Transparency News, 9/23/20


 September 23, 2020


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state & local news stories

In a party-line vote, the Virginia House of Delegates' Courts of Justice committee effectively killed two Senate bills that would have required greater transparency of decisions made by the Virginia Parole Board, which has come under intense scrutiny in recent months for the controversial release of convicted killers. The committee first voted 12-6 to table a bill sponsored by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, which would require the individual votes of the parole board to be a public record and subject to the provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The bill passed the Senate earlier this month on a 29-10 bipartisan vote. The Courts of Justice committee, on a motion from Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, referred the bill to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council for further study. Simon noted that a similar bill proposed in the House by Del. Nick Rush, R-Montgomery, had already been tabled and referred to the FOIA Council. But Suetterlein, who was given time to speak to the committee, noted that no members of the Senate sought to have the bill reviewed by the FOIA council.
Richmond Times-Dispatch
Two bills aimed at bringing more transparency to the Virginia Parole Board won bi-partisan support in the Senate but died Tuesday at the hands of Democrats in the House of Delegates. The bills, proposed by GOP senators upset by the board’s recent parole decisions, would have required board members to begin voting publicly and begin releasing monthly reports detailing who the board considered for release and why they decided to grant or not grant parole.
Virginia Mercury

A nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting downtown Richmond is pulling back on its plans to create a Black Lives Matter mural spanning nearly 200 feet in the 800 block of East Grace Street. After approving Venture Richmond’s application for the temporary mural just outside of the Virginia Capitol in August, the Richmond Planning Commission met in closed session earlier this month to discuss the “legal consequences” that might result from the project proceeding. The commission voted Monday to authorize the nonprofit’s withdrawal of its request. Matthew Ebinger, a city planner and the secretary to the Planning Commission, declined to specify what legal issues were discussed during the commission’s recent closed session. In an interview last week, Marrs said that the city permitting a mural on a public right of way would turn it into a public forum. He said that would mean the city cannot object to any proposed mural on the basis of its message no matter how extreme or objectionable — as long as it doesn’t directly advocate for violence.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

The New York Times is asking a Lynchburg judge to dismiss a defamation suit filed by Liberty University over the paper’s coverage of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the school. In July, the conservative religious institution sued the outlet, accusing the paper and a reporter of crafting a “clickbait” story intended to mislead the public about an outbreak on the school’s sprawling campus. In court documents filed last week, lawyers for The Times deny the allegations raised in the suit and argue that the paper’s actions are protected under state and federal law. Lawyers for The Times declined to comment Tuesday. A spokesperson for the paper has said the outlet stands by its reporting and intends to fight the suit in court.
The News & Advance


stories of national interest
Since Iowa City protesters were tear-gassed by area law enforcement on June 3 as they tried to gain access to Interstate 80, the agencies on the scene have continued to withhold basic information about their involvement in the events that unfolded that night. The agencies involved — the Iowa State Patrol, Iowa City Police, University of Iowa Police and Johnson County Sheriff's Office — have refused to respond to questions about the circumstances surrounding their response, which included tear-gassing protesters — a tactic banned in warfare but allowed for limited use by law enforcement in the United States.  Prior to contracting an independent firm to conduct an investigation, Iowa City officials said they couldn't answer questions about what happened that night because the events were under investigation. The Johnson County Sheriff's Office has said it can't say how many devices they used and how many officials deployed them because such information is generally kept confidential.
Iowa City Press-Citizen

A federal judge on Tuesday kept alive a citizen muckraker's quest to pry loose for the public's benefit tens of thousands of FBI documents about disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, including his time as a government informant. Self-styled public information crusader Angela Clemente sued in May, seeking to force the FBI to release the documents on the grounds that Epstein is now dead, albeit under mysterious circumstances, and that there is an overarching public interest in releasing documents. The Justice Department, representing the FBI, is fighting the effort. In a status hearing Tuesday morning, Judge Trevor N. McFadden, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, allowed Clemente's public-records lawsuit to continue. But he also put both sides on notice that he expected some agreement when they come before him again on Oct. 23.
The Bakersfield Californian