Transparency News, 8/14/20


August 14, 2020
There was no issue of Access News yesterday, Aug. 13.


state & local news stories

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Long before the coronavirus hit the United States, cash-strapped public higher education systems looked to private donors to offset the steady decline in public funding, sometimes with significant secrecy and strings attached. Critics fear the economic downturn could give donors more leverage to quietly influence curriculum, hiring and scholarships. Open government laws in many states already allow donors to demand that the public – including students and faculty – be kept in the dark. Del. David Bulova won passage of a bill this year that requires Virginia’s public universities to make details of some large gifts public, including the donor’s name, if someone asks. Another bill that also became law this year, sponsored by state Del. Jason Miyares, requires foundations of public institutions to publish annual reports about their finances and donations, and how those donations are used.
USA Today

Some were convicted of embezzlement, others of possession of child pornography or sexual assault. One was convicted of pulling a knife on a woman he lived with and later raping her. All still have their police officer certification in Virginia. As legislators plan to address systemic policing problems in a special session next week, a Virginian-Pilot investigation found three dozen officers convicted of crimes since 2011 who were never decertified. It’s unclear if any are still working as police. The Pilot provided a list of 36 officers with convictions and their police certification to state officials and legislators. Criminal Justice Services Director Shannon Dion said her department can’t answer questions about specific officers because their database containing that information is down and would not be back online for another week.
The Virginian-Pilot

Paid sick leave, workers’ compensation, and transparency for nursing homes are some of the biggest pandemic priorities House Democrats say they plan to tackle during a special session of the General Assembly scheduled to begin next week. Some of the proposals, endorsed by the caucus’ 55-member majority, aim to fix issues that have emerged as Virginia responds to the COVID-19 epidemic — including a months-long refusal to name nursing homes with outbreaks, which attracted bipartisan criticism. Another proposal addresses long-standing concerns over the information that’s provided on COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other congregate-care settings. Until mid-June, Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia Department of Health declined to publicly release the names of senior living centers with cases of the disease, leaving many patients and families in the dark unless the facility itself chose to disclose the information. Even after the reversal, several legislators questioned why it took so long for the administration to make the policy change. The state still won’t release information on outbreaks at poultry plants and other large businesses.
Virginia Mercury

Long after the safety concerns about meeting in person have abated and COVID-19 is no longer a topic of everyday conversation, Strasburg will still broadcast its meetings online for viewers at home to participate as if they were in the room. On Tuesday evening, council members approved a motion to bind the current and future Town Councils to provide remote viewing and participation options for meetings as well as cultivating an online archive for future viewing. The move does not have a price tag attached — giving future council members leeway in how much they think the town should spend on broadcasts — but does require some level of participation in perpetuity.
The Northern Virginia Daily

Two attorneys have filed lawsuits against the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Eileen Filler-Corn seeking more information about the removal of Confederate statues and artifacts from the Virginia State Capitol. The lawsuits, filed Tuesday in Richmond General District Court, are related to Filler-Corn's order that a bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and busts of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and generals Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart be taken out of the Old House chamber. Northern Virginia attorney David Webster later sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking information about how the decision to remove the artifacts was made, how the company that removed the items was hired, and emails involving the speaker. The lawsuit was filed after Webster was told that records regarding several of his questions did not exist.

