Transparency News 8/1/13


Thursday, August 1, 2013
State and Local Stories


Today’s University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting, a routine orientation for new members, represents something bigger in the wake of last year’s leadership crisis: a new beginning. The board will welcome three new members this afternoon — hedge fund manager John Griffin, of New York; investment company president Frank Genovese, of Midlothian; and Kevin Fay, a lobbyist based in McLean. All three are university alumni. Board members also will discuss the university’s strategic plans at a weekend retreat, the first public board meeting under the leadership of Rector George Keith Martin, who took over the top post in July.
Daily Progress

When the Peninsula Fine Arts Center asked member Madeline McMillan to sign a nondisclosure agreement before receiving a copy of the memorandum between the center and Christopher Newport University, McMillan said the request puzzled her. The agreement reflected a lack of transparency about the proposal to transfer assets to CNU, McMillan said. It was first announced in a letter to Pfac members about the annual meeting Aug. 5. Members will vote on the transaction Monday.
Daily Press

Gov. Bob McDonnell said Wednesday that one of his daughters has repaid the $15,000 at the center of the family’s gift scandal. Also on Wednesday, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said he has no plans to repay the more than $18,000 in gifts he received from the same benefactor, Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr.

National Stories

A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The NSA boasts in training materials that the program, called XKeyscore, is its "widest-reaching" system for developing intelligence from the internet.
The Guardian

The Obama administration released formerly classified documents outlining a once-secret program of the National Security Agency that is collecting records of all domestic phone calls in the United States, as a newly leaked N.S.A. document surfaced showing how the agency spies on Web browsing and other Internet activity abroad. Together, the new round of disclosures shed even more light on the scope of the United States government’s secret surveillance programs, which have been dragged into public view and debate by leaks from the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden.
New York Times

In the world of made up public records exemptions, this response would be the tiny bleating baby goat cuddling with a kitten of exemptions. Here it is in full: In answer to your Freedom of Information request we wish to inform you that we are a very, very small library. By small, I mean the building is just one room and we are open only two afternoons a week. We do not have a computer or a scanner. We do not have a research section. We carry only fiction, non-fiction and have a very small children's section. Therefore, we will not be responding to your request.
Muck Rock

Washington is about to become the latest state to join the social media privacy bandwagon. On Sunday, a state law banning employers from asking workers for their user names and passwords for their personal social media accounts will go into effect. The law was passed unanimously by both the Washington State Senate and the House of Representatives in April and signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee in May. Since 2012, ten other states have passed similar laws governing social media privacy in the workplace: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah.
Law Technology News

The city of Springfield, Ill., is changing the way it handles Freedom of Information Act requests, or FOIAs. The mayor said the change will tighten up the policy and improve transparency, but he struggled to explain exactly how.  The city's FOIA policy came under fire after our exclusive investigation Ready, Set, Shred. It revealed the city destroyed documents the same day it answered a FOIA request saying those documents didn't exist.

Twitter is under increasing pressure from governments around the world to release user's private information, with requests rising 40 percent in the first six months of the year, the microblogging company said Wednesday in its semi-annual transparency report. The United States made three-quarters of the 1,157 data requests during the six-month period, according to the San Francisco-based company's report.

Lawyers for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the digital library JSTOR continue to press their fight to intervene in a public records lawsuit to assert control over the scope of information the government is planning to release about the late Aaron Swartz. In the dispute in Washington federal district court, MIT and JSTOR argue they should have some say over the ability to keep certain details secret before the government provides any information to the public. Wired investigative reporter Kevin Poulsen sued the Department of Homeland Security in April under the Freedom of Information Act. The suit now tests just how big a voice a third party can have in a public records case.
Blog of LegalTimes

Pentagon propaganda websites aimed at countering terrorism in foreign countries would be shut down under a Senate measure sponsored by the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, according to his office. The Pentagon's Trans Regional Web Initiative (TRWI), a U.S. Special Operations Command initiative, operates 10 websites around the globe. Sen. Carl Levin's committee voted to eliminate its $19.7 million in funding in the National Defense Authorization Act. The committee "believes that the costs to operate the websites developed under TRWI are excessive. The effectiveness of the websites is questionable and the performance metrics do not justify the expense," according to the defense authorization bill, which will be taken up by the full Senate this fall. It recommended other government agencies, particularly the State Department, take the lead in efforts to shape the opinion of foreign audiences.
USA Today

