Transparency News 8/9/18



August 9, 2018


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state & local news stories


"We asked for the records 'in the interest of a deeper public understanding of the system.' DOC is choosing to keep that secret."

The man charged in the child abuse death of a 2-year-old in Norfolk has a lengthy history with the court system. John Tucker Hardee served time in prison and was on probation in a prior child abuse case involving his own son. Court documents we've uncovered raise questions about how probation officers were making sure Hardee was not a danger to another child. He is now accused of scalding his girlfriend's daughter. Her injuries were so bad, her skin started to peel off. We sent a Freedom of Information Act request for all of Hardee's probation records, including the conditions he was under in April of this year, when he allegedly killed Harley Rae. The DOC FOIA officer responded, "We have approximately 100 pages of probation records responsive to your request. However, they are exempt from mandatory disclosure." Virginia law allows the agency to exempt this kind of information, but it also gives the discretion to release it. We asked for the records "in the interest of a deeper public understanding of the system,” so those trying to cope with Harley's death could know what happened. DOC is choosing to keep that secret.
13 News Now

Charlottesville invested $250,000 to help Maurice Jones move to the city and obtain a master’s degree after it selected him to be city manager in 2010. As Jones prepares to become the manager of Chapel Hill, N.C., following his ouster in May — the latest in a series of departures from the city government — more than $80,000 that the city lent him is being forgiven.Jones received $137,000 in tuition reimbursement for an MBA program at the Darden School of Business at U.Va., according to financial records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. In addition, Walker said the agreement gives Jones six more months of pay and compensation for accrued vacation time as of July 31. City officials have been mum on the details of why they decided to not extend Jones’ contract, but signs of a strained relationship between Jones and elected leaders surfaced on occasion, such as after the deadly rally last year. Jones clashed with the mayor after a memo leaked that revealed the City Council laid blame on him and other city officials after the rally.
The Daily Progress

The King George Service Authority has management and operational problems that go well beyond the violations and recent fines issued by the state, according to the new interim general manager. On Tuesday, Dan Hingley presented to the authority’s board of directors a blistering report that practically depicted the Service Authority as King George’s version of the Keystone Cops. During the hour-long discussion, board members referred to the former general manager, but never mentioned Christopher Thomas by name. Stories by The Free Lance–Star between April and June revealed that Thomas had ignored DEQ’s repeated notice of violations about problems at the county’s wastewater treatment plants for more than 18 months. The Service Authority has had marathon closed sessions for months to discuss the possibility of selling “publicly held real property.”
The Free Lance-Star

Isle of Wight County’s new public safety radio system is slated to go online in mid-October, and there will be a notable change when that occurs.  In addition to clearer communications and regional coverage, law enforcement calls will be encrypted, meaning the general public will no longer be able to monitor activity via a scanner, according to Project Manager Terry Hall. Fire and rescue calls, however, will remain on an open channel, said Hall. 
The Smithfield Times


stories of national interest

In March 2018, Salisbury, Maryland accounting firm TGM Group completed phase I of an “agreed-upon procedures” report for Dewey Beach (Delaware) town government. The report revealed the Dewey Beach Police Department had been receiving property from a federal military surplus program without town oversight or proper accounting. In addition, the Dewey Beach Patrol competition team had an off-the-books bank account and was accepting donations without nonprofit status. Although the draft report was available to anyone who attended the Aug. 3 meeting to review, photograph, etc., it was apparently not free for anyone to take home. Reporters from two news agencies, including Sussex Living, took copies when they left the meeting, without protest. Mayor T.J. Redefer said no one at the meeting was aware the documents had been taken by the reporters. Jeffrey Smith, of the Dewey Citizens For Accountability, also took a copy of the draft, and that was noticed. According to Smith, committee chair Larry Silver confronted him in the parking lot after the meeting and demanded the document. Smith refused, and, Smith said, Silver charged at him in an effort to take it. After exchanging words, Smith left with it. Dewey Beach Police Department Sergeant Cliff Dempsey said that Smith was being charged with theft and disorderly conduct following an incident at the audit committee meeting, in which a complaint was investigated and witnesses interviewed.
Sussex Living

