Transparency News, 7/16/20


July 16, 2020
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state & local news stories
"After a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter challenged that application of the exemption, the department changed its mind and provided unredacted invoices showing the purchases."
The Richmond Police Department has spent at least $1.9 million responding to protests that began in the city in late May, mostly on overtime pay for officers. Between May 29 and June 23, the agency paid out $1.83 million in overtime, according to a Freedom of Information Act request. A second request for overtime accrued in the subsequent weeks, as near-daily demonstrations against racism and police brutality have continued, is pending. Mayor Levar Stoney said Wednesday that his administration is still tabulating the total cost to the city. The Richmond department initially withheld the quantities of the crowd control items it purchased after the protests began, saying those figures represented a “tactical plan,” and would be withheld under a discretionary exemption in the state’s open record law. After a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter challenged that application of the exemption, the department changed its mind and provided unredacted invoices showing the purchases. They included 225 canisters of OC spray, commonly referred to as pepper spray, and more than 1,000 zip-tie handcuffs — all of which were purchased in the first three days of June.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Liberty University sued The New York Times for defamation on Wednesday, accusing the newspaper and a reporter of crafting a “clickbait” story intended to mislead the public about a coronavirus outbreak at the school’s Lynchburg campus. In a 55-page complaint filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court, the university took aim at a March 29 story in which The Times reported that about a dozen students living on campus were sick with symptoms suggesting COVID-19. The lawsuit argues that reporter Elizabeth Williamson deliberately misrepresented a Liberty-affiliated physician who the school claims told the paper that nearly 12 students only showed signs of “upper respiratory infections.” Lawyers for Liberty claim in the suit that an upper respiratory infection is not indicative of COVID-19 but rather milder illnesses, like the common cold.
The News & Advance

The former executive director of the Newport News airport, Ken Spirito, was sentenced Wednesday to four years of probation and ordered to pay the airport $2.5 million to make up for public funds it lost through financing for People Express Airlines. A pre-sentencing report recommended a prison term between 97 and 121 months — prosecutors sought a sentence on the low end of that range. U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson said the guidelines were excessive, noting that Spirito had not received any proceeds from the loan guarantee or the transfers of public funds from airport bank accounts to make good on the guarantee, according to Spirito’s lawyer, Trey Kelleter. The judge also held that Spirito’s conviction in itself served as a deterrent that would keep other airport officials from violating laws on handling public money.
Daily Press

As the intensive process of implementing sports betting in Virginia continues to unfurl, the Virginia Lottery on Wednesday released some of the initial drafts of regulations that will guide betting operations. The lottery, which is in charge of regulating both sports betting and casinos after both were legalized in legislation that took effect on July 1, posted four sections of its regulations to its site. The drafts will be open to public comment and input for almost two months, through a comment forum on the state’s regulatory town hall site.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Martinsville City Council took aim at Collinsville businessman Ray Reynolds at Tuesday night's regular meeting by endorsing a controversial letter written by City Attorney Eric Monday to Reynolds threatening him with a lawsuit and potential jail time. Near the end of a long and detailed meeting, mostly about two new utility ventures, Vice-Mayor Chad Martin thanked Monday for acting on behalf of council member Jennifer Bowles. "Most people know the paper - Facebook - our council lady was kind of harassed, and she asked him to step in on behalf [of her], and so I really appreciate the relationship we have in our city attorney in that we can call on and when need to be," Martin said. Council Member Jim Woods pushed the issue up another notch by putting forth a motion to endorse Monday's letter to Reynolds. Monday's letter, sent last month on city stationery, demanded Reynolds stop making public comments as a result of a private telephone conversation he had with Bowles. Before Tuesday night, city council had not, in public session, discussed the matter.
Martinsville Bulletin