An investigation into Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's role in a Chicago-area transit agency scandal has renewed scrutiny of an ethics law deemed "toothless" by the Legislature's own ethics chief. Madigan, a Chicago Democrat and arguably the most powerful politician in Springfield, has asked the Legislative Ethics Commission to review whether he violated any rules when he asked the Metra rail agency for a raise for an associate who had raised campaign money for him, and a separate accusation that he sought a job for another associate. He says he is confident he did nothing wrong. The eight-member commission says it will take up the Madigan case. But it is working under a 1967 law that critics say is too vague on what constitutes a conflict of interest or other ethical violation, lacks sufficient penalties to enforce ethical behavior and in most cases prevents the commission from reporting its findings publicly.
Quad City Times


Daily Progress: Gov. Bob McDonnell says he will return gifts that have helped spawn a scandal to tarnish his final months in office. It is unfortunate that the controversy had to reach this level before such remediation was offered. In a way, this confluence of developments is unfair to the governor and his family. Yes, politicians and their families ought to be able to have friends, and friends ought to be able to give gifts. Yes, it is frustrating to be legally right and still criticized as ethically wrong. But … hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts and loans? Lavish presents to the governor’s family when the giver’s company was fighting the state on one hand (the tax lawsuit) and wooing it on the other (the Anatabloc decision)?

Times-Dispatch: In the days after Christmas, people crowd the gift-return lines to exchange presents for something they really wanted Santa to bring. Gov. Bob McDonnell has announced he and his family will return gifts from Jonnie Williams Sr., head of Star Scientific. It is the right thing to do. The gesture also comes late — indeed later than the return period stipulated by most stores. If the governor is growing impatient with the discomfort, then the fault is his and only his. Here is McDonnell’s predicament: The timeline suggests he is returning the gifts because they have become an embarrassment with the potential to close a promising political career.

Virginian-Pilot: Gov. Bob McDonnell's decision to return gifts from Jonnie Williams is another important step toward unwinding a wildly inappropriate relationship between the state leader's family and a Virginia businessman. However this all turns out, the Williams affair at every level should stand as a warning to candidates and incumbents of the damage uncontrolled political money does to the commonwealth and to reputations. The only real solution is a radical reordering of the state's ethics laws, a cause that McDonnell finds himself in an uncomfortably unique position to pursue.

Roanoke Times: But even as the governor recognized the need “to restore trust with the people of Virginia,” he continued trying to rationalize his actions by proclaiming that he has complied with state’s Swiss cheese ethics laws. McDonnell didn’t disclose a luxury shopping spree and lavish wedding gifts showered on his wife and daughter because the law didn’t require him to, he said. True enough. But beyond the question of disclosure is whether McDonnell should have allowed himself and his family to accept such gifts and loans, especially since Willliams’ company, Star Scientific, is in a protracted tax dispute with the state. McDonnell has repeatedly denied giving Williams any benefit in exchange for the businessman’s largesse.

News & Advance: We almost feel sorry for Gov. Bob McDonnell, flailing about and caught in the quicksand of political scandal. Almost. While appearing contrite — or at least writing contritely, in his news release, or sounding contrite, in his radio interview, McDonnell has yet to address Virginians in person on the scandal and its impact on his stewardship of the governor’s office. Face to face. Man to man. Live with video at noon. It is the very least he owes Virginians.

Vivian Paige, Virginian-Pilot: The Byrd machine, started Harry F. Byrd Sr., dominated Virginia politics for more than 40 years. The machine supported Massive Resistance, as Virginia's opposition to the desegregation of public schools was known. As a member of the state Senate, it was "Little Harry" who helped craft the policy that resulted in the closing of several school systems, including those in Norfolk. Despite this and other stains on its legacy, there was one overriding positive of the Byrd machine: the complete lack of scandal. Single party rule - or, rather, single family rule - today tends to follow the axiom that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I have strong disagreements with much of what the Byrd machine stood for, but its commitment to integrity is not among them.

Darrell Laurant, News & Advance: Personally, I find no pleasure in the McDonnell family’s embarrassment. Up until now, I thought he was doing a good job running the commonwealth, and he seems to be a likable enough person. Here’s the thing, though — in the public eye, appearance is everything. Let’s suppose — under the supposition anything is possible — Star Scientific CEO Johnnie Williams just wanted to help the governor out because they were such good friends. Shouldn’t McDonnell have said: “Gee, Johnnie, I appreciate that. But let’s wait until I’m no longer governor.” To be fair, there is no proof McDonnell did anything to intervene in Williams’ tax issues. But he has been known to say nice things about the company from time to time.