Transparency News 8/5/13


Monday, August 5, 2013
State and Local Stories


A shift to electronic filing for financial disclosure forms for 25,000 state workers and elected officials means it could cost the public dramatically more to get the records.Searching 2008 to 2011 disclosure records for 525 Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control employees, for example, cost The Daily Progress nothing. The price tag for accessing the same documents for 2012 would have been $1,200, according to state officials. Last year’s shift to electronic filing leaves it to Patrick Mayfield, the sole employee and director of the state's Conflict of Interest Office, to download the forms one-by-one from a state server and then print them individually. That’s not a problem for a few individual forms, Mayfield said. But time and money become factors when the request is to view forms for an entire agency, he said.
Daily Progress

A prominent political donor and his dietary supplement company have been cooperating for several months with federal prosecutors in a fast-moving public corruption investigation of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, according to three people familiar with the probe. Jonnie R. Williams Sr., chief executive of Star Scientific, has turned over personal financial records and sat for interviews in which he provided firsthand accounts of luxury gifts and more than $120,000 given to McDonnell (R) and his family members since 2011, the people said.
Washington Post

When the entire continent of Europe disintegrated into war during the summer of 1914, Richard Beirne II thought the good people of Alleghany County should know about it. Earlier that year, Beirne had bought Covington’s weekly newspaper — the Dispatch. On Aug. 10, 1914, he converted the paper from a weekly to a daily in order to bring local readers news from the battlefields. He named the paper the Covington Virginian. For the next 99 years, newspaper readers of the Alleghany Highlands would have their own local newspaper bringing them local and national news six days a week. That tradition will end next month when the newspaper, now called the Virginian Review,reduces its publication schedule to two days a week. The decision was a tough one for publisher Horton Beirne, 66, the third generation of his family to run the newspaper. He had no choice, however. Declining circulation and a shrinking advertising base among locally owned businesses forced him to make the change. Last year, the Virginian Review lost money, he said.
Roanoke Times

Pittsylvania County will most likely take a financial hit from the legal battle it lost over sectarian public prayer with Barbara Hudson and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. A magistrate judge hasrecommended that the county award Barbara Hudson $53,229.92 in attorney’s fees from the case. U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou made the recommendation to Federal Judge Michael Urbanski in a report Thursday.
Register & Bee

Following a judge's dismissal Friday of Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio's lawsuit against the county governing body on which he serves, Delgaudio's attorney, Charles King, said his client is likely to appeal the ruling. So continues the Sterling supervisor's “never say die” defense against charges that he utilized public office for personal and financial gain. King said the decision from Loudoun County Circuit Judge Burke McCahill means the court won't interfere with the Board of Supervisors' decision to censure Delguadio and strip him of most of his power over his district's budget. Delgaudio's colleagues on the all-Republican board have stressed their viewpoint that they have the authority to impose sanctions on a fellow board member.
Loudoun Times-Mirror

A firm funding the car company founded by Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe has claimed on its website for months that its MyCar electric vehicle had been approved by the Defense Department “for U.S. military installations worldwide” — but government officials say they have no record of such an approval. The Washington Times searched a database of companies and contractors with business before the federal government and found no mentions of GreenTech Automotive or its MyCar two-seat vehicle. Government officials, too, found no evidence that GreenTech had been approved by the Defense Department to be a listed supplier for military installations.
Washington Times

National Stories

There’d be no odder couple than Antonin Scalia, the rhetorically incendiary Supreme Court conservative, and the late Morris Starsky, a onetime philosophy professor and Socialist Party member. But newly-declassified Justice Department records suggest that, for a moment in time, Starsky had an ally in Scalia via the future judge's resolute defense of the Freedom of Information Act. Starsky was an Arizona State professor who was subject of one of the government’s more odious law enforcement forays. It was called COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) and, until ended in the 1970s, involved often illegal FBI spying on and discrediting of politically left-leaning groups and individuals.
New York Daily News

