proving that quid pro quo requires prosecutors to show that the public official took or promised to take “official acts” in exchange for the bribes or kickbacks.
Washington Post

National Stories

Cutting-edge data-gathering techniques may have grabbed the spotlight lately, but it turns out the government has been playing fast and loose with a more old-school surveillance method: snail-mail snooping. The U.S. Postal Service failed to observe key safeguards on a mail surveillance program with a history of civil liberties abuses, according to a new internal watchdog report that USPS managers tried to keep secret, citing security concerns. The Office of Inspector General audit of so-called “mail covers” — orders to record addresses or copy the outside of all mail delivered to an individual or an address — found that about 20 percent of the orders implemented for outside law enforcement agencies were not properly approved, and 13 percent were either unjustified or not correctly documented.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced  that it has charged a man it believes to have been involved in a coordinated series of cyberattacks against corporations, universities, and government agencies. Timothy French, 20, was arrested by the FBI in Tennessee last week.

The Supreme Court on Thursday broadened free-speech protections for public-sector employees when they testify at trials, a decision that could give more rights to public workers who assist in government corruption cases. In a 9-0 vote, the court sided with Edward Lane, a former director of a government-backed community education organization in Alabama, who said he was fired from his job after testifying against a former state legislator at two criminal trials. Lane had said that the former legislator collected a salary at the community organization, but never came to work.

New York’s Suffolk County Police Department agreed to take new measures to instruct police on citizens’ recording rights in a settlement following the arrest of a freelance videographer. Phillip Datz, a videographer and member of the National Press Photographers Association, filed a complaint against Suffolk County Police in 2012 after an officer arrested him for obstruction of governmental administration because Datz filmed police activity while on a public street. Before the case made it to trial in the U.S. District Court of New York, Datz and Suffolk County reached a settlement. Suffolk County agreed to develop resources on citizens’ recording rights and to pay Datz $200,000 to cover attorney’s fees and costs.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Wisconsin state Sen. Jon Erpenbach has decided not to appeal an April court decision ordering him to release the names and email addresses of people who contacted him in 2011, closing a legal fight that will likely cost taxpayers more than $230,000. In 2011, the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, asked for emails to Erpenbach under the state's open records law. The request came as public officials from both parties were inundated with emails and phone calls over a Republican plan to tightly limit collective bargaining for most public workers.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

You’re going to FP (face palm) when you see the FBI’s internal style guide for Internet slang. It’s more than 80 pages of definitions and acronyms — or “Twitter shorthand” — for obvious terms such as LOL and WTF. The document was acquired by the news site MuckRock in its crusade for Freedom of Information requests to see if agents understood leetspeak — a combination of American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) characters with the English language — to aid hacking investigations.
New York Daily News

Members of a legislative panel on Wednesday looked at ways to expand Arkansas' open records law so taxpayers can find out more about spending in government contracts and possibly get access to other financial records now held in secret. The athletic and academic foundations at the University of Arkansas are regarded as private entities and much of how they spend millions of dollars is kept from the public eye. Likewise, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission doesn't have to fully reveal details about state money paid to employers. Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, has drafted a bill to address problems in getting financial information from private entities that do business with state government.
San Francisco Chronicle

He likened welfare recipients to "lazy pigs." He blamed the Great Depression on Franklin D. Roosevelt and said FDR's economic policies gave rise to Hitler. He said Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was responsible for feeding 16 million African-Americans into abortion mills. He is Arizona schools Superintendent John Huppenthal, and he admitted Wednesday that he made those comments, along with hundreds of more mundane musings, in anonymous posts on political blogs. The comments, under various pseudonyms including Falcon9 and Thucydides, have been appearing since 2011. "I love talking about public policy, and I have a passion for engaging in debate," Huppenthal said on Wednesday. "I probably have 300,000 words out on the Internet, and 100 of them are getting me in trouble. When all of your missteps are there all together for people to see, it's not a pretty picture." In an earlier statement released to The Republic, Huppenthal apologized, saying, "I sincerely regret if my comments have offended anyone."
Arizona Republic

Police in Florida have, at the request of the U.S. Marshals Service, been deliberately deceiving judges and defendants about their use of a controversial surveillance tool to track suspects, according to newly obtained emails. At the request of the Marshals Service, the officers using so-called stingrays have been routinely telling judges, in applications for warrants, that they obtained knowledge of a suspect’s location from a “confidential source” rather than disclosing that the information was gleaned using a stingray. A series of five emails (.pdf) written in April, 2009, were obtained today by the American Civil Liberties Union showing police officials discussing the deception. The organization has filed Freedon of Information Act requests with police departments throughout Florida seeking information about their use of stingrays.


The new DMME panel wants fracking companies to provide better disclosure. And while the panel is far from making recommendations yet, disclosure is something fracking companies should get behind. Indeed, the Virginia Oil and Gas Association—which promotes the drilling industry—last year asked DMME to require drilling companies in Virginia to participate in a website, FracFocus, where drillers voluntarily list their chemicals. An association representative said that while fracking has been done safely for half a century, the industry wants to be transparent. 
Free Lance-Star

Partisans claimed that it would be patently unfair to subject Republican McDonnell, but not Democrat Puckett, to such scrutiny. There are some differences in the two cases, however. Whether those differences are germane may yet be seen. Mr. Puckett had maintained a reputation as a straight-shooter. By contrast, the McDonnells had a long history of questionable behavior, including using state staff and state resources for personal purposes and accepting extravagant gifts from an entrepreneur who was lobbying to win state business. The McDonnells’ questionable activities were well-known. Although a blow to Virginian pride, the couple’s indictment was not a complete surprise. Mr. Puckett’s resignation and subsequent allegations of a secret deal did come as a surprise. None of this, however, answers any of the fundamental questions involved in this case. In fact, it only raises more. For instance: With the McDonnell example so prominently displayed as a warning, why would any politician risk similar ignominy by toying with secret deals?
Daily Progress

We welcome the federal investigation into the alleged dirty deals leading to a state senator's resignation, which in turn ended the budget stalemate and probably killed Medicaid expansion. Virginia's lax ethics laws allowed former Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Russell, to resign in exchange for a state job for himself and a judgeship for his daughter. Puckett tried to save face by not taking the job and giving an interview laced with Scripture quotes, but we see it the way the feds might see it: as a bribe, plain and simple. Legal in Virginia, but stinks nonetheless.
News Leader

The school board shake-up continued last week. With the unanimous vote to replace 24-year incumbent Glenn Millican on the board, three straight incumbents have lost their posts courtesy of the Hanover Board of Supervisors. In each case, the public has received little explanation as to why these officials needed to go; they have only been thanked for their service and set aside. The time between when the candidates are made public to when they are appointed doesn’t give us much time to get to know the people vying for the job. Interviews are done in private between the candidate and that district’s supervisor, a fairly informal process to vet the individual who will be partly responsible for Hanover’s largest fiduciary responsibility. Citizens deserve a better introduction, at least, if they aren’t able to have the final say.