Va. lawmakers reject bill to disclose who’s using government credit cards

Proposal would have overruled financial officials’ instruction to redact info

By: - February 16, 2023 12:03 am

The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

A transparency bill that would have required Virginia government agencies to disclose the names of employees using taxpayer-backed credit cards failed in a Republican-controlled House of Delegates subcommittee Tuesday.

The legislation, backed by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, was pitched as a response to what critics say are overly broad anti-fraud measures state financial officials began emphasizing a few years ago.

In 2020, Virginia’s Department of Accounts, which handles government financial reporting and controls, sent an email instructing state agencies to redact both credit card numbers and employee names when responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. That email noted that Virginia FOIA law exempts credit card account numbers but doesn’t specifically exclude cardholder names. Still, the financial agency advised redacting both pieces of information as a “recommended best practice” from Bank of America.

Others disagreed with that interpretation, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, filed a bill specifying that state agencies can’t withhold names from credit card statements disclosed to the public.

“I think that the public deserves to know not only when money is spent and how it’s spent but who’s spending it,” Surovell told a House subcommittee.

The legislation had passed the state Senate 39-0 late last month. The House panel voted 4-3 to kill it, with Republicans voting against the bill and Democrats voting for it.

In a brief discussion of the proposal, Del. Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, asked Surovell if it would be “wholly unfair” to reveal the name of a government employee who might be making purchases on behalf of others in their agency. Surovell said his bill was designed to cover incidental expenditures, not standard government procurement processes that probably wouldn’t be done through credit cards.

“You’re normally talking about people running around with a card out making expenditures for things like restaurants or hotels or things like that,” Surovell said.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said her pro-transparency group saw “several examples” of agencies redacting both names and account numbers from credit card statements.

“And there was no way to tell who was making the purchases,” Rhyne said. “Which means that holding anyone accountable for any questionable purchases is difficult.”

On Wednesday, Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth, the legislator who made the motion to block the bill, said he was concerned about making a change after Virginia agencies had been “relying upon the redaction of this.”

“While in concept I certainly support the idea of transparency here, this bill probably didn’t do what I would’ve liked to have seen,” Campbell said.

Supporters of the bill felt it wasn’t a particularly complicated question. Pro-FOIA Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, who worked as a journalist before being elected to the General Assembly, said it was a clear opportunity to vote for or against transparency in government.

“The public has to care enough about the Freedom of Information Act to be willing to cast a vote based on a politician’s support or lack thereof for making the Freedom of Information Act more accessible to the public. That to me is the only way we’re going to have systemic change,” said Roem, who successfully passed two bills this year to require public bodies to post their FOIA fee policies and allow, but not require, electronic payments for FOIA requests.

Though the practice of redacting names associated with government credit card purchases seems to have begun at the end of former Gov. Ralph Northam’s term, Republicans who now control the executive branch have upheld it.

Last year, an official in the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares wrote in response to a FOIA request that new State Comptroller Randy McCabe, a Youngkin appointee who oversees the Department of Accounts, had the legal authority to decide what information “could jeopardize internal controls and the Commonwealth’s finances” if made public.

McCabe did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

In an interview, Surovell said he was surprised to see Republicans block the bill after getting bipartisan support for FOIA bills he filed earlier in his career when he served in the House.

“My strongest supporters of that were conservatives in the Tea Party who were very sensitive about the transparency of how we spend taxpayer dollars,” he said.



Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.