Transparency News, 6/8/21


June 8, 2021
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state & local news stories
An HB 2004 workshop
Register here
The FOIA Council's subcommittee on records will meet next week: June 14 at 1 p.m.

This meeting will consider the FOIA fees bill and the police disciplinary records bill.

Check this page regularly for the agenda and for any comments that might be submitted in advance. Links to watch the meeting, to sign up to give testimony via Zoom and links to submit written comments are all in the agenda.

And, while you're on the subcommittees' page noted above, check out the proposed bill drafted by FOIA Council staff to counter a district court judge's ruling that a government's "official website" for purposes of FOIA notices means only .gov websites.
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The Virginia Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in two cases aimed at barring the removal of Richmond’s Robert E. Lee monument, the last Confederate memorial remaining on Monument Avenue in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The supreme court has set aside 40 minutes for arguments in the property owners’ case and 30 minutes for Gregory starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The cases will be argued and heard remotely. A link to the virtual proceedings will go live at 9 a.m. at
(via Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith released budget request documents in May to show he's been trying to get dash cameras and body cameras for his sheriff's office for years. What he didn't mention was that his agency used to have dash cameras, GoPros and body cameras. Former officers and the previous sheriff told The News Leader the Augusta County Sheriff's Office had been experimenting with dash and body-worn cameras since the beginning of the decade. The equipment, implemented in the earliest years of local law enforcement efforts to adopt digital camera technologies, produced what one former county deputy characterized as "consistent and visible" footage that could be reviewed and stored as attachments to case files. Where these cameras are now and why they aren't being used is not clear. The News Leader sent FOIA requests to both the sheriff's office and the county to see if they have any documents related to the traffic grant and general law enforcement equipment grant. 
News Leader

The former chair of the Prince William County School Board is alleging a civil conspiracy in his defamation case against the division’s superintendent, while the elected panel is fighting a subpoena for a deposition of one of its members. Former board chair Ryan Sawyers is suing Superintendent Steven Walts over comments the superintendent made in a video posted on Twitter last May. 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.” Sawyers contends that Walts’ statement was in retaliation for his numerous complaints and Virginia Freedom of Information Act requests against the division.
Inside NoVa

At first glance, Checks and Balances Project looks like a traditional if scrappy news site — an “investigative watchdog blog,” as it bills itself, filled with serious stories scrutinizing corporate activities and government officials. It employs an editor who used to work at USA Today. For more than a decade, its investigations of powerful interests have been picked up by local and national news outlets. Yet a closer look suggests the site is not always the independent crusader it appears to be. When it investigated the hotel industry, it was after it had received a grant from Airbnb. A high-profile investigation into Arizona utility regulators came after Checks and Balances received money from a solar power company, the company disclosed in 2015. Now Checks and Balances is investigating a massive hospital system in Virginia named Sentara, publishing regular stories and asking patients and employees to send tips that might reveal how the nonprofit hospital “piled up $6 billion in liquid assets,” among other issues. These stories started appearing the same month that a medical school in a complex dispute with Sentara hired a public relations firm that happens to share a founder and financial ties with Checks and Balances. Scott Peterson, the executive director of Checks and Balances, said that its funding sources do not influence the course of its investigations. But the relationship was not divulged to readers, nor publicly acknowledged until The Washington Post inquired about it — an arrangement that unnerves transparency advocates who have been keeping tabs on a proliferation of unconventional news sites and watchdog outfits that may be blurring the lines between PR and journalism.
The Washington Post

A few months back, New Market Police Chief Chris Rinker tuned into a podcast series recently started by Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter. As a fellow law-enforcement officer, Rinker was naturally intrigued by the idea and thought to himself, “That’s a way to reach people.” It got Rinker thinking. What if the town of New Market began a similar series, through which staff could relay important town news, events and other various local happenings to residents in a way that is easy to digest whether they’re sitting at a desk or out and about? While discussing the podcast recently, Rinker readily admitted that they’re “kind of copying the sheriff’s office,” adding that the town is “stepping out of the box a little bit to reach a lot of people.” “And that’s our goal,” he said. “It’s just another avenue for us to get to folks.”
The Northern Virginia Daily
stories from around the country
Detectives were stumped by the 2010 shooting of Michael Anthony Temple in Odenton, Md. The gunman left DNA on a cigarette and coffee cup, but a search of the police database found no match. Five years passed, the case went cold, and Temple died of his injuries. The breakthrough came when investigators submitted the DNA to consumer genealogy websites. Nine years after the shooting, they charged Fred Lee Frampton Jr. It was an early instance of police in Maryland turning to genealogy websites such as Ancestry and GEDmatch to solve cold cases. Now, Maryland becomes one of the first states in the country to set rules limiting how police can use the popular websites and their databases. The General Assembly passed the legislation this year. And though Gov. Larry Hogan didn’t sign the bill, he allowed it to become law anyway. Beginning Oct. 1, police may use consumer genealogy websites only for serious violent crimes such as murder and rape, only after they exhaust other investigatory methods, and only under the supervision of a judge.