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Youngkin administration blocks release of public record requests

neoclassical building
Virginia's Executive Mansion. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office has refused to hand over submissions to the “tipline” he created for parents to submit feedback on state schools. Now his administration is also blocking inquiries into who made public records requests, how they were handled and how many the governor’s office received. At least one state agency and one state-funded college have also shielded the release of records on the governor’s behalf.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, says the administration and other state officials appear to be misinterpreting the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

“They're giving it a reading that says pretty much the governor is exempt from FOIA,” Rhyne says. “And that is definitely not how the law has been written or has been interpreted over the years.”

VPM requested a so-called FOIA log showing all of the requests the governor received from Jan. 15, 2022-Feb. 3, 2022 in addition to “any correspondence related to the fulfilling of FOIA requests seeking submissions sent to [email protected]” – the email address touted by Youngkin shortly after his election. FOIA logs typically show who made a request, what the requester was looking for and how it was handled by staff.

In response, Densie Burch – a Youngkin official who also served under former Gov. Ralph Northam – denied the request, citing the same “working paper exemption” the administration used in its prior rejections of tipline submissions. The administration also declined to disclose “the volume and subject matter of withheld records” as is required by state code.

“The documents in question are on a sizeable gmail account which changes daily together with a single page draft log,” Burch wrote.

In an email, Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter contended that Burch’s response satisfied state law and did not respond to further questions.

FOIA officers at the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Military Institute have also cited the governor’s working paper exemption in response to requests by VPM, a move Ryhne also questioned given the tight parameters on who is covered under the law.

Rhyne said the working paper exemption only applies to certain officials specified in state code – including Cabinet officials but not the administration’s FOIA officer – and was intended to give the governor the ability to “collect as many voices and ideas as possible” in the leadup to making a decision. But she said public records requesters clearly weren’t part of a deliberative process, but rather seeking insight into it. For Rhyne, it begged the question of why the exemption existed at all: “Why not just exempt the governor in total? Because that’s the reading they're giving it.”

During his transition, Youngkin asked people aiding the process to sign non-disclosure agreements, according to the Associated Press.

Youngkin’s predecessors also faced questions of transparency in their application of FOIA laws. Former Gov. Ralph Northam’s office refused to hand over his calendar amid a controversy related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The administration also heavily redacted a contract with McKinsey early in the pandemic. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe sought to block the release of an ABC report related to the violent arrest of a University of Virginia student in 2015 before eventually relenting.

In the case of former Gov. Bob McDonnell, however, open records requests submitted by the Washington Post helped expose a far-reaching corruption scandal.