Category Archives: Transparency

Skating Past FOIA in Harrisonburg

by Joe Fitzgerald

Public officials will sometimes self-censor their emails, memos, and even texts for fear they’ll be embarrassed or caught telling the truth if a Freedom of Information request is filed. You’d think that caution would make them better communicators. Recent history proves that’s not the case. Sometimes it seems the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, instead frees them to do the bare minimum.

The often unjustified fear of information requests, para-FOIA, ignores how infrequent the requests are, not to mention how vanishingly rare convictions for violations are. Enforcement is by the officials covered by the law, and prosecution is up to the citizen. The real danger, if you can call it that, is a phrase or observation FOIA-ed and ripped out of context and going viral on social media. But in general the people who will do that find it easier to just make stuff up. Continue reading

Info-Wars in the College Admissions Debate

Credit: Bing Image Creator. Pry the data from my cold dead digital fingers.

by James A. Bacon

It will be exceedingly difficult to hold an honest conversation in Virginia about the role of race in higher-education admissions and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. College administrators are the gatekeepers of data critical to the discussion and they will not share it.

I have been stymied twice this week in my efforts to acquire admissions data: once by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and once by the University of Virginia. SCHEV and UVa officials cite various justifications for being unable to supply the numbers, but I believe the underlying reason is that university administrators simply don’t want to make the data available. Why? Because he who controls the data controls the narrative.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling restricting the use of race as a factor in admissions, I have embarked upon the mission of laying out the data available in the public domain: how have admissions and enrollment patterns evolved over the past 1o to 20 years? How have preferential policies for selected minorities fared, as tracked by measures of student thriving such as feelings of “belonging,” drop-out rates, student-loan debt burdens and post-graduate income?

In recent posts, I have documented that males and Whites are slightly under-represented in entering classes at UVa, while my colleague Walter Smith has described UVa’s use of the Landscape platform to provide school- and neighborhood-specific “context” for applicants. Last year Smith shed light on the new racial calculus in UVa admissions by showing how offers to applicants vary by race/ethnicity and legacy status. The Office of Admissions, which was commendably open with its data last year, stopped providing it after we published his article.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) maintains a searchable online database of higher-ed statistics regarding enrollment, admissions, tuition & fees, financial aid, student debt, retention rates, and degrees awarded. SCHEV breaks the data into dozens of different reports that are searchable by individual institution. It is an invaluable resource for anyone analyzing higher-ed in Virginia. Continue reading

Virginia Secedes from National Elections Organization

by Jim McCarthy

A February 25 article in Bacon’s Rebellion, “Forget Waldo, Where’s ERIC?” by James Wyatt Whitehouse raised questions about the volunteer national election clearing house organization entitled Electronic Information Registration Center, or ERIC. The BR piece highlighted the experience of the Alabama Secretary of State:

On February 15, 2023, Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen paid a visit to the ERIC headquarters in Washington, D.C. It is important to note that Mr. Allen withdrew Alabama from participation in ERIC just a few weeks before his visit. Mr. Allen had this to say about his visit to the Connecticut Avenue headquarters of ERIC, Inc.: ‘I was in DC for a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of States and, since I was in town, I went to see the ERIC Headquarters. What I found was that there was no ERIC headquarters at that address. There were no employees. There were no servers. There was no ERIC presence of any kind. Instead, I found a virtual office that is rentable by the day. What it was missing was people, servers, and any sign of the ERIC team.’

The absence of existential staff and the existence of a virtual office prompted subsequent questions concerning ERIC’s information security and its utility to member states. As noted, Mr. Allen pulled the trigger on his state’s membership weeks before asking his questions. In 2012, Virginia was a founding member of ERIC under the administration of Governor Bob McDonnell.
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Political Embellishment and Poor Journalism

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Some Virginians, along with citizens in the rest of the country, will be able to receive refunds from the company Intuit, the developers of the TurboTax automated tax return preparation program. According to a report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, approximately $3.5 million will be available for distribution to Virginians.

“TurboTax misled Virginians, and now they are officially paying the price,” Attorney General Miyares said in a statement. “I’m proud that my office was able to put that money back into the affected consumers’ pockets, where it belonged all along.”

