Legislation That Establishes FOIA Penalties Continues to Move Through the Capitol

Feb 20, 2019

Do local governments hide public information? One senator is concerned about the possibility they do, and he’s moving forward with a bill to create new penalties to prevent it.

Local governments often train employees on laws regarding the Freedom of Information Act — which documents are subject to public disclosure and when emails should be handed over to people making records requests.

It was in one of these training sessions that Ben Tribbett says he was surprised to hear from the Fairfax County attorney’s office that deleted emails were not subject to FOIA.

“The very clear inference was the best way to deal with FOIA was not to catalog what you had but it was just to delete as many things as possible.”

Senator Scott Surovell, a Democrat from Fairfax, was not happy to hear about that

“Well I thought it was kind of disturbing. So I started making inquiries into what retention policies were, and the Library of Virginia puts out retention policies for the state. But there’s absolutely no consequences for anybody who violates them.”

Surovell’s bill to create penalties for failing to retain public records has now passed the House and Senate, although in slightly different forms. That means lawmakers are headed into a closed-door conference committee where they’ll craft a compromise in secret.

In a written statement responding to a request for comment, a spokesman for Fairfax County says the county government is a strong advocate for transparency and responds to all FOIA requests.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.