On Presidents’ Day, Virginia’s transparency track record disgraces legacy


LAGGING A LEGACY: Virginia lawmakers oftentimes disgrace the legacy of the likes of Thomas Jefferson by closing the governance process off to the people.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — More than two centuries ago, the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe established the cornerstones of this great commonwealth and the United States.

They built this commonwealth and nation understanding a fundamental principle — that without transparent and open government accountable to the people, those people cannot be free.

But today, many of Virginia’s elected leaders heap shame upon themselves and this commonwealth’s legacy by oppressing those very principles of openness and transparency for which those who strode the same halls before them risked their lives.

They all say they want transparency in government, and there are a few who honestly fight for it.

But for the majority of the public officials who claim to serve this commonwealth, it’s nothing more than lip service, backed by half-hearted attempts, inaction or blatant attacks against transparency.

There is a reason Virginia ranks 47th in the State Integrity Investigation’s corruption risk report card — although, oddly enough, you’ll rarely — if ever — hear that ranking from a state lawmaker.

As a reporter, I see this oppression of information firsthand, on a regular basis.

I’ve watched the state-paid employees on the Freedom of Information Advisory Council shoot down proposals to expand access to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the lifeblood of public access in the commonwealth.

I’ve been denied records for information that would reveal whether state-paid employees are double dipping in pension benefits, information that has revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of abuse in other states. Why can’t I have that information? Current Virginia law prevents its release, and lawmakers aren’t doing anything to change that.

I’ve been denied records for retailers’ welfare-related transactions, transactions that in other states have revealed abuses of the system, both on the part of retailers and participants. Perhaps worse, the state says it can’t access, track or audit its most basic form of welfare to see if it’s being used illegally under the state’s own law.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s press secretary, after a month of calls and emails, still hasn’t answered my question as to why the new governor’s self-imposed gift ban executive order only lasts one year, something Watchdog.org pointed out first.

These aren’t isolated incidents or purely personal experiences.

Each legislative cycle, Virginia lawmakers pile on more exemptions to the state’s FOIA law, which already has more than 100 exemptions for records and meetings in it.

In the ongoing 2014 legislative session, Republican Delegate Todd Gilbert sponsored HB 703, exempting administrative investigations by public institutions of higher education from the public’s eye.

Republican Dave Albo sponsored HB 219, exempting from public record certain letters of recommendation.

Their colleagues voted in favor of those bills.

Equally as bad, lawmakers have consistently shot down proposals by Democrat Mark Keam and Republican Jim LeMunyon to expand public records to out-of-state residents — even to people with close ties to the commonwealth. Virginia is one of just a handful states in the country with such a closed-records provision.

The House of Delegates does deserve a nod for voting to review all the exemptions in the FOIA.

Despite the wealth of modern technology and Virginia’s status as a hub for technology companies, state leaders refuse to live stream committee and subcommittee meetings. That’s where the real discussion about proposed legislation happens, all too often with only lawmakers and lobbyists present.

I could list examples all day.

In a state that once pioneered the nation and world in ingenuity, progress and accountability, Virginia now embarrassingly lags behind its peers in open processes.

The “Virginia Way,” as the style of Virginia governance is often called, has its distinctly noble characteristics, including mutual respect, civility and statesmanship. Virginians have doubtlessly benefited from that.

With it sometimes comes the notion that Virginia’s public officials are implicitly trustworthy — something that would roil Madison, who said “all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.” This reliance upon trusting the individual has wrought as much harm upon Virginia society as it has good.

That “live and let live” philosophy is often needed in private affairs, but it has no place in the governance of a commonwealth.

The indictment of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife earlier this year came not just as an embarrassment to the commonwealth — it came as a shock that something like this could happen here, in Virginia. No longer can Virginians live in the delusion that our public officials are somehow more-than-human in stature, distinct from leaders of other states in this nation.

Should it have stunned Virginians that human nature is the same here as it is anywhere else? Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis has famously said that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

And reversely, cloudiness — and implicit, unquestioning trust in human nature — is the most capable contaminant.

Transparency is neither a right nor left, neither a conservative nor liberal issue.

Transparency is a Virginia issue.

It is an issue whose success is in the best interest of all — except, too often, the officials who determine the laws governing its practice.

It’s hardly surprising that the House of Delegates devised an ethics reform package that Democratic Sen. Chap Peterson compared to “Swiss cheese.”

As a reporter, it’s my role to look out for the people of Virginia. When the government that claims to serve those people skirts that responsibility — and even plots against it — it’s my basic duty to call out those officials.

Fundamentally, the role of the Fourth Estate, for all the things it may be today, is that of a watchdog. That’s why our outlet is Watchdog.org — a name that intimidates a good number of officials when I meet them in person or speak with them on the phone.

And it should.

The day when elected officials and bureaucrats no longer fear the press, and by extension, the public, is the day liberty is most in peril.

Journalists and government inherently have, and forever should have, some tension between them. A nation without a free and vigilant press that keeps two eyes on government, watching for citizens’ safety and taxpayer dollars, can never truly be free. Those aren’t my words — they’re paraphrased from Jefferson.

And so, on President’s Day, may every Virginia public servant, from McAuliffe to the newest administrative hire working on Capitol Square, remember the legacy of transparency and openness set by the great men who strode Richmond’s halls centuries before them.

And may they fight for the people they claim to serve, not against them.

— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org, and can be reached at kwatson@watchdog.org.

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