Transparency News 8/7/13


Wednesday, August 7, 2013
State and Local Stories


The Fort Monroe Authority and its various committees should follow the state Freedom of Information Act concerning public records requests and open meetings, according to an opinion issued by the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. The July 30 opinion written by council Executive Director Maria J.K. Everett states that laws pertaining to open meetings and public records must be followed as long as the committee or board is working on behalf of the board of trustees or the authority as a whole.
Daily Press
Full text of opinion on VCOG’s website

Republican leaders in Virginia’s House of Delegates announced Tuesday that they do not support calling a special legislative session to tackle ethics reform. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and other Republican leaders said in a written statement Tuesday that they do not favor a special session. “We agree with both Governor McDonnell and Attorney General Cuccinelli that serious steps need to be taken to reform Virginia’s disclosure and transparency laws,” the statement said. “As previously stated, we are committed to seeking the strong reforms necessary to guarantee the integrity of that system. “While we share the goals of the Attorney General, we believe it is in the best interests of the Commonwealth to consider reforms during the 2014 regular session, a short five months from now. These are very complicated and serious issues that deserve our full and undivided attention. Addressing them during a regular session will allow us to carefully consider each proposal, gather input and feedback, and move forward in a responsible manner.”
Washington Post

State Alcoholic Beverage Control employees reported more than $50,000 in gifts and entertainment from 2008 to 2011, primarily to pay for conference trips but also including tickets to car races, comedy shows and a Washington Redskins game as well as "spa service." About 80 percent of the total amount covered travel reimbursements for conferences held by national alcohol regulatory associations, where agency leaders learn best practices, ABC said.
Daily Progress

Richmond officials won’t talk about the cost to taxpayers of settling a lawsuit filed against the city by eight pipefitters over racial harassment and discrimination in the Department of Public Utilities. But the city’s bill for outside legal services in the suit speaks for itself: $400,678.53.

Accessing state financial disclosure forms could be cost-prohibitive for the public since Virginia switched to electronic filing for the records. The state Conflict of Interest Office has only one employee, director Patrick Mayfield. It’s his task to download requested forms from a state server and then print them individually. “It’s unfortunate that technology is limiting the public’s ability to see records that have been, in the past, open and accessible and now would be cost-prohibitive to most people,” said Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association.

Historical researchers, documentary filmmakers and educators now have access to an online archive of television news reports during Virginia’s civil rights era. The curated collection of film clips and anchor scripts from WSLS-TV in Roanoke is believed to be the only surviving TV news archive from that era. It includes news stories broadcast by WSLS from 1951 to 1971, the University of Virginia Library said today in a news release.
Roanoke Times

The man accused of scamming the ex-wife of imprisoned former Delegate Phil Hamilton could end up representing himself in court if he doesn't retain an attorney in the next two weeks. York-Poquoson General District Court Judge Stephen Hudgins on Wednesday granted Joseph Yancey until Aug. 12 to get enough money together to hire an attorney. Yancey, 52, of Louisa County, is facing six counts of obtaining money by false pretenses in connection with an elaborate scam that bilked Hamilton's ex-wife Roxanne Burnette, a York County resident, out of nearly $25,000.
Virginia Gazette

National Stories

The federal government is months behind in testing data security for the main pillar of Obamacare: allowing Americans to buy health insurance on state exchanges due to open by October 1. The missed deadlines have pushed the government's decision on whether information technology security is up to snuff to exactly one day before that crucial date, the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general said in a report.

