Unsolicited Guru

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Sweet Briar, Transparency

Virginia’s A.G. is Lacking in Transparency…and Logic

If you thought the story about the $19,500 FOIA request was good – hold on to your hat.  It seems the disease of lack of transparency that has afflicted Sweet Briar’s board of directors is contagious, and they have infected the Virginia Attorney General’s office.

Someone sent a letter to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring requesting “all written documents, including without limitation, emails and attachments thereto, spreadsheets, letters, facsimiles, legal opinions, and research pertaining to or including a mention of Sweet Briar Institute, Inc. or Sweet Briar College, sent or received by you or any deputy, clerk, or other employee of the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, between the dates of January 1, 2014 and April 27, 2015, to or from any of the following individuals or persons acting on their behalf: [List of 7 people and their titles]”

Now I may be from Arkansas, but that seems pretty straightforward, right?  It’s just like playing the card game Go Fish!  “Gimme all your Sweet Briar stuff.”

Assuming you are a person capable of logical thought processes, how would you go about fulfilling that request?  I would go for the obvious and send an email to all employees asking for anyone to respond if they had contact with anything related to Sweet Briar.  But, I ain’t from around those parts, and things seem to work a little different in the hills of Virginia.

Let’s say for example you work Correctional Litigation Section of the Virginia Attorney General.  On your way to work, you stepped on a garden rake and it dented your cranium, so you really can’t remember if someone had emailed you in your official capacity about the closing of Sweet Briar College, as it relates to your work with the Department of Corrections.[footnote]Stop!  I saw you thinking that! They only deal with current inmates, not potential future inmates![/footnote]  I mean, if your job is anywhere in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Division, Transportation, Real Estate and Construction Division,[footnote]Stop.  No…really. Stop going there.[/footnote] or the Technology and Procurement Section[footnote]OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to remove the tinfoil hat and step AWAY from the computer![/footnote] it seems pretty obvious that you would have nothing in your possession remotely related to the request.  But hey, just to err on the side of caution, you better search your inbox for each of the names.

Knowing that I did not have any emails from those people, I searched my own inbox, which is huge because I keep everything forever.  Seriously – my mailbox is like 11GB.  The search took me 7 seconds for each name, so 49 seconds total.  Let’s assume the people in the AG’s office are two finger typists, and it takes them a little over twice as long – 15 seconds – that would be  1 minute and 45 seconds to search all 7 names in their mail program.

Wait, wait, wait…I know what you are saying.  This is all just wild ass crazy technical talk, right?  Y’all better try it yourselves.  Search Paul Rice, or Jimmy Jones in your email and see how long it takes you to get the results. I’ll tell you what – I realize this is really difficult for some people, so let me allocate a little extra time for y’all, m’kay?  What do you think you might need? Maybe 45 minutes or so?  Oh yeah, that’ll do it!

Yes friends, the Commonwealth of Virginia allocated 45 minutes for each and every one of the 418 employees of the Attorney General’s office to search their email and records for seven (7) names.  And yes, the FOIA request did include letters and memos, etc., but do you really expect me to believe that the AG’s office only uses a paper system to keep track case files and other work products?  Well…it is a state agency, so they may still be using 1970’s office management system.[footnote]Also known as file cabinets.[/footnote]

I saw the Washington Post article citing how someone was told they would have to pay $19,501.50 to have their FOIA request fulfilled.  As it turns out, that response was sent out the day after they sent the response for the request I’m referencing. Seriously though – $19,501.50?  Let me tell you folks, that is CHILD’S PLAY.  This one has that beat by a mile! The AG only wants $40,316.07 to satisfy this request.   If you think I’m just trying to one up the other person, you can click here to see the response from the AG.  Transparency does not come cheap in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I have a friend who knows a thing or two about FOIA, specifically about Arkansas FOIA.  He is an attorney named Matt Campbell.  He runs The Blue Hog Report, and he is the best “vile liberal blogger”[footnote]a title he wears as a badge of honor[/footnote] I know.  Among many other things, he has used Arkansas FOIA laws to force the Arkansas Secretary of State to stop using taxpayer funds for outside attorneys, and he found improper expense reimbursements by the Arkansas Lt. Governor which ultimately led to his resignation. In short, he’s a FOIA badass. So of course, I had to send him the letter to get his reaction:

These are all state employees. Unless they are going to pretend like state employees in VA work every minute of every work day and don’t waste any time on non-work stuff, how are their salaries costs incurred as part of fulfilling the request? Hell, responding to duties required by state law is PART of their job by definition. This is not extra cost incurred by them in any form.

Hell of a good point he has there.

But here was the really interesting part about the AG’s response – The request in question was sent via email to FOIA@oag.state.va.us on April 27.  They have 5 business days to respond to a FOIA request, but their letter is dated May 19, 2015 – 16 business days (22 calendar days) after the original request was sent. Someone either broke the Internet or their office is not very diligent with checking the FOIA email account, as this is at the top of the last page of the letter:

As a practical matter, while the date on your email transmission reads April 27, 2015 at 1 :22 a.m., please be advised this Office became aware of your request today and prioritized this response.

I’m not sure how that is practical.[footnote]Unless they mean they practically couldn’t care less about following the law[/footnote]  I guess the lesson here is to fax FOIA requests.

So Attorney General Herring, shall we play a game?

How about Asymmetrical FOIA Warfare?[footnote]Also known as death by 1,000 FOIA pinpricks[/footnote]

Since the full frontal FOIA assault was too vague, involved, and complicated, the Rebel Alliance of the Pink and Green Nation will break it down and make it easy for you.  FOIA requests will only ask for emails between one or two individuals…at a time.

Better make sure you have plenty of paper in your fax machine.



  1. In the period 1995-1999 one could itatiine a FOIA request by letter that specifically identified it as such. Also required is a detailed description of the information requested. One must balance having it broad enough yet specific. Since the guvment can charge you for fulfilling your request, it was also advisable to specify a not to exceed charge or ask for an estimate of the cost.I have not done one in ten plus years; procedures, rules, and even the law may have changed. YMMV.

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