Transparency News 7/22/13


Monday, July 22, 2013
State and Local Stories


If you’re looking for indoor fun in 100-degree weather, go ahead and Google Virginia’s ethics laws for elected officials. First thing you’ll notice? The word “lax” is used to modify the words “Virginia Ethics Laws” so often in news accounts that you could not be faulted for believing “Lax Virginia Ethics Laws” to be the official title of the statute. The next thing you’ll notice? That seems to just be the way things are, here in the Old Dominion.

It takes major events sometimes to change Virginia law, and as serious as the scandals gripping Gov. Bob McDonnell are, they may be insufficient to radically alter Virginia public ethics laws, rated among America’s weakest. Almost daily disclosures about Virginia’s first family accepting thousands of unreported dollars’ worth of gifts have ratcheted up the calls among legislators and statewide candidates for reform, but they disagree on how. Democrats on November’s statewide ticket, including gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe, support some sort of ban on gifts to state officials. McAuliffe wants a ban on all gifts exceeding $100. Republicans generally back more nuanced approaches, including limits, broadening disclosure requirements and timelier reporting.
Roanoke Times

Citing’s exclusive report on communications between Terry McAuliffe’s GreenTech Automotive and top Obama administration officials, the Republican Party of Virginia filed a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of correspondence from the Department of Homeland Security. “The more we learn about GreenTech, the more questions Virginia voters have,” RPV Chairman Pat Mullins said in a statement Thursday. Virginia bureau

Both of the major-party candidates running for governor are getting the majority of their campaign donations from out of state. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee, has received $6.1 million in itemized cash contributions in the first six months of the year. About 54 percent of those donations are from out of state. But the vast majority of his individual donors — 80 percent — live in Virginia, according to a new report by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in state politics. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, topped Cuccinelli’s contributions from non-Virginians, with 74 percent of his $9.9 million in itemized cash donations coming from out of state. About 63 percent of McAuliffe’s individual donors reside in the commonwealth.

The two candidates seeking to be Virginia’s next governor clashed over taxes, spending and Medicaid expansion in a 90-minute campaign curtain raiser at The Homestead Saturday. The debate between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe featured McAuliffe’s efforts to tar Cuccinelli on the Richmond gift scandal and his social views and Cuccinelli’s efforts to paint McAuliffe as pro-union and indifferent to Virginia job creation. The debate, hosted by the Virginia Bar Association and moderated by broadcaster Judy Woodruff, was streamed live on the Internet.
Virginia Lawyers Weekly

Patrick County School Board Chairman Ronnie Terry said remarks attributed in a news story to Schools Superintendent Roger Morris were in poor taste. “That wasn’t good that he said that,”Terry said, referring to a Roanoke television newscast in which Morris was quoted as referring to questions and concerns raised by parents and teachers as “small town junk.”
Martinsville Bulletin

Chances are, your local or state police departments have photographs of your car in their files, noting where you were driving on a particular day, even if you never did anything wrong. Using automated scanners, law enforcement agencies across the country have amassed millions of digital records on the location and movement of every vehicle with a license plate, according to a study published last week by the American Civil Liberties Union. Affixed to police cars, bridges or buildings, the scanners capture images of passing or parked vehicles and note their location, uploading that information into police databases. Departments keep the records for weeks or years, sometimes indefinitely. “I don’t think any of those records disappear,” John Whitehead, an attorney and president of the Albemarle County-based Rutherford Institute, said. “They scan everything. They collect all this information and you’ve never committed a crime.”
Daily Progress

The chief of Altavista EMS — a Campbell County agency that also provides ambulance service in northern Pittsylvania County — wrote a letter to the board of supervisors Tuesday claiming that Dan River Supervisor James Snead verbally attacked him during a July 10 telephone conversation. Snead said he was having a bad day and has apologized to Altavista EMS Chief Mark Moss for his behavior. Moss had called Snead to discuss Moss’ request for the county to provide 25 portable radios for the agency’s members. “I usually don’t blow up. I did, and I apologized,” Snead told the Danville Register & Bee on Friday. Moss gave copies of his letter — written Tuesday — to the county administrator and the board of supervisors during the meeting Tuesday night. Moss’ request was on the board’s agenda.
Register & Bee

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. (4th Cir.) reversed a district court’s order that protected New York Times reporter James Risen from testifying in the government’s caseagainst an ex-CIA official accused of violating the Espionage Act. The 118-page opinion, released Friday morning, is a complete rebuke to reporters claiming a privilege in criminal cases, and comes exactly one week after Attorney General Eric Holder called on legislators to pass a federal shield law to protect journalists from subpoenas. The Fourth Circuit disagreed with the July 2011 order of U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria, Va., that Risen was protected by the reporter’s privilege and therefore will not have to testify in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling concerning the scope and source of the classified information that was allegedly disclosed to Risen.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Gov. Bob McDonnell insists that Jonnie Williams Sr. and his company, Star Scientific, have not received any public funds, grants or contracts during his administration. But that doesn’t mean that the troubled Henrico County-based dietary supplement maker has not benefited from state investment. Last year, the Virginia Retirement System purchased — and sold at a loss — 71,900 shares of Star Scientific stock over a three-month period, VRS head Robert P. Schultze confirmed to the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Friday.