Members of Congress are sending the U.S. Supreme Court a message: Let us pray. In two amicus briefs filed this week, 34 (mostly) Republican senators and 85 (mostly) Republican representatives are urging the justices to allow the House and Senate to start their daily sessions with prayers that, as one brief puts it, seek "God's blessing and guidance in making consequential decisions." The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments this session in Greece v. Galloway, where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in 2012 that the town's legislative prayers were unconstitutional endorsements of Christianity. The ruling could shape the interpretation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
Blog of LegalTimes

A legal clinic seeking information on the U.S. Government's use of drone strikes and "kill lists" in the war on terror is mounting a headlong drive to restore the Freedom of Information Act's reach into the White House. The CUNY clinic's lawsuit argues, in essence, that the 1996 D.C. Circuit case—Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President—was wrongly decided. Lawyers Ramzi Kassem and Douglas Cox contend that the NSC is clearly making life-and-death decisions independent of Obama, defying the central tenet of the D.C. Circuit ruling that the council's sole function is to advise and assist the president.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder billed the taxpayers more than $4 million in travel costs for trips during President Obama’s first term in office, documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act revealed. The travel included 213 separate trips, made between March 2009 and August 2012, The Daily Mail reported. All were paid by taxpayer dollars — including some that were personal in nature. The attorney general flies on a $53.5 million Gulfstream V jet.
Washington Times

The man accused of killing three people and wounding three others in a shooting rampage at a municipal building had a long-standing feud with township officials over his property and was heard to say, "I wish I killed more of them," officials said. Rockne Newell was being held without bail after the shootings Monday night in this rural community in the Poconos. He was stopped by two men who tackled him and held him to the ground, police said. As he was tackled, Newell was yelling, "You took my property," adding an expletive, according to documents filed in the case in Monroe County.
Philadelphia Inquirer


Roanoke Times: Virginia relies on financial disclosure to keep government honest. What good is disclosure if no one can actually see the information? Why, none at all. Secrecy surely was not the intent when Virginia shifted last year to electronic filing of financial disclosure forms for state employees and elected officials. But it likely will be the outcome if massive numbers of records are sought for review — say, of 525 Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control employees.

Peter Galuszka, Washington Post: Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli's call for a special session of the General Assembly to consider plugging "severe holes" in the state's ethics laws is outrageously self-serving, but it does point to what may be a turning point in Virginia's attitudes about disclosure and gift rules. It's about time. Virginia has perhaps the most lax ethics laws in the nation. It is one of only a handful of states not to have a formal state ethics commission. Instead, it relies on a polyglot of groups to flag ethical transgressions. And there are so many loopholes in the rules that it's hard to get anything right.

Times-Dispatch: A special session would occur during not only the gubernatorial campaign but also the races for seats in the House of Delegates. The coincidence would seem unlikely to encourage sober reflection. Action during the 2014 session also would bind two governors. McDonnell would leave office soon after submitting his proposals; his successor would serve while the definitive version is debated, passed and signed. Even when circumstances demand action, patience remains a virtue. Virginia must do the right thing the right way.

Roanoke Times: In a perfect world, this year’s sad parade of ethical irregularities would inspire legislators to make haste to the state Capitol for a serious and expeditious rewrite of lax rules that now govern gifts to elected officials. But Virginians have been repeatedly reminded that their state and their leaders are far from perfect. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor, this week called for a special session to adopt ethics reforms, suggesting the task could be completed in a day or two.  That sounds wonderful, but back here in the reality of an election year, the results are likely to be less appealing. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election in November. Most senators are enjoying a mid-term snooze, but three of them are running for statewide office. In other words, the majority of lawmakers will be extra talkative, and plans for a short and sweet special session could easily devolve into a fruitless open-mike marathon.

News & Advance: The taxpayers of Pittsylvania County likely will be the ones to take it on the chin as a result of the supervisors’ battle for sectarian Christian prayer. Federal court precedents have made it crystal clear the Board of Supervisors was on the losing end of its argument to open meetings with a Christian prayer, but the board ignored that. It decided to fight the objections of a county resident who had asked that the board stop opening its meetings with such prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. State Sen. Bill Stanley, the supervisors’ attorney in the case, said he knew legal fees would be awarded to Hudson because the supervisors lost their case. He said he plans to file an objection to the recommendation on behalf of the board. Nonetheless, the legal battle over public prayer in Pittsylvania has been settled. It didn’t have to cost the taxpayers $53,230 — not if the supervisors had acknowledged that pushing a prayer invoking Jesus Christ at board meetings was but a step away from establishing a state religion.