There are a couple of things wrong with this statement. First of all, his office had virtually nothing to do with the settlement. Second, the announcement is late; the settlement was reached a year ago. Continue reading

The Unsettled State of Lee Chapel

by Kenneth G. Everett

“Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”

— William E. Gladstone, British Statesman

The respect with which a civilization honors its dead has long been a gauge of its adherence to the duties of humane behavior and the cultivation of virtue in its citizens. That respect has found expression in the veneration of deceased persons of exemplary character and achievement, and in the enduring gratitude tendered to those of past generations whose labors laid the foundation of a society’s prosperity and moral strength. From the pyramids of Egypt, to the tombs of ancient Greece and Rome, to the monuments to the dead of more recent times, we find inspiring evidence of the homage paid by great civilizations to their dead — homage extending from the towering monuments that honor national heroes to the simplest graves of common peasants.

And it bears remembering that none of these honored dead have been without spot. Each suffered some flaw of character or lapse of right conduct, however great or small. Nevertheless, in developed societies it has been the tradition that funeral panegyrics on the dead praise and celebrate the goodness of a life rather than defaming it, so that flaws and missteps in the person eulogized have been commonly abridged or passed over without mention. The same tradition comprehends the epitaphs engraved on tombs of the dead, be they in Westminster Abbey or in humble country churchyards. A survey of funerary epitaphs reveals a uniformity of praise for whatever was worthy in the entombed, with intent to ensure that the record of their good works and virtues of character might live on to become an inspiration and support to those who follow. The arc of an enduring civilization rises upon the best in its historical heritage of individual and collective merit — wherever in its history, and in whatever circumstances, that merit is found.
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As Newspapers Struggle, Local News is Harder to Find in Virginia

by Christopher Connell

It is, unfortunately, old news.

Virginia’s newspapers, the single biggest source of local news, face unprecedented challenges, with their readers, revenues, and staffs steadily dwindling.

It’s a paradox because news writ large now seems to be available everywhere, all the time, on phones in our pockets and purses.

People still hear about bickering in Congress, mysterious Chinese balloons overhead, and blizzards burying Buffalo. What they learn less about is what’s going on in their own backyards, towns, schools, counties, and state capitals.

Some 2,500 U.S. newspapers have closed since 2005, some over-reliant on advertising-dependent business models that cratered with the rise of the Internet, many simply killed by their market areas’ struggling economies. Most were print weeklies, where most people got their local news. Continue reading

Want Info? Check Only, Please.

Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) Photo credit: Virginian Pilot

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

A recent article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch illustrates how governments will fight any attempt to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in a way that would make it easier for citizens to obtain information.

Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) has been one of the more persistent legislators seeking to amend the FOIA to make information on government activities more accessible to citizens.  With her background as a journalist, she knows more about how the FOIA functions than most legislators.

One of the chief frustrations of citizens seeking information on their governments’ activities are the fees government agencies are authorized to charge as a condition of providing requested documents. Roem has introduced legislation in the past that would have capped the fees a government agency could charge. These bills went nowhere, and it did not matter if the Democrats were in the majority (HB 2000, 2021 Session) or the Republicans (HB 599, 2022 Session). This year, she took a more modest approach. Continue reading

Leave Arlington’s Confederate Memorial Intact

Cherry trees bloom in Jackson Circle around the Confederate Monument in Section 16 of Arlington National Cemetery, April 7, 2015, in Arlington, Va. The Confederate Monument was unveiled June 4, 1914, according to the ANC website. (Arlington National Cemetery photo by Rachel Larue)

by Phil Leigh

Arlington National Cemetery’s Confederate Memorial should remain intact. Although four of the first seven cotton states arguably seceded from the union over slavery, they did not cause the Civil War. They had no purpose to overthrow the federal government. After forming the seven state Confederacy in February 1861, they promptly sent commissioners to Washington to “preserve the most friendly relations” with the truncated Union. Instead of letting the cotton states depart in peace, the North’s resolve to force them back into the Union caused the war.

With half of the military-aged white men of the eventual 11-state Confederacy, the four states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas only joined the original seven after President Lincoln called upon them to provide volunteers to force the first seven back into the Union. In response to a telegram from Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton directing that Virginia provide her quota of such volunteers, Governor John Letcher replied that his state would not comply and concluded: “You have chosen to inaugurate Civil War….”

On the eve of the war, Northerners and Southerners differed on their relative loyalties to the federal and state governments. According to historians Edward Channing and Eva Moore, Northerners had

the general opinion that the Union was sovereign, and the states were part of it…. The idea that the people of the United States formed one nation had been reinforced by the coming of immigrants from abroad. These people had no conception of a ‘state’ or a sentimental attachment to a ‘state.’ They had come to America to better their condition….

