Transparency News 6/2/14

Monday, June 2, 2014

State and Local Stories

A Norfolk judge has decided to hear a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the City of Norfolk, regarding city officials’ text messages. On Thursday, lawyers with the ACLU of Virginia presented arguments on behalf of PETA to Norfolk Circuit Court Judge John R. Doyle, III. The group is fighting for text messages sent by city officials about city business to be made public. “The lawsuit arises from several FOIA requests for text messages that PETA made to the City,” said an ACLU press release. “In response to the requests, the City told PETA that it does not save text messages generated by City officials.”

An unidentified worker in Todd Schneider’s catering business called the state fraud hotline to report that the chef was taking food from the Executive Mansion, according to a filing in former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s corruption case. The revelation is in the notes of a May 23, 2012, meeting on the Executive Mansion investigation that were prepared by Charles Hagan, a special agent with the Virginia State Police. Hagan’s notes are included with a memorandum that Jonathan Berry, a lawyer for McDonnell, filed Friday in support of a request for documents from the state police.
News & Advance

The private law firm representing current and former Virginia employees in the federal corruption case against the state’s former governor never stopped working for their clients or billing for their services — even as Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) announced in January that he was letting the firm go, according to recently released invoices. The day after Herring announced in a news release that he was dismissing Baker & McKenzie, those at the firm spent more than an hour corresponding with clients “regarding continued representation” — and billed the state accordingly, the invoices show. The firm continued to work throughout January, February, March and April, charging the state a little more than $23,600, the invoices show.
Washington Post

A drug dealer’s camera footage. An extortionist’s social media page. A killer’s cellphone records. As criminals go high-tech, Lynchburg detectives rely more and more on electronic evidence and the forensic specialists who analyze it. “Everything is going digital. … It doesn’t matter what the crime is, it’s likely you’re going to have digital evidence,” said Detective Colin Byrne of the department’s Digital Evidence Recovery Unit.
Roanoke Times

Dominion Virginia Power is rolling out a text messaging system to alert people to critical storm preparation information, energy conditions and statewide emergencies affecting the electric utility's customers. People signing up for the service will receive broadcast text alerts from the company for threatening events such as major storms, multiday power outages and requests for energy conservation during times of peak usage.
News Virginia 

National Stories

Two years ago, if you wanted to find out if someone had been granted a pardon recently in Connecticut, you had to go to the State Library in Hartford and dig through paper copies of minutes found amid numerous other government documents on an upper floor of the stacks. Now you can find those minutes on the state Board of Pardons and Paroles website. That’s one of the most dramatic changes in the transparency of Connecticut’s pardon process that has come as a result of almost two years of intense scrutiny of the state’s pardon process by the Journal Inquirer and the state Freedom of Information Commission.
New Haven Register

Security surveillance video from the Louisiana Capitol complex would be off-limits to the public, under a bill heading to the full House for debate. The House and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced the proposal without objection Wednesday after a heavy rewrite that narrowed its scope.

Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission was asked Friday to reconsider how poor a prison inmate must be to obtain public documents for free. Derrick Taylor, a 43-year-old inmate serving an 80-year sentence for a 1992 murder outside a Hartford bar, is requesting several thousand pages of documents from the state Department of Correction related to operations of Northern Correctional Institution, where he is housed. The documents include commissary contracts and details about the prison's ventilation and television systems. The department allowed him to review the documents, but it says he can't have copies unless he pays $200 for processing. They said Taylor doesn't qualify for a fee waiver, because he had more than $5 in his commissary account in the three months before and after his request.
Athens Banner-Herald

In a resounding victory for the First Amendment, especially as it relates to freedom of the press, a federal court has ruled in favor of a political activist’s right to display a county government seal in the background of her public access television show. Rejecting Union County’s claim that activist Tina Renna was infringing on trademark protections associated with the seal, U.S. District Court Judge Kevin McNulty asserted that Renna’s use of the seal is protected by the First Amendment and that the County’s infringement claims were a baseless attempt to impede her free expression in the pursuit of increased government transparency. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed the lawsuit in 2011 after county officials ordered Renna to stop displaying the Union County Seal in the background of her public information show “Union County Citizen’s Forum” because it allegedly infringed on the County’s trademark rights.
Rutherford Institute

In a reversal of his previous rulings, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Thursday decided thatthe Texas prison system can keep secret from the public information about pharmacies that provide execution drugs. The ruling cited an assessment by the state Department of Public Safety that determined drug suppliers could be subject to “real harm."


Restricting PACs from seeking donations for applicants for fund money was a bipartisan concept, sponsored in the House by Del. James M. LeMunyon, R-Fairfax, and Del. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax. “The Governor’s Office is already prohibited from soliciting contributions while negotiating public-private partnerships,” Surovell said in a statement. “I saw this as a logical extension of that prohibition.” Not so McAuliffe. He sought to extend the prohibition to lawmakers. He must know the illogic of this. The General Assembly is a body 140 strong. No one member possesses the ability to do what the governor can in his use of the opportunity fund, to make unilateral decisions, albeit within code guidelines. An astute politician and legendary wheeler and dealer, McAuliffe certainly knew the wider application never would fly, for reasons political and practical. He also said that delaying the legislation, which lawmakers plan to reintroduce next year, “would … protect confidentiality for ongoing economic development projects.”  Extending the prohibition to the General Assembly would require sharing the list of fund applicants with all 140 delegates and senators and, possibly, campaign treasurers, essentially shredding confidentiality. The aspect of keeping applicants’ names private is another argument for another day. The point here is that McAuliffe’s ostensible confidentiality concern is sophistry. He knows better.
Daily Progress

The disarray at the Virginia Port Authority after former Gov. Bob McDonnell swept the board in 2011, replacing 10 of 11 members, is hard to overstate. There was the failed attempt at dismantling Virginia International Terminals, the tax-exempt company that built the port into the third-busiest on the East Coast. The decision to siphon port funds to a new U.S. 460 that may never be built. The departures of the port authority's executive director and VIT's longtime chief executive. Last week, former board members cast doubt on the port's financial structure and claimed they didn't know about incentives used to draw rail cargo.

Daniel Harper, a student at Cameron University in Oklahoma, is the latest victim of the censorship pandemic currently infecting America’s colleges and universities. Earlier this semester, Harper handed out flyers expressing his religious objections to the World Mission Society, a religious group active on Cameron’s campus. Harper, an evangelical Christian, believes the group is a dangerous cult. After receiving a complaint, administrators prohibited Harper from distributing any more flyers citing the university’s Expressive Activity Policy and Equal Opportunity Policy, which bar students from engaging in “offensive” and “discriminatory” speech, require students to join a student organization, and then get prior permission to distribute flyers. “I like the amendments to the Constitution,” the equal-opportunity Officer told Harper, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom complaint. “They are foundations to democracy. But that’s all they are, foundations. You can’t live on them. You’ll freeze to death in winter and burn up in summer.”
Charles, Haynes First Amendment Center