National Stories

Filing FOIA requests is the stuff of nightmares. First the paperwork, then the waiting and the keeping track of it. And, if you're the kind of person who files many in a day, it can be a rabbit hole from which you may never return. To make the process less painful, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) built the FOIA machine, for which it is raising funds on Kickstarter. Quite simply, the FOIA machine is an open-source, online interface that works to make the process of filing FOIA requests easier. The application aims to take the laborious and time-consuming process and simplify it so anyone can use it. The interface makes the laws and best practices of filing a FOIA request accessible in one place.

Alabama and 11 other states sued the Environmental Protection Agency this week, claiming the EPA violated the Freedom of Information Act by denying requests for records of EPA’s communications with environmental groups. The states claim the EPA has settled lawsuits with consent decrees that place states under new environmental rules without the states’ input, a practice described as “sue and settle.” Other states that sued were Oklahoma, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

Lawyers representing Florida doctors sparred with state government attorneys Thursday in Miami federal appeals court over whether physicians have the legal right to ask their patients about gun ownership during medical consultations. Lawyers for the doctors, who won the first round in U.S. District Court last year, seemed to have the support of at least one member of the three-judge appellate panel, Charles Wilson. He agreed that the First Amendment right to free speech protects physicians’ inquiries about firearms in patients’ homes. But the two other judges, Gerald Tjoflat and Scott Coogler, raised critical questions about the physicians’ lawsuit challenging a Florida law limiting what doctors can ask their patients about guns. At issue: the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Miami Herald

The New Mexico Department of Public Safety has spent tens of thousands of dollars to digitize tons of paper records on concealed weapons licenses but doesn’t yet have required approval to implement its plan. The State Records Center and Archives is waiting for the department to submit a plan for scanning the records, KRQE-TV reported. “There’s a plan that needs to come through, and we haven’t received that plan yet,” said John Hyrum Martinez, state records administrator. “We’ve been waiting on it.” The Department of Public Safety wants to reduce costs on storing records that it must keep for three years after a four-year license expires.
Santa Fe New Mexican

MIT, which once pledged “a spirit of openness” when it came to an investigation of the charges against and suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has now reportedly moved to delay the release of his Secret Service files pending university review. Kevin Poulsen, WIRED’s investigations editor, had previously won a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit ordering the release of Swartz’ Secret Service files, but a last-minute motion from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has, at least temporarily, blocked their release. As Poulsen reports: MIT claims it’s afraid the release of Swartz’s file will identify the names of MIT people who helped the Secret Service and federal prosecutors pursue felony charges against Swartz for his bulk downloading of academic articles from MIT’s network in 2011.
Boston Globe

Scaffolding and equipment trailers will obstruct the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial beginning Monday as work begins to remove the controversial “drum major” inscription from the side of the monument. The work is being done to remove King’s paraphrased quote “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” from the side of the monument. Critics, including poet Maya Angelou, called for the removal of the inscription after the monument opened in 2011 saying the paraphrased quotation distorted the meaning of King’s original quote and made him sound arrogant. Lei Yixin, the Chinese sculptor who crafted the memorial by the Tidal Basin, recommended the controversial quote be removed rather than replaced in order to ensure the memorial’s structural integrity.
Washington Times

In a trailblazing decision that expands electronic privacy rights in New Jersey, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday that law enforcement agencies must get warrants if they want to track crime suspects by tracing the signals from their cell phones. "Cell phones are not meant to serve as tracking devices to locate their owners wherever they may be," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in the 7-0 decision. The state’s high court is the first in the country to impose such a ruling, and former state justices and legal experts said the decision could ripple throughout the states and in federal courts wrestling with the same questions on the collection and use of electronic data.
Newark Star-Ledger

Jesse Ventura’s lawsuit against “American Sniper” author Chris Kyle -- purportedly the deadliest-ever American servicemen -- can proceed with the war hero’s widow as a substitute defendant, a judge has ruled. Ventura, whose resume includes noted turns as Minnesota governor, WWF wrestler, Navy SEAL, and Hollywood actor, sued Kyle over an unflattering anecdote the sniper slipped into his 2012 book. Specifically, Kyle alleged that during a 2006 tete-a-tete, the duo duked it out at a California bar after Ventura badmouthed the second Iraq War, the United States, in general, as well as then-President George W. Bush.
Fox News


Shawn Day, Virginian-PilotIs incompetence, rather than malfeasance, really worth celebrating? That is, perhaps, the most immediate question to follow news that Richmond's commonwealth's attorney, Michael Herring, found no evidence that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli broke any laws when he belatedly reported certain gifts on his annual financial disclosure forms. Herring's investigation concluded that the attorney general's on-time reporting of some gifts - but not others - from Star Scientific and its chief executive, Jonnie Williams, indicated he wasn't trying to "conceal the relationship." Odd? Perhaps, but Herring declined to provide that level of analysis. "This report," he wrote, "is in no way intended to offer an explanation for the behavior of the Attorney General or any member of his staff."