Expanding the authority to use speed monitoring devices, the authority to impose impact fees on developments and the ability to publish notices of public hearings on its own website instead of in The Daily Progress are some of the requests Albemarle County could make of its General Assembly members later this year. The current law requires notices to be published in a newspaper of general circulation. Kamptner said bills to allow notices to be published on locality websites have repeatedly failed. “It would certainly save time, it would save money, it would allow more flexibility to get notices up and correct notices where they may have been published incorrectly or there had been a typographical error,” he said. The county has had to delay multiple public hearings due to notice errors over the past three years. “I think there would be tremendous blowback, even though there may not be that great a reduction in access I think people will perceive this as an effort to be secretive, and they will not like it,” Supervisor Ann Mallek said.
The Daily Progress
stories of national interest
In the first four months of COVID-19 when Georgia saw more than 84,000 confirmed cases and nearly 3,000 deaths, journalists, advocates and lawyers submitted more than 40 records requests for emails about the Department of Public Health’s response to the pandemic. The requesters sought emails regarding the state’s allocation of resources, Gov. Brian Kemp’s April remarks about asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19, correspondence with corporate leaders and information that guided the state’s reopening. But DPH, tasked as the lead state agency managing the crisis, did not complete a single request for emails during that period. Open records logs obtained by Georgia Health News show that DPH had failed to produce emails in response to nearly four dozen requests submitted between March 1 and July 1. CNN, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other Atlanta news organizations were among the requesters.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

While the White House beat the drum for a crackdown on a leaderless movement on the left, law enforcement offices across the country were sharing detailed reports of far-right extremists seeking to attack the protesters and police during the country’s historic demonstrations, a trove of newly leaked documents reveals. The cache of law enforcement materials was recently hacked and posted online under the title “BlueLeaks,” providing an unprecedented look at the communications between state, local, and federal law enforcement in the face of the nationwide protests.
The Intercept

Four months after the information was requested, the University of South Carolina responded Wednesday to a routine Freedom of Information Act request from The Post and Courier asking for details if student-athletes were involved in sexual assaults, sexual misconduct or Title IX violations. “The answer is there are none,” a USC spokesperson wrote in an email to The Post and Courier. The response came after The Post and Courier ran a story online Tuesday and in print Wednesday that was critical of USC’s failure to comply with state FOIA law. The Post and Courier on March 12 asked officials at USC and Clemson for documents related to student-athletes — if any — arrested or convicted of a sexual assault, sexual misconduct or a Title IX violation from Jan. 1, 2019, to March 10, 2020. Clemson responded on March 27 saying it had no such violations. USC was reminded on May 11, June 10 and July 8. A school official initially said the request would be sent through proper channels and on June 10 said USC was “waiting for the appropriate entities to identify responsive documentation.”
The Post and Courier
editorials & columns
"A year into his governorship, [Doug] Wilder was in state court, fighting to keep his telephone records from public view."
It might not come as a surprise that Wilder, stung by a #MeToo moment from which he says he was cleared of mashing allegations by a student with whom he worked at Virginia Commonwealth University, suspects a racial motive behind the state library’s failure — 26 years after he completed his term as the nation’s first elective Black governor — to organize his official papers for public perusal. The state librarian, Sandy Treadway, issued a mea culpa. She said there was no excuse for not sorting the Wilder papers, though she said the library has been short on archivists. Gov. Ralph Northam, super-sensitive to anything perceived as racial, is promising extra dollars with which to hire more archivists. These records and access to them are represented by Wilder — who, at soon to be 90 years old, apparently is in legacy mode — as an exercise in transparency, a means for citizens and scholars to better understand his historic and histrionic administration. This from a politician who, over a career that reaches back more than a half-century, practiced opacity, going great lengths to conceal from Virginians information inconsistent with his preferred narrative. The problem for Wilder is that his penchant for secrecy — and the skullduggery implied by it — became the story, creating just the public relations headache he was intent on avoiding. A year into his governorship, Wilder was in state court, fighting to keep his telephone records from public view. A trial judge in Richmond, ruling in a freedom-of-information case brought by The Daily Progress newspaper in Charlottesville, ordered the governor to surrender the records. Wilder turned to the Virginia Supreme Court, which reversed the trial judge on the narrowest vote: 4-3.
Jeff Schapiro, Richmond Times-Dispatch