Transparency News, 7/31/20


July 31, 2020
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state & local news stories
"The Virginia Parole Board maintains its FOIA exclusions and has not waived its FOIA protections."
The Office of the State Inspector General has substantiated several allegations leveled at the Virginia Parole Board after investigating complaints about how the panel reached decisions in releasing inmates on parole, but details of the findings have been stricken entirely from a copy of the government watchdog agency’s report released to the media. Virginia law enforcement groups and state Republican leaders are calling for the immediate release of an unredacted copy of the report, and at least one senator, Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said the members of the parole board should be immediately relieved of their duties. All but a few sentences of the six-page report, dated Monday and sent to Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, are concealed with blacked-out lines that cover sections titled “Allegation,” “Background” and “Findings of Fact.” The report’s conclusion is also largely expunged, leaving only the words, “The allegations ... are substantiated.” Inspector General Michael Westfall, in an email statement included with a copy of the redacted report provided to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, said all information provided by the parole board to his office to conduct the administrative investigation is exempt under the state’s open records law. “The Virginia Parole Board maintains its FOIA exclusions and has not waived its FOIA protections,” he wrote.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Radford University released the police report about the incident that led to a freshman being arrested last September before being found dead in his jail cell early the next morning. No wrongdoing was found to have occurred, and it was determined that Lobo-Perez died from a combination of an opioid overdose and asthma, according to a state medical examiner’s office review. A protest held Saturday by New River Workers Power criticizing how Aris Eduardo Lobo-Perez’s arrest was handled by campus police led The Roanoke Times to ask for the police report again after having been previously denied by the university last fall, “due to an on-going investigation by the Virginia State Police,” according to university officials. The investigation has since concluded, finding no wrongdoing by jail staff. The group also asked for an independent investigation into how police handled the matter and any video footage of the incident. University officials said the footage has already been released through the family’s attorney. Lobo-Perez's mother said she has not seen the footage.
The Roanoke Times

In the past two months, Winchester City Council has convened three executive sessions in violation of state code. When contacted by The Winchester Star on Thursday afternoon, Mayor and council President David Smith, who runs all council meetings, said he was unaware of the violation and believed everything had been handled in accordance with the law. Shortly after 5 p.m., city officials sent out a media release acknowledging the oversights and vowing to do better in the future. Virginia's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), detailed in Section 2.2-3700 of the Code of Virginia, states that no governing body can enter into a closed-door meeting without first voting in an open meeting as to whether the session is necessary and in compliance with state law. Since City Council meetings have switched to videoconference in recent months due to the pandemic, the public should have been able to watch a live broadcast of the votes that were taken before and after each executive session. However, there was no public telecast before or after any of these closed-door meetings:
The Winchester Star
stories of national interest
A much-anticipated batch of newly unsealed documents from a settled defamation suit began trickling out Thursday night over the objections of Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite accused of sex trafficking and alleged to be the madam of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. One of the first documents involved an email from Epstein to Maxwell complaining that the news media had been printing lies about him since the plea deal in Palm Beach court that spared him a federal prison sentence. More documents were expected to emerge throughout the evening. Maxwell, awaiting trial in a federal prosecution, had delayed the planned release of the documents from a 2015 civil suit by filing objections at the last minute, provoking the ire of U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska. That irritated the judge, who ruled last week that the documents should be unsealed.
Tampa Bay Times

Federal officials responding to the long-running protests in Portland are asking that a court order protecting journalists be lifted on the grounds that some of those engaged in violence are masquerading as members of the press. Justice Department lawyers leveled the claims of misconduct by purported journalists in filings submitted Thursday to U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon, who issued a temporary restraining order last week forbidding federal authorities from targeting the press. His order also requires law enforcement to allow individuals claiming to be journalists to remain in place even when crowds are ordered to disperse.



editorials & columns
Political power and corruption too often go hand in hand. For evidence, look no further than two of the country's longest-serving state legislative leaders, Sheldon Silver and Mike Madigan. Silver, a former speaker of the New York State Assembly, was sentenced July 20 to six and a half years in prison after an appeals court upheld his conviction on charges that included illegally using his office to benefit two real-estate developers in exchange for cash. Just three days before that, news broke that Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House, was implicated in a federal bribery case alleging that a utility company won his favor to back legislation by directing $1.3 million in contracts and payments to his associates and letting him name people for jobs, from meter reader on up. Silver and Madigan are Democrats, but the issue of statehouse corruption is bipartisan. On July 21, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, was among those arrested in connection with a $60 million bribery case. And in recent years, speakers of both parties in Alabama, Rhode Island and South Carolina have faced indictments on corruption charges. Are these individuals the outliers? Or are rules that over-empower state speakers working to preserve a cycle of corruption? It's not hard to make a case for the latter. In too many states, the system gives an over-abundance of power and control to top legislative officials, pointing to the need for rules reform.
John Tillman, Governing