Transparency News, 9/20/2022


September 20, 2022

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state & local news stories

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Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith continued to stand by his original statement that he could not review talking points ahead of his press conference on an alleged mass shooting plot because they were sent to him seven minutes ahead of the briefing. That's despite newly released communication records revealing Smith received an email with talking points 47 minutes prior. When emails detailing his talking points were made public to local media outlets through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in August, they showed RPD's Public Information Officer Tracy Walker sent them to other officers and the FBI earlier in the day on July 6. But Walker did not send them to Chief Smith until 1:53 p.m., seven minutes before the 2:00 p.m. press conference. However, in a FOIA request submitted by CBS 6 that was fulfilled on September 13, records showed Deputy Chief Victoria Pearson forwarded an email she received from Walker with talking points to Smith at 1:13 p.m. That means Smith received talking points 47 minutes before the news conference.

Shenandoah County School Board Chairman Marty Helsley is being sued by a resident accusing him of deleting emails related to the renaming of two county schools. Helsley denies all of the lawsuit's allegations, according to court filings. In the civil lawsuit, Rhonda Richard claims Helsey deleted emails related to the name changes of Mountain View (formerly Stonewall Jackson) High School and Honey Run (formerly Ashby Lee) Elementary School. In the lawsuit's complaint, Richard alleges that Helsley blatantly violated Virginia code 2.2-3074 by deleting emails. She claims this was a willful and knowing violation, and that he destroyed the requested public records with the intent to avoid certain provisions. Richard argues that Helsley is subject to FOIA laws as a public official and required to meet her request, but the emails requested pertaining to his public office were deleted. 
The Northern Virginia Daily

A former Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority employee pleaded guilty to a felony computer trespassing charge after he was implicated in an unusual scheme to sell agency inventory data to buyers looking for early intel on which stores would have hard-to-find bottles of bourbon, ABC officials announced Monday. Authorities believe Garcia’s alleged accomplice in the plan, Robert William Adams, 45, of Newport News, was the person trying to sell the information online. Adams is also facing criminal charges and is set to appear in court on Dec. 12.
Virginia Mercury

Mark Taylor signed a contract with the Spotsylvania County School Board to serve as the new division superintendent beginning Nov. 1. The board on Friday approved by a vote of 4–3 a motion by Rabih Abuismail to “submit the contract and negotiations forward as discussed in closed session.” The contract, as described on Friday, guarantees Taylor more than three years of full pay if he is fired without cause. Taylor will also receive the full advertised base salary of $245,000 per year—$30,000 more per year than previous superintendent Scott Baker was making. The board discussed the contract in a closed session Friday with Whit Robinson, an attorney based in Warrenton with a specialty in “land use cases, criminal matters, construction law, federal and state election law and government contracts,” according to his website. Board members Nicole Cole and Dawn Shelley said they had concerns about employing an attorney without a specialty in education law to represent the board during its negotiations with Taylor. After the closed session, Cole and Daniels described some of the provisions as being “out of the norm.” Shelley also cited concern with a provision in the contract that states the board cannot discuss Taylor or his performance without him being present.
The Free Lance-Star

stories of national interest

"A review of dozens of court records and interviews by The Associated Press suggest the document originated with a serial forger behind bars at a federal prison complex in North Carolina."

When a government document mysteriously appeared earlier this week in the highest profile case in the federal court system, it had the hallmarks of another explosive storyline in the Justice Department’s investigation into classified records stored at former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate. The document purported to be from the U.S. Treasury Department, claimed that the agency had seized sensitive documents related to last month’s search at Mar-a-Lago and included a warrant ordering CNN to preserve “leaked tax records.” The document remained late Thursday on the court docket, but it is a clear fabrication. A review of dozens of court records and interviews by The Associated Press suggest the document originated with a serial forger behind bars at a federal prison complex in North Carolina. The incident also suggests that the court clerk was easily tricked into believing it was real, landing the document on the public docket in the Mar-a-Lago search warrant case. It also highlights the vulnerability of the U.S. court system and raises questions about the court’s vetting of documents that purport to be official records.
Associated Press

A lawsuit filed in Newberry 11 years ago has become the longest-ever Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case in South Carolina — and perhaps the longest state FOIA case in the nation. Jay Bender, of Columbia, was the South Carolina Press Association attorney for over 30 years and is acknowledged to be the state’s leading authority on FOIA. He knows of no other FOIA case in the state that has gone 11 years without being resolved. The lawsuit concerns documents related to the estate of music legend James Brown and was brought against Attorney General Alan Wilson by former estate trustee Adele Pope, of Newberry.
The Newberry Observer


editorials & columns

"There is a point where FOIA becomes weaponized, and it gets in the way of getting done what needs to be done."

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares formed an “Election Integrity Task Force.” He has reassigned 20 lawyers, paralegals and support staff who worked in other sections of the AG’s office, such as consumer protection. It’s unclear what the task force is investigating, because zero substantive allegations have emerged of widespread fraud in recent Virginia elections. But there remain a huge number of unsupported suspicions, which have fueled conspiracy theories. This we know because since November 2020, self-styled “election-integrity” activists have blitzed local registrars across the commonwealth with requests for all kinds of information, said Brenda Cabrera, president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia. (She also serves as registrar in the city of Fairfax.) The requests are being made under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, a section of state law that governs meetings and records of state and local governments. “There is a point where FOIA becomes weaponized, and it gets in the way of getting done what needs to be done,” Carbrera said. “There’s a point at which it overwhelms a small office, to receive multiple FOIA requests in a day.” Perhaps that’s something on which Miyares’ new Election Integrity Task Force should be focusing. Because it doesn’t appear they have anything else to investigate.
Dan Casey, The Roanoke Times

Across the state, Texans are keeping a closer eye on their government. They’re asking questions and demanding information. There’s a renewed awareness of our transparency laws. Times of trouble can remind us all that the people have a right to know, and Texas certainly has been enduring months of difficulty following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas has urged law enforcement and government officials at all levels — school district, city, county, state and federal — to promptly release critical records related to the shootings. Multiple news organizations filed a lawsuit this summer against the Texas Department of Public Safety to force the release of information such as 911 calls, video and police statements. The case is pending.
Kelley Shannon, Denton Record-Chronicle