Transparency News, 7/8/20


July 8, 2020
There was no issue of Access News yesterday, July 7.
state & local news stories

VCOG joined the Virginia Press Association, the National FOI Coalition and two dozen media outlets across the country in support of Courthouse News Service in its case against the clerks of Norfolk and Prince William County circuit courts over same-day access to new court filings. A U.S. district court judge ruled for CNS that there was a qualified First Amendment right of access to the files. The clerks are appealing the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
VCOG website

The festive atmosphere last month at the dismantling of the Portsmouth Confederate monument came to an abrupt halt when a protester was severely injured after part of the statue was pulled down and landed on top of him. Since then, city and state officials have been pointing fingers at each other trying to figure out how things got to that point. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, 10 On Your Side obtained police body camera videofrom earlier in the afternoon when Sen. L. Louise Lucas first arrived on the scene.  She told police protesters were going to paint the statue.
stories of national interest
Another instance where the pandemic has been used by a public body to validate holding a public meeting without the public (17 meetings actually) has resulted in another lawsuit. Although COVID-19 has created challenges for state and local public bodies to convene, the pandemic does not relieve states, counties, or municipalities from abiding by their state’s open government law. In Osceola County, Florida, the board of commissioners have been charged with repeatedly denying access to meeting minutes and public access to meetings of the county's Executive Policy Group (EPG), which is a decision-making board during a state of emergency. The lawsuit, filed by Osceola County resident Josh Meyers, claims the meetings must be public due to EPG's status as a public body whose deliberations fall under Florida’s Sunshine Law. According to the complaint, no effort has been made to give official notice or provide a remote viewing opportunity, or make recordings promptly available for viewing thereafter. The Knight FOI Litigation Fund offers financial support for open government lawsuits. It was established to fuel and assist the pursuit of important FOI cases by helping to defray upfront costs such as filing fees, depositions, court costs, and other expenses associated with legal actions. The fund is underwritten by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to NFOIC.

Billionaire West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice's family businesses received at least $11.1 million from a federal rescue package meant to keep small businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, according to data released by the Treasury Department on Monday. Justice, a Republican, is considered to be West Virginia's richest man through ownership of dozens of coal and agricultural businesses, many of which have been sued for unpaid debts. At least six Justice family entities received the Paycheck Protection Program loans, including four energy companies, the governor's lavish resort The Greenbrier, as well as The Greenbrier Sporting Club, an exclusive club for people who own real estate at the resort, according to the data. The businesses were listed as collecting between $11.15 million and $24.35 million because the federal government disclosed the dollar figures in ranges, not specific amounts. The payments, made public through records provided to The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, highlighted the sometimes fraught relationship between the billionaire’s businesses and his role as chief executive.
Martinsville Bulletin

editorials & columns
On July 15, Virginia’s Lottery Board will decide whether to grant the Pamunkey Indian tribe a gaming license for their planned casino development in Norfolk. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential impact of the casino and would like to see what the Pamunkey put in their application just go online. That’s where you’ll have to file your FOIA request, because just like every other step in the casino process, the Pamunkey don’t want you looking too closely at what they have planned. I have nothing against casinos, but I do have a problem with the complete lack of transparency that has characterized everything about the Pamunkey deal from day one. Many questions have been raised, but none have been sufficiently answered in the mad rush to push the deal through.
The Virginian-Pilot