Senate Democrats filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on Wednesday to try to force the Trump administration to hand over documents from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's time working in the White House. Democrats submitted the FOIA requests to the CIA, the National Archives, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security for documents tied to Kavanaugh's three-year period as staff secretary for President George W. Bush. The move, according to Blumenthal, marks the first time senators have had to use a FOIA request to get documents tied to a Supreme Court nominee
The Hill

The West Virginia House Judiciary Committee approved 14 articles of impeachment against the four sitting justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on Tuesday. Each justice is charged with "unnecessary and lavish" spending of state taxpayer dollars to renovate their offices in the East Wing of the Capitol. All four of them also are charged with failing to develop and maintain court policies regarding the use of state resources, including cars, computers and funds in general. Justice Allen Loughry faces additional charges related to his alleged use of state vehicles for personal travel, having state furniture and computers in his home, having personal photos, documents, photos and artwork framed on the state's dime, and handing down an administrative order authorizing payments of senior status judges in excess of what is allowable in state law.

Across the country, the search for HQ2, as the project has been nicknamed, is shrouded in secrecy. Even civic leaders cannot find out what sort of tax credits and other inducements have been promised to Amazon. And there is a growing legal push to find out, because taxpayers could get saddled with a huge bill and have little chance to stop it. “The only time the public may become aware if the city has promised Amazon incentives is if we win and then we need to get those incentives passed,” Inianapolis City-County Council Member Jared Evans said. A primary reason for the information blackout is that, in many cases, the bids were handled by local private Chamber of Commerce affiliates or economic development groups that are not required to make their negotiations public. Many of the groups are also not covered by Freedom of Information Act or state open-records requests.
The Seattle Times

No one told some Broward school board members they were filing a contempt-of-court case against the South Florida Sun Sentinel. No one except the Sun Sentinel, that is. The district’s chief lawyer, Barbara Myrick, asked a judge this week to hold the newspaper and two reporters in contempt of court for publishing an uncensored report about the Parkland school shooter. She said she never consulted the school board despite filing the action on the board’s behalf. The newspaper wrote Friday night about a long-awaited report regarding the education of Marjory Stoneman Douglas gunman Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 people Feb. 14 at Stoneman Douglas. After a judge’s order, the district released the report with nearly two-thirds of its content blacked out to protect the Cruz’s privacy rights — a move that also concealed much about how the district mishandled Cruz’s education. Reporters Brittany Wallman and Paula McMahon, acting on a Facebook tip from a reader at 7:30 p.m., discovered that the district had erred in how it redacted the report. Anyone could copy and paste the report into a Microsoft Word document to make all of the text visible.
Orlando Sentinel



"Anyone could copy and paste the report into a Microsoft Word document to make all of the text visible."


editorials & columns


"Complete openness might make it difficult to conduct a personnel search, since candidates are accustomed to a closed procedure."

Openness? Yes, please. Transparency and openness are staple components in the Fourth Estate’s efforts to support democratic government that serves the public, rather than its own internal machine. The selection process might not have been perfectly open — but it was legal and, as far as we can tell, conducted in accordance not only with state law but also with normal precedent. Personnel items — such as interviewing potential staff — are one of the myriad exemptions to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Public meetings are supposed to be open to the public, except in cases such as this (and many, many others). Idealistically, the time to have insisted on openness was before the state instituted the exemption. But that is a practical impossibility for the currently operating council, which is working under a law that is decades old. In some cases, governing bodies can voluntarily ignore exemptions: Because Virginia says they can meet behind closed doors doesn’t necessarily mean they have to. But as a practical matter, complete openness might make it difficult to conduct a personnel search, since candidates are accustomed to a closed procedure that protects their identities until a decision is reached and they are ready to resign their current position, if they have one.
The Daily Progress