FOIA Friday: What Virginia officials withheld or disclosed, May 26–June 2, 2023
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 public must prove they should be handled otherwise.
In this 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.
Loudoun sexual assault report must be disclosed
A Loudoun judge ruled Tuesday that the local school board must turn over to the Virginia Office of the Attorney General an independent investigation into how the division handled two sexual assault cases by a student in 2021. The board had argued the document didn’t have to be disclosed because of attorney-client privilege.
The Loudoun assaults, which were committed by a 14-year-old student at two different schools, triggered national controversy and became a campaign issue for now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who ordered the attorney general to conduct an investigation. A special grand jury determined that while there had not been “a coordinated cover-up” between division administrators and the Loudoun School Board, the division had shown “a stunning lack of openness, transparency, and accountability both to the public and the special grand jury.” Following the grand jury report, the school board fired Superintendent Scott Ziegler, who is currently facing charges of making false statements.
The independent investigation the Loudoun judge has ordered released to the attorney general’s office was separate from the special grand jury investigation. It was commissioned by the division, which publicly announced the independent review would occur in November 2021.
Chesterfield police roster hearing delayed
Chesterfield Judge Curtis Hairston on Thursday delayed a hearing in a FOIA case against the Chesterfield Police Department because the local sheriff’s office was unable to find the police chief or county attorney to serve them with notice of the proceedings. The judge rescheduled the hearing to June 8.
The case, Alice Minium v. Chesterfield Police Department, stems from Chesterfield Police’s refusal to give a police transparency group an unredacted roster of the law enforcement officers it employs, saying providing the names of 521 officers at or below the rank of lieutenant “is information related to undercover operations or protective details that would reveal the staffing of such operations or detail.”
“Due to the staffing and operational logistics of the Chesterfield County Police Department, officers in the positions of lieutenant and below are moved in and out of undercover operations on a daily basis,” wrote Chesterfield Senior Assistant County Attorney Katherine Gill in an April 17 letter to OpenOversightVA, a group that has developed a statewide police transparency database and bills itself as an all-volunteer organization. “Releasing the names of these officers would put the safety of undercover officers and the integrity of undercover investigations at risk.”
OpenOversightVA says over 200 law enforcement agencies in Virginia have provided rosters in response to the same request, with information now listed on the group’s website.
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 steep price tag for fusion officer records
Virginia State Police are estimating it will cost almost $2,900 to provide a list of all fusion liaison officers in the state
Fusion centers are joint state and federal enterprises intended to share information about potential terrorist and criminal threats. Virginia’s Fusion Center, which like others was created after 9/11, is a partnership between the Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, with additional ties to federal and local governments and the private sector. Fusion liaison officers are people who serve as the main point of contact between their agency and the Virginia Fusion Center.
This May, Newport News resident Clayton Tye requested a list of all Virginia’s fusion liaison officers, including their rank, title and jurisdiction and excluding any other “personally identifiable information.” On June 1, state police said it would require approximately 70 hours to compile the information from multiple sources, with an estimated cost of $2,875.60.
Have you experienced local or state officials denying or delaying your FOIA request? Tell us about it: [email protected]
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