This week, a number of stories that show how critical transparency is. One involves public safety issues, the other involves jail time. Plus, how public records request filed by public officials might help unwind a mysterious email campaign in Virginia.
Herpes researcher conducted unauthorized tests
The State Journal-Register’s Dean Olsen received a copy of report from the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s institutional review board that had some chilling conclusions: The report found a scientist “conducted unethical and potentially illegal testing of his experimental genital herpes vaccine on patients.”
Over a third of the report was blacked out pending law enforcement action, but the details included were still shocking. What’s perhaps equally shocking is all the old quotations Olsen dug up, praising the scientist for being “meticulous” and expressing confidence that all procedures were being followed.
FOIA suit pits county versus federal government over mysterious housing complaints
The emails flooded in to Henrico County officials: “Don’t relocate Essex Village residents!”
That alone would not have been too suspicious regarding a major housing project, except that all the emails were the exact same, as Michael O’Connor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. And all the emails seem to have originated from an anonymously run website that had some links to conservative causes around the country. But since the apartment complex, which recently was recently sold to an out-of-state group, is federally subsidized, the county turned to Housing and Urban Development for answers. HUD came back and told the county to file a Freedom of Information Act request, so they did:
Since Valery has not handed over the documents Henrico wants to see, the county requested them from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Freedom of Information Act. At a meeting at the county administration building in October, federal housing officials told Henrico that the agency would suggest to Valery that he provide the documents to Henrico since in theory they could be acquired through a public records request. The county was also advised to submit the FOIA request, which it did Nov. 1. Federal agencies have 20 business days to comply with open records requests but can extend that time if the demand is particularly voluminous or there is a backlog. HUD told the county Nov. 16 that it would have to check with the purchaser of Essex to see if it can give Henrico the documents it wants.
It’s a fascinating, weird story, and a good reminder that often the people trying to pry information out of the government are employees at another government agency. Read the full story here.
Officials face up to year in jail for allegedly dodging public records requests
Very rarely do we hear of public officials personally facing criminal penalties for not following records laws, but here’s an exception from Florida: Two former public officials face up to a year in jail each for denying access to documents.
In a move that should send a chill down the spines of thousands of elected officials in Florida, former Martin County Commissioner Anne Scott, a retired judge originally from Chicago, and current Commissioner Ed Fielding were booked Tuesday night into the county jail after being indicted in a public records scandal that already cost taxpayers upward of $25 million. Scott, 69, who lives in Hobe Sound and lost her seat after one term in November, and Fielding, 73, were charged with two counts each of failure to permit inspection and copying of public records.
It sounds like the allegations are tied up with a lot of other corruption investigations, but potentially sentencing officials to jail time sends a serious message - and might be part of why Florida’s transparency laws are regularly considered among the strongest.