By mostly settling in the North, they reinforced the Northerners’ belief that they owed their loyalty to the Union first and only secondarily to the state. Continue reading

The Alumni Rebellion Spreads to JMU

by James A. Bacon

A group of James Madison University alumni has organized a new group, the Madison Cabinet for Free Speech and Accountability, to promote “freedom of  expression, intellectual diversity, and academic freedom on campus.”

The JMU group marks the fourth university in Virginia to organize in protest of the takeover of an institution by woke administrations and campus cultures. The others include The Jefferson Council (at the University of Virginia), The General’s Redoubt (at Washington & Lee), and The Spirit of VMI PAC. Virginia can claim more dissident alumni groups than any other state.

In the spirit of James Madison, the nation’s fourth president and primary author of the Constitution, the organization has two broad goals: (1) to maximize transparency, open government, and accountability from the university Board of Visitors and executive leadership; and (2) to increase tolerance, academic freedom and diversity of expression from and among students, faculty, staff and university leadership. Continue reading

Freitas Introduces Higher-Ed Transparency Bill

Delegate Nick Freitas

by James A. Bacon

Delegate Nicholas J. Freitas, R-Culpeper, has introduced a bill, HB 1800, that would bring much needed transparency to the governance of Virginia’s public higher-ed institutions. The bill was cited in a list of priority legislation backed by Attorney General Jason Miyares.

The bill contains several elements:

  • Governing boards of public colleges and universities must report the number and salaries of diversity officers and government-relations officers employed by their institutions;
  • Governing boards must report the total value of contracts with outside individuals engaged in lobbying on the institution’s behalf;
  • Boards must record videos of their meetings and post them prominently on their websites on a timely basis;
  • Boards must hold public meetings to solicit public input before approving the renewal of a university’s chief executive officer;
  • Boards must post an annual report on university-affiliated foundations that detail expenditures on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, lobbying, and CEO compensation.

One can only surmise what incidents gave rise to the Freitas bill. However, some informed speculation is in order.

With no public input the University of Virginia Board of Visitors approved an extension of UVa President Jim Ryan’s contract years before it was due to expire. The Freitas bill would have required a public hearing. Continue reading

RVA 5X5: Enrichmond and the City’s Radio Silence

Photo credit: Flickr

by Jon Baliles

I won’t do a “Top Stories of 2022” list for this newsletter, but if I did, one of them would surely be the collapse of the Enrichmond Foundation and the radio silence on all fronts concerning its finances, the groups that depended on it, their assets, and the two historic Black cemeteries in its portfolio — Evergreen and East End Cemetery.

The important question is not so much what happened in 2022 (although that is important); the critical next steps — should anyone decide to take them — are what will happen in 2023?

A brief recap from the October 14 newsletter: “The Enrichmond Foundation was founded in the early 1990s and had grown to support more than 80 small, local, all-volunteer groups that worked to help Richmond in various ways, many of which focused on keeping the City green and clean. Enrichmond allowed the groups to use their insurance coverage and raise tax-free donations, served as a fiduciary for the funds each group raised, and distributed those funds as directed by the groups.

Suddenly in June, the Foundation announced a cessation of operations, leaving no transition plan. The Board voted to dissolve the Foundation but left no accounting of the funds it had in its accounts, and then within weeks the lawyer representing the Board stepped away from his role as counsel.

None of the “leaders” at City Hall has said anything about this. Not. A. Word.

The City’s Parks & Recreation Department has been able to assist some of the organizations, but there are so many they can’t do it all themselves. That’s why the Foundation existed. It is known that the amount of money held in trust for the various “Friends Of” groups is anywhere from $300,000 to $3 million, though I have been told recently that it is closer to the lower estimate.

While the City dawdles, how are these small “Friends Of” groups to do the important work they do (much of it is environmental) if they can’t access their donations? How can they raise money if they have no place to put it? The more this drags out, it is a safe bet those groups will lose volunteers, who will put their time toward other causes. Continue reading

That Transparency Will Cost You

Robert Barnett, President, Virginia NAACP.   Photo credit: Richmond Free Press

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Attorney General Jason Miyares promised “to increase transparency” in regard to elections. In fact, this was one of the motivations behind the creation of the Election Integrity Unit. However, it seems that this transparency comes with a price.

As reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Virginia NAACP filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records related to the establishment of the Election Integrity Unit, its expenditures and activities, and for records of documented cases of election fraud in Virginia. The AG’s office responded that the cost of providing the records requested would be $20,000.

The FOIA statutes authorize an agency to “make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred” a condition of providing the material requested. I do not know what material the NAACP requested nor the basis upon which the AG’s office calculated the cost, but $20,000 seems pretty high. It has been my personal experience that agencies pad these estimates as a way of discouraging requests. The NAACP could have challenged the reasonableness of the cost in court, but that would have taken time. Therefore, the organization paid. Continue reading

Just Report It… Unless You’re a Conservative Parent

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Post is still fulminating about the Youngkin administration’s “toxic” school tip line. By inviting parents to send “reports and observations” on divisive material taught in schools, writes the editorial board today, the administration could intimidate teachers and send “the message they should tread carefully, particularly on instruction involving race, or avoid such topics altogether.”

Hmmm. I wonder where the Youngkinites got the idea for a tip line?

Maybe everywhere they turn.

Mechanisms for reporting bias, discrimination and harassment are ubiquitous in Virginia education. I’ll throw out examples from the first two institutions I checked.

First, the Fairfax County Public Schools: The FCPS human resources department website instructs people on how to file “a complaint of discrimination.”

To file a complaint of discrimination, you may contact the Office of Equity and Employee Relations (EER) directly at 571-423-3070, email us at EEO@fcps.educomplete a complaint form, or put your concerns in writing. A complaint should be filed immediately following the event giving rise to the complaint but no later than one year after. Once completed, the form or letter should be forwarded to: Office of Equity and Employee Relations.

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Can’t Buy Me Dirt

by Joe Fitzgerald

For a while, you couldn’t get dirt in Harrisonburg.

The developer who was helping bankroll city council candidates in 2000 told us about the dirt shortage. The city was buying up all the topsoil in town and using every city dump truck to put it somewhere near the then-proposed golf course.

Opponents of the golf course filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking how much had been spent on the project. The dirt was not included in the costs. I remember referring to the quarter-million dollars worth of dirt although I think it may have been only $240,000. But that didn’t include the cost of the trucks to load it and move it and pile it and stack it – whatever you do with dirt.

Three golf course opponents, including me, won the May city council election. We were scrounging for ways to stop the project before we took office and the lame duck council was justifying the bond commitment they were about to vote for. One of their arguments was how much had already been spent. When they listed the amounts they included the cost of the dirt. Continue reading

New Fed Policy Would Hide CMS Data on Patient Safety Records of Hospitals

by James C. Sherlock

One of the most disturbing commentaries I have read in a long time relating to federal efforts to improve hospital patient safety reports a major step backwards in that program.

I have written here many times of the power of the hospitals over Virginia’s politics. A proposed new federal rule shows that power at the federal level. It would negatively affect your ability to understand and compare the patient safety records of hospitals.

The Biden administration Centers for Medicare/Medicaid Services (CMS) proposes to hide from the public a CMS rating that helps consumers view relative patient safety grades of hospitals. As important to the hospitals, perhaps, no one would be able to report on that information.

It also proposes to waive $350 million in fines for hospitals that violated existing regulations.

CMS for the Secretary of Health and Human Services is, with this rule, exercising the extraordinary powers the Secretary gives himself by constantly extending the Declaration of Public Emergency for COVID.  And yes, that is legal.

Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association (VHHA) submitted a 17-page letter of comment. It of course supported the waiver of fines.  On the issue of suppressing patient safety data, the VHHA wrote, unsurprisingly:

“VHHA and its members are supportive of the proposed suppression (of data) in the HVBP program.”

The letter also encouraged CMS to also suppress pneumonia mortality measure because of the potential overlap with COVID- related pneumonia.

The only way that could happen since CMS is already suppressing data with a primary or secondary COVID diagnosis is if there was no reported COVID indication in pneumonia cases.

The proposal itself represents a major scandal.  A total of 1,533 comments, now closed, were submitted on the proposed rule.

They comments from doctors and patient safety groups were unsupportive.  Hospitals were very supportive.  The Virginia Department of Health sent a short letter on the larger rule, but did not comment on data suppression.

The result: political healthcare rules courtesy of the Biden administration and the hospital lobby.

The following article is reprinted by permission of Kaiser Health News. Continue reading