Transparency News 8/29/13


Thursday, August 29, 2013
State and Local Stories


Despite Hanover County supervisors facing a cold reception to their proposal to loosen regulations for open meetings, they now want a state agency to study the matter. The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution in July asking the Virginia General Assembly to change open government regulations to allow larger groups of locally elected officials to meet behind closed doors without notifying the public. “While there was some initial adverse reaction to this, it might be better if there was a calm, deliberate study of this over the course of the next year by the (Freedom of Information Act) Advisory Council, at which point they’ll make a recommendation to members of the General Assembly,” said Hanover County Attorney Sterling E. Rives III.

Lobbyists spent $15.9 million in Virginia from May 2012 to April to make friends and influence people in Virginia politics. Spending was for items ranging from steak dinners and hunting trips to airfare and tickets for rock concerts and high-profile sporting events, according to filings analyzed by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics. Dominion spent more than $22,000 for five lawmakers and two state officials to attend this year’s Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga.

Virginia lobbyists reported combined spending of nearly $16 million during a 12-month period spanning parts of this year and last, according to an analysis of state lobbying records. But it's an incomplete financial picture of all that goes into policy persuasion and legislative influence in a state with lax reporting standards and enforcement of lobbyist disclosures. Like gaps in state gift laws exposed by the scandal that hurt Gov. Bob McDonnell's reputation, Virginia's lobbying rules provide wide latitude for interpretation by filers. And that can leave inquisitive citizens in the dark about lobbying behavior.

Lobbyists who wine and dine state officials often report each meal as a gift provided by multiple clients, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. Some say the intention is to treat entertainment expenses as a basic cost of doing business, such as lodging in Richmond during the session, and to have all clients bear part of it. But spreading entertainment costs across multiple clients also understates the value of gifts provided to legislators, who base their disclosure reports on gift summaries that lobbyists provide at the end of the year.
Washington Post

A company that unsuccessfully pushed to end Virginia's decades-old ban on uranium mining was by far the biggest spender on lobbying at the statehouse over the past year. New lobbyist disclosure reports show Virginia Uranium Inc. spent more than $572,000, almost twice as much as the nearly $300,000 spent by second-place Dominion. Altria was third at nearly $274,000, while the more than $251,000 spent by the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance reflected activity on the state's first major highway funding overhaul since 1986.

Democrats on Wednesday formally requested that Republican Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinellirecuse his office from representing the State Board of Elections on legal matters related to the upcoming statewide races. The request came in a letter to the attorney general’s office from Del. Charniele L. Herring, D-Alexandria, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. It could be seen as the latest attempt to highlight conflicts Democrats argue have arisen over Cuccinelli’s refusal to leave office during his gubernatorial run.

Hillsville Mayor Greg Crowder was arrested and charged with impersonating a law-enforcementofficer on Friday. Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control spokeswoman Carol Mawyer confirmed the charge but few other details. “I can’t provide a narrative or other details about the incident until the case has been adjudicated,” she said in an email. “It will be heard in the City of Bristol (Va.) General District Court.”
Roanoke Times

Maybe Jessie J. was onto something with the lyrics, “It’s not about the money, money, money” — at least, when it comes to state spending on education. Virginia isn’t giving an accurate “price tag” when it comes to per-pupil spending, basically failing taxpayers with a D-minus for transparency  — just as many of the state’s schools are failing students — according to a new report by the libertarian Cato Institute. And when states such as Virginia don’t show the real “price tag” on per-pupil spending, they cloud the reality that per-pupil spending has soared over the past 40 years. Virginia Bureau

National Stories

The Obama administrative gave the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty inside access to interview key players in the raid that would end in the death of Osama bin Laden. Does that render the names of those officers public record? According to a federal trial judge, presiding over a Freedom of Information Act dispute in Washington, the answer is no. U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled for the U.S. Justice Department today, saying the full name of a U.S. Navy SEAL and the first names of four CIA officers can remain shielded from the public. "Although it touches upon matters of considerable public concern, this case presents an exceedingly narrow question: whether a FOIA requester that knows information has been disclosed to a private party is necessarily entitled to that same disclosure," Contreras wrote. The opinion is here.
Blog of LegalTimes

Motorists who use the Illinois Tollway but refuse to pay tolls and fines may already have collection agents chasing them, but by the end of the week the names of the most egregious scofflaws could also be posted on the Tollway's website. The list will name those who have racked up more than $1,000 in tolls and fines, officials said. Until now, the Tollway had been reluctant to publicize the names. But Gov. Pat Quinn on Tuesday signed legislation allowing the Tollway to do so, along with the amount of fines and unpaid tolls owed by each violator.
Chicago Tribune

There was nothing dirty — or defamatory — about including a Tennessee hotel on an unflattering list on a travel website because it's clear the inclusion was based on opinions, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a bid by the former owner of the Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to reinstate a defamation lawsuit against the site TripAdvisor. Judge Karen Nelson Moore concluded for the court that the hotel's inclusion on the "2011 Dirtiest Hotels" list doesn't rise to the level of defamation because it is obvious the list simply communicates the opinions of TripAdvisor users.

The Alabama State Banking Department could make a final decision next month on creating a single database that tracks loans from payday lenders. However, the decision may just be the first step in a long and potentially litigious process. The department announced the proposal last May after payday and title loan reform measures, which included the database and caps on what critics said are ruinous interest rates, were defeated in the Legislature. Scott Corscadden, the supervisor of the department’s Bureau of Loans, said Monday that public comment had closed earlier this month, with the department receiving some 250 comments on the proposal.
Montgomery Advertiser

Arkansas House and Senate leaders say lawmakers will meet for a refresher course on the state's ethics laws after a state senator resigned over his campaign spending money on clothes, home theater equipment and other personal items. Senate and House leaders said Tuesday they're planning to hold a seminar on ethics and campaign finance laws on Sept. 26. The meeting is aimed at answering lawmaker's questions about state ethics rules and other issues.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette


Tom Jackman, Washington Post: The trial of Julio Blanco Garcia for the death of Vanessa Pham in the Merrifield area in 2010 ended last week with a guilty verdict for first-degree murder and a sentence of 49 years. But the news media were also on trial: Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush allowed cameras in a Fairfax courtroom for the first time since 1994, over the objection of both the prosecution and the defense. No media circus ensued. But did the cameras affect the outcome of the case? Probably not, but you could make the argument they did, based on how the cameras did cause one key change in defense strategy at sentencing.