VA’s new disclosure system slams into FOIA access

8/13/2013, 1:04 p.m.
ALEXANDRIA — Virginia’s Conflict of Interest office may be the poster child for Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every ...

ALEXANDRIA — Virginia’s Conflict of Interest office may be the poster child for Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The office, which maintains the economic statements and gift disclosures of nearly 25,000 state officers and employees, has been inundated with requests from the media for documents regarding Gov. Bob McDonnell and others in the wake of the Star Scientific scandal.

The system, initiated by the McDonnell administration and the Secretary of the Commonwealth that allows the state’s nearly 25,000 officers and employees to file financial interest reports electronically, went online in January. It replaced paper forms with secure web-based files. While storing the data is easier, delivering it to the public is a challenge.

“This definitely highlights an issue that was an unintended consequence of the significant changes that have occurred to this process in the last 12 months,” said Patrick Mayfield, director of the Office of Conflict of Interest.

The problem came to light when The Daily Progress, the Charlottesville-based daily newspaper, requested the disclosures of Alcohol Beverage Control employees for a series of stories it was doing on the agency.

“Of course the documents are always free and open to the public to view in our office,” Mayfield said. “They wanted copies to take back and complete their analysis. We had to provide them with a rough estimate of what (the cost) would be.”

That “rough estimate” for the disclosure forms for the ABC’s 525 employees was $1,200, he said.

“You’re looking at us making copies of anywhere from 1,500 to 4,500 pages,” he said. “Our agency is a fairly small state agency. We have to be able recoup that cost somehow in terms of providing the public that service.”

When the newspaper asked for electronic access to the documents, Mayfield said his office couldn’t do that because the database also contains confidential data and other non-public information.

“At face value, I do somewhat agree with The Daily Progress,” Mayfield said. “We should have a way for individuals to browse through those records, now that they are being stored electronically, in an electronic format as you would come into a public library and browse through a book on a shelf.”

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government , said the public’s right to know and the state’s Freedom of Information Act should have been considered during the two years it took to implement the electronic system.

“I think it’s totally imperative that when new systems are put in place that those types of (unintended) consequences be considered,” she said. “If you are mixing a lot of exempt and non-exempt material, you have to have a way to easily segregate them.”

Mayfield said individual disclosures can be processed relatively quickly, but the agencywide request, which he called “unprecedented”, would be costly, even though it’s all stored on state-owned computers.

“We’ve never really had the capacity before now to look at an entire agency’s data in an electronic system,” he said. “Before, the documents were stored in file folders and the information was not, as you can imagine, minable or searchable, even from our perspective.”

Rhyne said the new system puts up significant hurdles for Virginians to get information they are legally entitled to access.

“If it took them two years to get to a system that the public can’t use,” Rhyne said. “By the time they get it to where the public can use it, that’s going to be three or four years they’ve spent developing a system that may be of limited use of anyone but the people working in the office.”

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