Transparency News 9/2/14

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

State and Local Stories

A Virginia commission that invests money from a national tobacco settlement gave $21 million to an economic development group and a telephone cooperative run by family members of the commission’s powerful chairman, according to a review of grants by The Associated Press. While not illegal, the grants are part of a rocky history of questionable spending by the Virginia Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which currently controls about $600 million in cash and investments.

Prince William County, its current leaders say, has been home to only one U.S. senator in the 225-year history of Congress. And that senator served only a year — the first year the Senate existed. When William Grayson died in 1790, he was buried on a hilltop at Belle Aire plantation, an estate in what is now Woodbridge. Despite the role he played in the country’s history, Grayson was not long remembered. Over decades, his grave crumbled and was vandalized. Now, thanks to a local history buff, it’s gotten a facelift.
Washington Post

National Stories

Cities are complex places that can lack the infrastructure and processes to stitch together their constituencies. Today, cities are innovating, but many times that innovation is laser focused around data, big data and getting more data. This only gives us a glimpse of the reality regarding citizen experiences within a city. In short, big data by itself is insufficient for innovation.  In a guest commentary for the City Accelerator, Ceasar McDowell, President of the Interaction Institute for Social Change and Professor of the Practice of Community Development at MIT, argues we must bring together the public to gain a holistic picture of the problems in our cities and the solutions needed to build communities that are economically healthy.

Fearing a Russian invasion and occupation of Alaska, the U.S. government in the early Cold War years recruited and trained fishermen, bush pilots, trappers and other private citizens across Alaska for a covert network to feed wartime intelligence to the military, newly declassified Air Force and FBI documents show. Invasion of Alaska? Yes. It seemed like a real possibility in 1950.


When bounded by the Constitution, more democracy is always better than less. Norfolk, where the School Board is appointed by the City Council, needs more democracy. This November, Norfolk's voters will decide whether they want to directly elect members of their School Board. They are unlikely to turn down that chance.

The defense of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is actually an indictment — of him, and Virginia politics generally. McDonnell did do things for Star. He asked members of his administration to meet with company representatives. He held a launch party for the company’s premier product, a tobacco extract, at the Executive Mansion. He personally pitched the product to staffers. Maureen even pitched it to Ann Romney. The governor’s defense, though, boils down to this: “So what? He did the same for lots of other companies, too.”  If you read the Constitution of Virginia, you won’t find anything remotely connected to any of that. The governor’s job, as defined in the constitution, is simple and straightforward: He is to execute the laws of the commonwealth, fill departmental vacancies, serve as commander-in-chief of the state’s armed forces and, if necessary, repel invasion or suppress insurrection. Maybe offer up a clemency now and then — but that’s about it. There is nary a word about hawking products like a late-night infomercial. And yet, from the way McDonnell and other upper-tier politicians talk, you would think the governor’s principal function is to act as the promotion and marketing department for Virginia Inc.
Bart Hinkle, Times-Dispatch

The town council in Leesburg recently approved a rezoning request to enable a business to construct a building on a site in the town. Residents spoke out at a public hearing on the rezoning application, but not because they objected to the business seeking the new zoning. It was because the town officials refused to even identify the business. It seems that town officials had signed off on a non-disclosure agreement with the company and agreed to keep its identity secret throughout the proceedings.
Dick Hammerstrom, Free Lance-Star

Here’s an event we’re sorry we missed: Back in July, a group in Christiansburg celebrated the birthday of Elbridge Gerry — the 19th century Massachusetts politician whose attempts to redraw political districts to benefit his allies and disadvantage his opponents we now know as “gerrymandering.” It was an ironic celebration (complete with an Elbridge Gerry impersonator, we’re told). The sponsors included OneVirginia2021, a group founded earlier this year to take the once-every-decade task of redistricting out of the hands of self-serving politicians and give it to . . . well, anybody would be preferable, probably, but the idea is some sort of nonpartisan commission. The group has some big names behind it: Former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (a Republican) is on the advisory board; former Del. Shannon Valentine (a Democrat) from Lynchburg is president of the foundation; former Del. Dave Nutter (a Republican) from Montgomery County is the board’s secretary. It also has a big challenge: How do you persuade politicians to give us some of their powers, most especially those powers that lead to creating safe seats for themselves?
Roanoke Times

More than $14 million in grants have gone to the Scott County Economic Development Authority, chaired by Kilgore’s brother John Jr. Another $7 million has gone to the Scott County Telephone Cooperative, whose president is Kilgore’s father. An attorney general’s opinion has allowed Kilgore to vote on grants involving his family, but, as James Madison University ethics law expert Robert Roberts has noted, “it just looks terrible.” Throw in that the Tobacco Commission is also said to be part of a federal probe of whether a Democratic state senator was enticed to resign from the General Assembly and toss control of the Senate to Republicans, and the entire kettle of rotting fish becomes yet another reason that Virginia’s ethics laws need a substantial rewrite. We want, we deserve a government we can trust.
News & Advance