Transparency News 9/16/13


Monday, September 16, 2013
State and Local Stories


Richmond lawyer Steven D. Benjamin, the immediate past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and an expert in forensic science, has been replaced on the Virginia Board of Forensic Science by Gov. Bob McDonnell. Benjamin represents the McDonnell family’s former chef, Todd Schneider, who is charged with the theft of food and supplies from the Executive Mansion.

A recent University of Virginia study asserts many state law enforcement agencies have not adopted written procedures for eyewitness identification, but at least some Lynchburg-area agencies go against that grain. Five of six local agencies contacted by The News & Advance said they have written policies for eyewitness identification, although two declined to provide copies of their policies.
News & Advance

Virginia has become the test state for a planned nationally linked program that will allow every law enforcement agency in the commonwealth — if they choose to participate — instant access to a shared database of records on recovered crime guns and investigative traces of those weapons.

Two outside law firms that the Virginia Attorney General’s Office appointed to represent Gov. Bob McDonnell and state employees in a criminal case involving a former Executive Mansion chef and related gift probes of the governor already have cost taxpayers more than $240,000. But the bucks don’t stop there. The office has hired two additional outside law firms to counsel the Virginia State Police. That is the very agency charged with investigating McDonnell in the chef’s case and with assisting the FBI in a probe of the governor’s relationship with Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr. Attorney William W. “Billy” Tunner of the Richmond law firm ThompsonMcMullan was hired July 11 to represent the state police in handling the agency’s responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, “or other inquiries, investigations, or proceedings which flow from or are related to” the chef’s case.

A General District Court judge has dismissed four actions brought by a Suffolk critic regarding the city’s compliance — or noncompliance, the plaintiff said — with the Freedom of Information Act. Saying he found “no intentional and/or willful violations of FOIA on the part of the city,” Judge Alfred W. Bates III dismissed the actions. Plaintiff Christopher Dove says he plans to appeal. Dove argued the city failed to provide promptly a plat for the Foxfield Meadows development near his home, did not provide procedures used in the Planning and Community Development Department for tracking and storing records, denied access to papers that were falsely labeled working papers and, in one case, provided more records than he had requested and charged him roughly $25 for the excess records. “Couldn’t some of this have been avoided if you put your request in writing?” the judge said to Dove. “When you do it verbally — orally — you run the risk of someone misunderstanding. Don’t you think you have some responsibility?”
Suffolk News-Herald

National Stories

Wisconsin Sen. Leah Vukmir is trying to sidestep an open records lawsuit by claiming she can't be sued while in office — a legal argument that, if successful, would let all lawmakers ignore the open records law. The liberal Center for Media and Democracy sued Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) in June contending she had violated the open records law by not turning over records related to her involvement with the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC works with corporations and conservatives to write model legislation that can be introduced in state legislatures throughout the country.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Despite its insistence that it operates transparently, NJ Transit’s board has been voting behind closed doors for years to settle personal injury lawsuits, renew its insurance program, and settle other legal claims people have filed against the agency, according to published minutes of meetings since early 2012. Because votes on settlements have not been taken in public sessions, millions of dollars in payouts by the agency have gone unnoticed by the general public.

The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) ordered the government Friday to take specific steps to declassify opinions regarding the constitutionality of a PATRIOT Act provision used to obtain evidence in foreign-intelligence investigations. The American Civil Liberties Union, joined by two other groups, asked FISA in June to declassify opinions relating to Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which allows the government to apply for a court order to obtain “any tangible things” necessary in certain surveillance investigations. The ACLU filed its motion four days after The Guardian -- ­ using information provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden -- reported that FISA had granted the government the authority to collect the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission ruled this week that panels of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles violated the state Freedom of Information Act by holding closed-door sessions at two meetings last November to consider pardon applications.
Journal Inquirer

Mary Beth Tinker was just 13 when she spoke out against the Vietnam War by wearing a black armband to her Iowa school in 1965. When the school suspended her, she took her free speech case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Now 61, she’s quit her part-time job as a nurse and will travel the country telling her story. Tinker will visit her first school Monday in Philadelphia. After that, she’s scheduled to travel by RV to 18 states and the District of Columbia as part of what’s being called the “Tinker Tour.” She’ll log 10,000 to 15,000 miles, the equivalent of driving across the country three to five times, before her tour ends Nov. 25 in suburban Kansas City. Along the way, she’ll stop at more than three dozen locations, most of them schools, and she plans a tour of schools in western states in the spring. Her message: Students should take action on issues important to them.


Roanoke Times: State leaders need to answer a host of questions as they confront changes in technology and the expiration date on their computer contract with Northrop Grumman. But one question that requires no serious discussion is this: Is there too much accountability built into the current management model? Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, wondered aloud last week whether an independent board should be established to serve as a “buffer” between the state’s chief information officer and the governor.

Roanoke Times: When Bedford County resident Jackie Davis stands up and prays during public comment periods at board of supervisors meetings, as she does regularly, she is exercising her right in America to openly practice the religion of her choice. This is an individual freedom. When the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors opened meetings by leading all present in Christian prayer, it was violating the constitutionally protected religious freedom of the people it governs. This was an infringement on individual freedom. Sectarianism cannot be part of government, including at the local level, that truly holds sacred every individual’s right to religious liberty. It was no surprise that a federal district court ruled against the supervisors, and upheld the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause. Still, by unanimous vote, an unchastened board has decided to appeal the decision and the judge’s order to pay the plaintiff’s court fees: $53,229. “Because,” in the words of Chairman Marshall Ecker, “I want to take a stand for Jesus.”

Dick Hammerstrom, Free Lance-Star: What the Hanover board wanted to do was permit three of the seven-member board to be able to hold discussions without the public present. What the Hanover folks got was essentially a scolding from  FOIA Council chairman, State Sen. Richard Stuart of Stafford County, according to Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association.