A July 31 report from the Sunlight Foundation found that 501(c)(4) nonprofits that were politically connected and had deep pockets fared better than the tea party groups scrutinized by the IRS in trying to retain their tax-exempt status. “Our survey turned up about a dozen groups in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia that — while organized as nonprofit social welfare organizations, which under the tax code must benefit an entire community — in fact appear to benefit private individuals, namely Republican and Democratic politicians,” the report said. Virginia Bureau
Is Edward Snowden a dissident? Traitor? Whistle-blower? Or simply an ex-American intelligence analyst? While the world watches for the next development concerning the one-time National Security Agency contractor who leaked details of top-secret U.S. surveillance programs to the press,a battle rages on the Internet – and specifically Wikipedia – over just how to refer to the man in print.
Fox News

The FBI gave its informants permission to break the law at least 5,658 times in a single year, according to newly disclosed documents that show just how often the nation's top law enforcement agency enlists criminals to help it battle crime. The U.S. Justice Department ordered the FBI to begin tracking crimes by its informants more than a decade ago, after the agency admitted that its agents had allowed Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger to operate a brutal crime ring in exchange for information about the Mafia. The FBI submits that tally to top Justice Department officials each year, but has never before made it public.
USA Today

The U.S. government is quietly pressuring telecommunications providers to install eavesdropping technology deep inside companies’ internal networks to facilitate surveillance efforts. FBI officials have been sparring with carriers, a process that has on occasion included threats of contempt of court, in a bid to deploy government-provided software capable of intercepting and analyzing entire communications streams.

Indiana’s former state superintendent Tony Bennett hid his calculations when coming up with the school-grading formula last year, working backward to make the equation fit a predetermined answer: an “A’’ for Republican donor Christel DeHaan’s charter school. His staff was quietly asked to figure out the rest. The only reason the grade-changing scandal was unveiled was because it wasdetailed in emails he never deleted from his computer. The fallout has cost Bennett his seven-month tenure as education commissioner in Florida and launched a pair of state reviews into the validity of a school-grading system that’s at the center of a national education overhaul movement.
Lafayette Journal and Courier


Canova Peterson, Times-Dispatch: Citizens want transparency; but they also expect government to be effective and to spend their tax dollars efficiently. Hanover believes in doing both. All board and sub-committee meetings are public meetings and always will be. Our amendment retains the protections of FOIA while minimizing the use of taxpayer funds for advertising and for paid employee man hours used for multiple and duplicative communications. Its acceptance would allow jurisdictions throughout the commonwealth to serve their citizens more effectively.
Also posted as a comment on VCOG’s blog

Virginian-PilotThe Hanover County board isn't a private foundation or corporation; it has a duty to do the public's business in public no matter how cumbersome and inhibiting those meetings are. Virginia's law defines a meeting as any gathering that involves three or more members of a governing body. The law correctly requires the public to be included whenever elected officials gather for public business. It allows us to watch what's happening, to hold those we elect accountable for what they say and do. It gives us the chance, more than in the General Assembly and certainly more than in Congress, to understand how and why public policies are made.

Herald-Progress: While it’s understandable that supervisors would want to know as much about the business coming before them as possible, there are other means the board can take that don’t violate the public’s trust. They could hold work sessions, for example, which would be open to the public. It’s also understandable that the two-person standard doesn’t equally apply to Hanover, where it would take four members to constitute a quorum. But, changing laws because they’re inconvenient is a slippery slope any way you look at it.

Daily Progress: Oh, good grief. Even when the law mandates that public business be discussed publicly, elected officials find ways to circumvent it. No wonder advocates of transparency have to continually hammer at this issue. Otherwise, slight deviations from the rules can grow into big ones that dangerously degrade public access to government. The latest alleged incursion would be humorous if it weren’t so disconcerting. As the Virginia Gazette said in its reporting: The James City County Board of Supervisors talked “in closed session about how people talk to them in open session.”

Lexington (Ken.) Herald-Leader: People interested in perpetuating a free society must always remember two things: First, power tends to be self-reinforcing, those who have it try to maintain and expand it. Second, information is power. Thus it follows that people in power tend to want to control information. And that's why in this democracy we have the First Amendment as well federal and state freedom of information laws. If the power of government ultimately resides in the people they must have access to information about what it's doing.