FOIA Friday: What Virginia officials withheld or disclosed, May 5–11, 2023

By: - May 12, 2023 12:04 am

File cabinets. (Getty)

One of the less noticed features of the Virginia Way is the long-running tendency of the commonwealth’s leaders to conduct their decision-making behind closed doors. While the Virginia Freedom of Information Act presumes all government business is by default public and requires officials to justify why exceptions should be made, too many Virginia leaders in practice take the opposite stance, acting as if records are by default private and the burden is on the public to prove they should be handled otherwise.

While some public servants in the commonwealth do honor the spirit of FOIA, this opposite position can be seen at all levels of government throughout Virginia, in both political parties and in all geographic areas. Transparency debates, however, all too frequently get bogged down in the larger policy debates that surround the withholding of particular records. In this new feature, we aim to highlight the frequency with which officials around Virginia are resisting public access to records on issues large and small — and note instances when the release of information under FOIA gave the public insight into how government bodies are operating. 

A ‘controlled-access’ public hearing

The Virginia Housing Development Authority held a public hearing May 8 on the planned issuance of up to $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds in a “controlled-access building” where guards hadn’t been told to let in members of the public. According to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the authority also provided no additional information about the bonds and did not take questions from the public, despite a public notice saying it would “conduct a hearing to receive comments from the general public on the proposed issues of the Bonds and will provide for a question and answer period.” 

Virginia execution records

NPR published a selection of Virginia execution records, including Polaroids of death row inmates taken on the nights of their executions and handwritten cards that appear to document operation of the electric chair. Virginia has since outlawed the death penalty, but over its history, the state executed almost 1,400 people. 

The records, which included four audio tapes of executions, had been donated by R.M. Oliver, a former Virginia Department of Corrections employee, to the Library of Virginia over a decade ago. The tapes revealed confusion among corrections workers about some execution procedures but omitted details of a botched execution reported by journalists who witnessed it. After NPR aired excerpts of the audio in January, VADOC asked the Library of Virginia to return all of Oliver’s records and subsequently made them all private. 

The Mercury’s efforts to track FOIA and other transparency cases in Virginia are indebted to the work of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit alliance dedicated to expanding access to government records, meetings and other state and local proceedings. 

A big VCU Health payment

A FOIA request by Richmond BizSense revealed that VCU Health paid almost $73 million to back out of a lease agreement linked to a failed development project in downtown Richmond. Interim CEO Marlon Levy said the payment “means avoiding far greater financial obligations and problems in the future.” 

After the payment was made public, former Gov. Doug Wilder held a press conference calling for the state to investigate and for VCU President Michael Rao to be fired. Officials with VCU Health clarified the payment was made from the health system’s operating funds, not from public dollars as Wilder had claimed.

From the Mercury: A ‘full investigation’ with no report

Gov. Glenn Youngkin said this week he was confident the state’s watchdog agency conducted a “full investigation” into Virginia State Police’s hiring of a trooper who killed three people and attempted to abduct a girl one month after leaving the agency. The Office of the State Inspector General did not produce an independent report on how VSP during a background check missed a mental health incident in Austin Lee Edwards’ past that led to a court order requiring him to receive treatment and stripping him of his gun rights as a safety precaution. Instead, the inspector general’s office released a letter from Virginia State Police describing the results of an internal review of hiring procedures. 

Have you experienced local or state officials denying or delaying your FOIA request? Tell us about it: [email protected]

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