Roger Chesley, Virginian-Pilot: Three years is typically the time frame state law allows for correcting assessments and refunding money. City Attorney Helvi Holland and William Hutchings, the deputy city attorney, contend Section 58.1-3986 allows property owners the right to challenge double taxation without any statute of limitations. But that section also states: "When it is shown to the satisfaction of the court that there has been a double assessment... the court may order such erroneous assessment to be corrected..." The court didn't get a chance to do that.

Christina Nuckols, Roanoke Times: There’s no satisfaction to be had now as news stories pile up detailing vacations, clothing and a Rolex watch lavished on the McDonnell family by a businessman in a tax dispute with the state. I’ve asked myself many times how could this have happened? How could such a Type A, nit-picky personality have such bad judgment? That goes double since McDonnell is an attorney. The rest of us mortals depend on lawyers to keep us out of trouble, or if that fails, get us out. We assume they can take care of themselves. But as the headlines shifted from gaudy gifts to loans and cash hand-outs and the damages rose into six figures, a different picture emerges of a man methodically stitching together legal loopholes, not recognizing that he was weaving the net that would entrap him. Journalists who cover the state Capitol tend to be a cynical group, but few could stomach the job if they truly believed all politicians were as venal as their jokes and grumbles suggest.

Daily Progress: In traditional lame-duck fashion, Gov. Bob McDonnell already was limping toward the end of his term. Now he’s further crippled by a scandal that he cannot, or will not, explain away. The scandal has gone national. All eyes are on Virginia — not because of the general excellence of its governance, or the soundness of its economy or the genius of its innovators and entrepreneurs, but rather because its governor and first family repeatedly have taken large gifts from a political donor who has received special handling from the governor’s office. And Mr. McDonnell is diverted from advancing the state’s agenda to the job of hiring ever more powerful lawyers instead, to advise him on his growing problems. Why does he need these big legal guns?

News & Advance: Just when we think the depths of the gifts scandal engulfing Gov. Bob McDonnell have been plumbed, new revelations emerge in the news media that further stain the governor’s once-unsullied reputation. And through it all, the governor is giving every indication he intends to fight tooth and nail, adding a former U.S. attorney to his personal legal team, along with a top aide to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the team’s spokesman. We will be blunt with the governor. It’s time for him to decide which is more important: continuing in office and forcing Virginians to endure this drip, drip, drip of scandal or leave office before all is lost.

Roanoke TimesThe First Amendment Center last week released its annual poll, and though the results are not surprising, they are discouraging. When Americans were asked to list the five specific freedoms in that amendment, just 59 percent could name speech. And it only gets worse from there: 24 percent could name religion, 14 percent freedom of the press, 11 percent the right to assemble, and only 4 percent the right to petition. Sigh. As the center was releasing its findings, the great state of Kentucky decided that it is fed up with the harsh, sensory deprivation type advice that parenting columnist John Rosemond dispenses in America’s newspapers. The AG and the psychology board are ordering Rosemond to stop dispensing advice without a Kentucky license to practice psychology.

Daily Progress: An advice columnist told to “cease and desist” because he’s practicing psychology without a license?  You’ve got to be kidding. But it was no joke when Kentucky’s attorney general and Board of Examiners of Psychology told a long-time newspaper columnist that he couldn’t keep giving parenting advice because it amounted to the illegal practice of psychology. This is nanny government run amok, again.

Matthew Mitchel, Times-Dispatch: Virginia’s current story illustrates another cost of government-granted privileges for special interests: These privileges inevitably invite questions of impropriety. The fact is it is very difficult to devise objective criteria for dispensing privileges to particular firms. So one doesn’t have to look very hard to find apparently subjective decisions. Was Solyndra awarded half a billion taxpayer dollars because it had a superior business model? Or was it given money because green energy is politically popular and the vice president wanted to host a ribbon-cutting ceremony there? Did the Obama administration offer trade protection to domestic solar-panel makers because the Chinese were engaged in “unfair competition” or because domestic solar-panel manufacturers are politically powerful and well-connected? There is no easy way to answer these questions. But maybe they aren’t the right questions to begin with.