A Petersburg Circuit Court judge recently struck down a move that sought to strip the city treasurer’s office of its duties. The City Council in May 2019 voted 4-3 to transfer responsibilities from the treasurer to an appointed tax collector; in this case, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, who was designated as the custodian of Petersburg’s money and empowered to deposit money into the city’s bank accounts. Circuit Judge Joseph M. Teefey Jr. wrote in his final order on Aug. 4 that the ordinance was “invalid” and “diminishes the City Treasurer’s duties.” The city’s charter states that the treasurer, an elected position, “shall be the custodian of all moneys belonging to the city.” “It is imperative that ‘the custodian of all moneys belonging to the city’ be elected by the people and be accountable to the people,” Teefey wrote.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Prince William County schools Superintendent Steve Walts announced Thursday that he will retire when his contract ends in June 2021. The news comes weeks after an outside firm completed an investigation of the superintendent’s use of his Twitter account. In closed-door meetings last month, the school board received the social media report and conducted Walts' annual review, but failed to take any public action.  The school division is also facing a $2.3 million lawsuit in response to a video Walts posted on Twitter in May to defend himself after complaints about his use of the account to send private messages to students at night.
stories of national interest
A federal judge late Wednesday denied an attempt by Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged madam Ghislaine Maxwell to delay the unsealing of potentially embarrassing documents in a now-settled 2017 defamation lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska earlier this month had ordered unsealed a large batch of documents associated with Maxwell’s defamation suit involving Epstein accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre, and began releasing them when Maxwell’s attorneys won a stay to prevent a deposition from her in the settled case from being made public. That appeal is scheduled to be heard on Aug. 20, but Maxwell on Monday tried to block all further unsealing of documents for at least three weeks. In the surprise move, her lawyers cited unspecified “critical new information” that they said shows the unsealing would prejudice her defense in her criminal prosecution. Giuffre’s lawyers lambasted the request as a delay tactic, and Preska ruled Wednesday that there was no need to delay further. “Given that Ms. Maxwell is not at liberty to disclose this new information because it is subject to the protective order in the criminal action … the Court has no reasonable basis to impose a stay,” Preska wrote in an order denying the request. “And, as Ms. Maxwell knows, her ipse dixit [assertion without proof] does not provide compelling grounds for relief. Should the protective order in the criminal action be modified to permit disclosure of the relevant information to the Court, Ms. Maxwell may renew her request for a stay of the unsealing process.”

editorials & columns
"Keeping this information secret is leaving Virginians vulnerable to police conduct that brutalizes and contributes to wrongfully convicting innocent people."
After the world watched George Floyd’s brutal killing, it was revealed that the Minneapolis police officer who had kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes was facing 18 misconduct complaints. This information was released because Minnesota allows public access to police disciplinary records. In contrast, Virginia is one of 21 states where officer disciplinary records are essentially confidential. The Freedom of Information Act allows law enforcement agencies to choose whether to disclose officer misconduct, use-of force and closed-case files. As a result, these materials are typically withheld both from the public and the criminal justice system as life-altering decisions are being made about innocence and guilt. Keeping this information secret is leaving Virginians vulnerable to police conduct that brutalizes and contributes to wrongfully convicting innocent people. When state lawmakers meet on Tuesday, they should prioritize fixing FOIA to strengthen transparency for police records.
Shawn Armbrust and Jennifer Givens, The Virginian-Pilot

When elected officials and their appointees go to great lengths to avoid public scrutiny, it invariably means they are hiding something. The OSIG reports indicates the Parole Board conducted secret proceedings, without minutes or notes, for months, with its chairwoman actively discouraging the notification of victims’ families. It gets worse. Evidently, Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran received a preview of the OSIG report days before its issuance and immediately gave a copy to the Parole Board — the very agency under investigation. What did that initial version of the report say? 
Sen. Mark Obenshain, The Roanoke Times

On Wednesday night, Florida State receiver D.J. Matthews tweeted — and then rather quickly deleted — that he had tested positive for COVID-19. The next morning, Matthews cryptically tweeted “All the Lies smh” before Seminoles receiver Warren Thompson posted a note accusing FSU of misleading players about “conditions of other players health as well as mine.” Another receiver, Tamorrion Terry, tweeted his support.  Those tweets were all sent while the Seminoles were in the middle practice Thursday, suggesting they weren’t present. And because Florida State has decided to build a false pretense around medical privacy laws to avoid acknowledging whether they have a coronavirus outbreak in their locker room, we are left to put two and two together and assume the worst.  But regardless of the consequences, everyone who is involved in college sports needs to get comfortable being transparent about the conditions within their programs.
Dan Wolken, USA Today