Transparency News 8/13/13


Tuesday, August 13, 2013
State and Local Stories


The proliferation of electronic communications has made transferring information vastly easier. From the comfort of home, you can download and read almost any book you wish; renew your driver’s license; find and buy an antique three-quarter-inch mechanic’s wrench; read a newspaper from Jakarta; or look up campaign contributions to political candidates. But if you want to examine conflict-of-interest forms that Virginia state employees have filed with the commonwealth, it will cost you. Lots.

Diana D. Winston offered her official resignation from the Henrico County School Board on Monday as another member confirmed that prosecutors had been asked to investigate a possible conflict of interest in Winston’s husband’s work relationship with the county. Winston will resign effective Aug. 21, one day before the next School Board meeting, when the panel’s remaining members expect to decide the fate of Patrick J. Russo. The superintendent was put on paid leave after a closed session last week. The resignation also comes after the Richmond Times-Dispatch submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for emails between Winston; her husband, Joe Winston; and Russo.

Virginia’s Conflict of Interest office may be the poster child for Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The office, which maintains the economic statements and gift disclosures of  nearly 25,000 state officers and employees, has been inundated with requests from the media for documents regarding Gov. Bob McDonnell and others in the wake of the Star Scientific scandal. But the office’s new electronic filing system — it took two years to get it up and running — has drawn fire from journalists and transparency advocates because it’s difficult to access information it is designed to retain. Virginia Bureau

A judge approved a motion Monday to halt a case to remove embattled Isle of Wight Supervisor Byron "Buzz" Bailey from political office. Bailey and School Board member Herb DeGroft have been under fire since personal emails they forwarded to other county officials were made public at a Board of Supervisors meeting in May. Both men had been targeted by petition efforts to remove them from office, which triggered a pair of Circuit Court cases that a judge was set to hear evidence for removal. The proceeding against DeGroft has already been halted after the petition filed against him was found to lack enough signatures.
Daily Press

Two procedures that served to notify Bedford County residents about ongoing zoning matters are on the way to becoming a memory. The Bedford County Board of Supervisors voted Monday to initiate a measure to revise the first chapter of the zoning ordinance. Among resulting changes areeliminating neighborhood informational meetings and signs posted on property where a rezoning, special use permit or variance is sought.
News & Advance

Virginia’s state inspector general is still investigating whether an attorney general staffer wrongfully advised energy company lawyers in an ongoing federal court battle with regional landowners seeking natural gas royalties. It could take months to wrap up the investigation, initially called for by a state legislator in June after a federal magistrate judge voiced shock over emails between the staffer and lawyers for Pittsburgh-based CONSOL Energy and EQT Production.
Herald Courier

After Judge Timothy S. Fisher's ruling that a recording of police interrogation was admissible in a man’s murder trial, a DVD of the cops' interview with him — a copy of which prosecutors had provided for Fisher's review — was in the court's open case file. The Daily Press — interested in what Boothe had told the police officers — asked for a copy of it. But although the DVD was not under seal, the clerk's office wouldn't turn it over. Clerk of Court Rex Davis said that when a case is still active, he considers it in the judge's purview to decide whether to release such evidence. Davis then checked with Fisher on the matter, with the judge saying that Commonwealth's Attorney Howard Gwynn should be allowed to weigh in on whether to release it.
Daily Press

National Stories

A sudden influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico requesting asylum is overwhelming immigration agents in San Diego, forcing agencies to rent hotel rooms for some undocumented familiesand release others to cities around the U.S. Documents obtained exclusively by Fox News show Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been paying for hotel rooms for dozens of recently arrived families to relieve overcrowding inside the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, Calif., processing centers. Some ICE employees are working overtime and others have been asked to volunteer to work weekend shifts. “Duties include intake, placements, transports and release of family groups and unaccompanied minors,” according to a memo obtained by Fox News.
Fox News

The U.S. Secret Service on Monday released the first 104 pages of agency documents related to its investigation of Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who committed suicide earlier this year while under federal prosecution. The heavily redacted documents, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Wired, focus mostly on the specific charges against Swartz and his arraignment as well as computer equipment seized during the execution of a search warrant on his Cambridge, Mass., apartment in 2011. The activist hanged himself in January while facing 13 felony charges of document theft.

The Obama administration on Monday launched a formal review of its electronic intelligence gathering that has come under widespread criticism since leaks by a former spy agency contractor. The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies will examine the technical and policy issues that arise from rapid advances in global telecommunications, the White House said in a statement.

As Salon noted in March, a D.C. federal appeals court sided with the ACLU in ruling that the CIA could no longer refuse to respond to FOIA requests about its drone programs on secrecy grounds, as the existence of the “targeted” killing program had already been publicly discussed by officials. Despite this ruling, and a full three years since the ACLU originally filed a FOIA request for basic information on the CIA’s drone program, the agency continues to push back on making information public. The ACLU told Salon Monday that late last week the CIA filed a brief contending that the agency can’t provide a list of documents (or even say how many there are) because doing so would disclose not just the agency’s “interest” in the targeted killing program, but whether the CIA actually carries out targeted killings.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage made his dislike of the Portland Press Herald abundantly clear Friday while sitting in a fighter jet simulator: He said from the cockpit that he would like to blow up the newspaper's building. The Republican governor made the offhand remark while participating in a fighter jet simulation at Pratt & Whitney, a defense contractor in North Berwick. In video footage from the event, LePage is asked, "What would you like to do?" He replies: "I want to find the Portland Press Herald building and blow it up."
Portland Press Herald

Two years ago, after months of highly charged public discussion, debate and deliberation, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a monumental overhaul of the state retirement system that cut public employees’ benefits, froze retirees’ cost-of-living increases and put the severely underfunded pension fund on firmer financial footing. Now, during more than seven months of highly secret talks under a judge’s gag order, a coterie of mediators, lawyers, state officials and labor leaders is trying to fashion a compromise that could force the legislature to redo the law. Public hearings at the State House have been replaced by closed-door sessions in a meeting room at the R.I. Convention Center, and elsewhere. The gatherings are so secret, participants won’t reveal the exact locations.
Providence Journal

In an effort to keep juries unbiased, the Connecticut Supreme Court has issued a ruling that will require all trial judges to instruct jurors — immediately upon their selection to serve on the jury – toavoid all media accounts of the particular case they will decide. This includes news media accounts as well as social media.
Connecticut Law Tribune


Michael Paul Williams, Times-Dispatch: At his first convocation as superintendent of Henrico County Public Schools, Patrick J. Russo challenged the district’s employees to lead. “When we talk about leaders, we’re talking about everyone in this room,” he told the teachers, bus drivers, coaches, instructional aides and others at the Fairfield District event in September 2009. “I get frustrated when people say, ‘I’m just a teacher.’ … Do you not lead them to that next level of greatness?” Four years later, it appears that Russo has lost the capacity to take the school district to that next level. What began as the consideration of a contract extension has deteriorated, swiftly and dramatically, into a question of whether Russo will even serve out his existing contract, which expires in July 2015. On Thursday, he was put on paid leave amid complaints of allegedly inappropriate emails and questions regarding his relationship with a School Board member and her husband.