Transparency News 9/3/19



September 3, 2019


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state & local news stories


"[Engaging with Scans America] should make it easier for the EDA to fulfill requests it receives through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act."

Former Abingdon Attorney Deborah Coffey Icenhour has filed a federal lawsuit against the town, claiming defamation for statements made by Vice Mayor Cindy Patterson in 2017, as well as discrimination by the town. Icenhour was hired as assistant town attorney in October 2007 and appointed town attorney in January 2009. She also served 10 years as the town’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer, according to the suit, and left her employment with the town by “constructive discharge” on or about July 14, 2018. Icenhour’s suit claims defamation by Patterson, who stated at a meeting of the Town Council on Sept 5, 2017, “There have been more FOIA requests in recent years because the citizens don’t trust the Town; they don’t trust the FOIA Officer. That’s obvious.”
Bristol Herald Courier

A $50 million gift made earlier this year to Virginia's largest public university was given specifically to "promote the conservative principles of governance," newly released documents show, raising concerns from critics that it compromises academic freedom at the school. George Mason University announced the gift earlier this year — the largest ever received in the school's history — from the estate of Allison and Dorothy Rouse to Mason's Antonin Scalia Law School. Documents obtained by the group UnKoch My Campus under the Freedom of Information Act and made public this week show that the Rouse trust specified its bequest be used "as an endowment to fund a chair or chairs that will promote the conservative principles of governance, statesmanship, high morals, civil and religious freedom and the study of the United States Constitution."
ABC News

When two Lynchburg police officers pleaded no contest earlier this year to illegally shooting an unarmed man in 2018, it marked the first criminal conviction of a Virginia officer charged with unlawfully shooting a civilian in nearly three years. But when Virginia State Police published its annual “Crime in Virginia” report this spring detailing crime trends in the previous year, the section listing officer-involved shootings made no mention of the Lynchburg case. Lynchburg police had failed to formally report the incident to the state, an oversight an LPD spokesperson later called a “clerical error.”  The missing shooting is no anomaly. Since state police began collecting data on police shootings for public release in mid-2016, police departments and sheriff’s offices across Virginia have failed to report nearly 30% of all incidents, according to an analysis by The News & Advance of media reports, police records and court documents.
The News & Advance

Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, on Friday responded to a lawsuit filed by a former aide, arguing in court that she doesn’t owe any damages while not denying she accessed the aide’s personal Facebook and Gmail accounts. Maureen Hains sued Adams last month, accusing the freshman lawmaker of “hacking” into her personal email records to delete files related to work Hains performed for Adams’ medical consulting business. Hains argued Adams violated state and federal privacy and computer fraud laws and is seeking $550,000 in damages.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority took more steps Friday to change how it runs and to improve transparency. The authority’s Board of Directors voted at a special meeting on several measures to create new rules and procedures as it moves forward through the agency’s legal and financial situation. Measures also sought to increase transparency. The board voted unanimously to spend $7,365 for professional services provided by Scans America. The authority plans to employ the firm to scan documents to more easily fulfill requests for information. The action should make it easier for the EDA to fulfill requests it receives through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
The Northern Virginia Daily


stories of national interest

In a decision that will expand the power of courts to make government agencies post information online, the Ninth Circuit this week reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the removal of animal welfare compliance data from a U.S. Department of Agriculture website. ALDF and three other groups sued the USDA in 2017 after it abruptly pulled animal welfare compliance data offline, a move the plaintiffs say frustrates their missions to fight animal cruelty and monitor government enforcement. U.S. District Judge William Orrick III dismissed the suit in August 2017, finding courts lack power to force government agencies to make documents available to the public at large, as opposed to individual requesters, under the Freedom of Information Act. A three-judge Ninth Circuit panel overruled Orrick’s decision Thursday, finding the law authorizes courts to make agencies stop holding back records which they have a duty to make available in “virtual reading rooms” online. FOIA’s reading room provision requires agencies make certain records available on government websites, including agency policies, interpretations of law and frequently requested documents, pursuant to FOIA amendments passed by Congress in 1996 and 2016.
Courthouse News Service

Police in a Maryland city arrested a “disgruntled resident” accused of intentionally ramming his car into City Hall and damaging the building, the city’s mayor said Sunday. The driver didn’t injure the lone Taneytown city employee who was in the building on Friday evening when the car plowed into City Hall, Mayor Bradley Wantz said.
The Washington Times



quote_2.jpg"The law authorizes courts to make agencies stop holding back records which they have a duty to make available in 'virtual reading rooms' online."


editorials & columns

quote_3.jpg“The processing of the request was highly irregular. The withholding was entirely unjustified ... The document was probably withheld for political reasons.”

Any day now we half expect a worker to go into City Council chambers at the Martinsville Municipal Building and remove all the light bulbs. Increasingly we get the impression council members are content to work in the dark. That’s an impression that flashed before us twice just this past week. First, the council has not chosen to discuss in public the recent hiring of its contracted attorney, Eric Monday, as assistant city manager. Then we learned the public broadcast and video archiving of council meetings, which was interrupted in June by a equipment issues, wouldn’t be returning because a new system would cost $100,000. This second issue is more important, because it deals with elected officials operating in public light, but let’s focus on these in the order they came into light.
Martinsville Bulletin

The anonymous note was secretly tucked into an envelope, behind an official letter from a government agency denying our reporter’s request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. It apparently came from someone deep in the agency’s FOIA bureaucracy. The request sought government documents related to the president’s business interests. Typed in large-font print on plain paper, the inserted note said: “The processing of the request was highly irregular. The withholding was entirely unjustified ... The document was probably withheld for political reasons.” I had never seen such a whistle-blower note before, but it brought into sharp focus what we face every day in The New York Times’s legal department as we continue to push against government secrecy through the use of FOIA.
David McCraw, The New York Times