The sun will come up today. It will come up tomorrow, too.
That much is guaranteed by physics. Whether the sun shines through to us on the ground depends on how much cloud cover there is, but rest assured the sun is still shining somewhere.
Sunshine in government is not always so guaranteed, however. Human nature inclines toward secrecy and easy solutions, and often it’s simply easier for governments to keep things secret than to make them public.
This week marks Sunshine Week, the annual week that calls attention to the open records laws that require local, state and federal governments to do their business in public and make certain records open to the public. The name comes from the famous quote by Louis Brandeis, a Supreme Court justice from 1916 to 1939: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The vehicle through which those meetings and records are made open to the public is the Freedom of Information Act. This isn’t just a law that applies to journalists, although we are often the ones who are putting it to use on our readers’ behalf. This is a law that every citizen is entitled to use when they seek information from their government.
Nevertheless, we as journalists frequently put the law to use. Over the past year, we’ve used it to expose how $200,000 meant to help unemployed workers in Southwest Virginia went unspent for years and then was misspent. We’ve used it to show how it’s difficult to find out what happens to complaints involving certain regulated professions in the state — and how the level of information is wildly inconsistent from one regulatory board to another. And we’ve used it to report to taxpayers just how the University of Virginia was able to lure away some of Virginia Tech’s top researchers. Do you care about how your tax dollars are spent? Do you care about whether state regulations are consistently applied? Then you care about the Freedom of Information Act. Here are some of the details:
• Unemployed workers don’t get the help they were promised but some staffers got a massage instead: Roanoke Times reporter Jacob Demmitt found through an open records request that $200,000 meant to help unemployed workers sat untouched for years in a bank account belonging to a governmental nonprofit jobs agency. When Southwest Virginia Workforce Development Board officials finally discovered the money, they decided to spend some of it — on a board staff retreat that included massages.
That later triggered a state police investigation that netted no charges, a fact that still puzzles the local prosecutor. The probe ended roughly a month after it began.
“I believe as an elected official and public servant I have a duty to safeguard the tax payers’ money and spend it conservatively and wisely,” Russell County Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Patton wrote in an email to state legislators. “In my opinion, this was not done by the other public servants involved in your complaint and I regret that there is not a method my office can use to recover the funds and deter future misuse of public funds.”
Other bank records Demmitt requested under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act could not be found. Many of those records were destroyed in a flood, according to an accountant hired to oversee the money. As Demmitt explained in his April 14 story: That leaves hundreds of thousands of apparent taxpayer dollars without any oversight for at least five years, and only a spattering of records to show what happened during that time.”
• Some information how the state regulates certain professions is readily available online, but other information takes weeks to find: Last spring, Luanne Rife led our staff reporting under the state Freedom of Information Act that showed wide variations in the level of transparency among the state agencies that license more than 1 million tradespeople, professionals and businesses. As Rife pointed out, “the exact number is difficult to tally because dozens of separate agencies and boards are charged with oversight.”
Not only is the bureaucratic web governing Virginia exceedingly complex, it is extraordinarily inconsistent in the way it deals with requests for the records taxpayer dollars fund.
For example, while the Virginia Motor Vehicle Dealer Board investigates thousands of complaints a year, tracking down record of that work can be a frustrating experience. It could take weeks to get a response from the agency to a request for records for a specific dealer.
On the other hand, someone could go online at the Virginia Department of Health Professions website and check a cardiologist’s board certification in that specialty, search for malpractice claims or disciplinary action, find whether he or she is on a medical or learn where the doctor attended medical school or was trained.
As Rife explained: “Such is the variation in the availability of public information.”
• How did UVA lure away Tech researchers? It was a banner year for Virginia Tech, thanks in no small part to its deal to build a campus near Amazon’s second headquarters site in Northern Virginia. But there were lowlights for Tech, too.
Among them was the departure of former researcher Chris Barrett for the University of Virginia. When he left, he wound up taking at least seven former faculty colleagues with him. Tech reporter Robby Korth filed a Freedom of Information request at UVa that landed a wealth of information about the move. Barrett picked up a 15 percent raise to boost his salary to $450,000 at UVa, switching jobs from executive director at Tech’s Biocomplexity Institute to executive director of UVa’s Bicomplexity Initiative. Korth learned through open records that UVa also offered $30 million in startup money and backing to create endowed divisional director positions as well as staffing for the statewide initiative.
The impact on Tech, Korth explained, wasn’t just about loss of staff. “When faculty members leave universities, they often take large chunks of grant funding with them.”
Brandeis said something else that’s just as important as his sunlight as a disinfectant quote. He said that “the most important political office is that of the private citizen.” That means the Freedom of Information Act belongs to you, too. So does every government record that it makes available.