Transparency News 7/23/19



July 23, 2019


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state & local news stories


Charlottesville officials are reviewing an administrative policy to standardize responses and charges for requests for open records. In its current form, the proposed policy would charge requesters in 15-minute increments for time to assemble documents under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act after an employee spent 15 minutes on the requests. The charge would be based on the pay rate of the employee fulfilling the request. Adoption of the policy does not require City Council approval. City Manager Tarron Richardson would sign off on it, but the proposal could change before it is finalized. The city has no policy for responding to FOIA requests, but city spokesman Brian Wheeler said he is operating under the proposed guidelines. For example, documents used in a recent Daily Progress story cost $30. Similar documents were provided in the fall at no charge.
The Daily Progress

The Halifax County School Board will weigh recent developments in the push to build a new high school when trustees gather for their regular monthly meeting tonight in Halifax at 7 p.m. at the Bethune Office Complex. One matter that’s almost certain to come up for discussion: a “second opinion” architectural study of HCHS, which the Halifax County Board of Supervisors commissioned in response to a School Board-funded study by Moseley Architects. The Moseley study offered two recommendations for the high school: either make extensive renovations or replace the 40-year-old facility entirely. The School Board has voted to build a new school. The second opinion study, by OWPR Inc. of Blacksburg, has been in the hands of supervisors since around the end of June. Supervisors Chairman Dennis Witt said last week that OWPR’s findings would be revealed at the Aug. 5 board meeting. However, School Board Chairman Joe Gasperini is calling for the second opinion study to be made public immediately.


stories of national interest

A bipartisan group of senators is pushing back against the new public records policy at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), saying it may violate the law by giving political appointees the power to hold back requested information. “The rule purports to make numerous changes to the EPA’s FOIA process that appear to run contrary to the letter and spirit of FOIA, thus undermining the American people’s right to access information from the EPA,” the senators wrote in a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, referring to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) are asking the EPA to reconsider the policy and — at a bare minimum — give the public a chance to comment on it, rejecting the agency's assertion that such a process is unnecessary. 
The Hill

FBI documents unsealed on Thursday suggest that Donald Trump was actively involved in engineering a hush-money payment shortly before the 2016 election to a porn actress who said she had a sexual encounter with him, as his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, campaign team and others scrambled to head off a scandal. The documents, released on the orders of U.S. District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan, were used by law enforcement officials to obtain a 2018 search warrant that led to FBI raids on Cohen’s home and office. The judge on Wednesday said there was no reason to keep the documents secret after prosecutors told him that their investigation into the payments had ended.




editorials & columns


Erick Davis suffered a vicious beating in November while waiting to collect a disability check at the Norfolk Community Services Board offices.  The episode is deeply distressing. The CSB offices should be an oasis for those in crisis, a destination where someone dealing with a mental health emergency can expect to receive the care they need in a welcoming environment.  In the aftermath of this disturbing incident, however, CSB clients are left to wonder if the offices are safe — doubts that continue to fester thanks to the unwillingness of CSB officials to reassure the public by responding to questions openly and transparently.  Since the November attack, Pilot reporter Ryan Murphy asked about incidents of violence at the offices only to be rebuffed by staff incorrectly citing patient privacy laws as a rationale for keeping the public’s need to know at arm’s length.    When The Pilot requested documents under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act about violent incidents at the CSB offices, the paper was told it would need to pay $56,000 in order to obtain copies, an astronomical price tag clearly intended to discourage further inquiry.  
The Virginian-Pilot

Virginia law now states that anyone winning more than $10 million in the lottery can remain anonymous. Granted, there is concern about the lack of transparency. Apparently, there are store owners out there who buy a winning ticket for less than what the prize is worth from winners who opt for quick, easy, tax-free cash. The owner then cashes out the winning ticket for the full amount. An amazing number of close associates of some store owners have turned up with winning tickets. However, this seems a weak argument for transparency. Surely there’s a way for the state to know when the system’s being gamed without announcing the winners’ names.
The Free Lance-Star

A federal court in Cleveland released data on shipments of pain pills from 2006-2012. A total of 76 billion pills were pumped into pharmacies that seven-year period. The flow in 2012 was more than 50% higher than in 2006. One reason release of the data was delayed for months is that federal Drug Enforcement Agency officials told a judge such action would jeopardize their investigations. One wonders how long the DEA needs to make cases in what is a major scandal. Now, a judge has asked the DEA and attorneys from all sides in the lawsuits to discuss how to handle information from 2013 and 2014. Just release it.
Daily News Record