Mar 5, 2024 - News

Fired employee sues Richmond, alleging city shirked transparency laws

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Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Richmond's former FOIA Officer has filed a $250,000 lawsuit against the city alleging she was fired in retaliation for refusing to violate state law.

Why it matters: The suit alleges that city officials attempted to withhold information that should be public by delaying or ignoring requests, and sometimes quoting exorbitant fees to deter the requester.

  • It was part of an effort to keep public information secret and in violation of state law, per the lawsuit.

State of play: Connie Clay, an attorney, was fired from her post as the city's Freedom of Information Act officer and public information manager on Jan. 19 after six months in the role, the Times-Dispatch reports.

Zoom in: Among the allegations in the complaint, Clay said when she began the job she was instructed to delay response on all FOIA requests until the fifth day and then invoke the seven-day extension, regardless whether more time was needed to respond.

  • She said she found multiple requests were months overdue, including one for the city's casino proposals, that she was instructed not to respond to despite her finding no legal grounds to withhold the documents.
  • Clay outlined two instances in her brief term in which the city was sued over its failure to respond to FOIAs in a timely manner and only responded once a lawsuit was filed.
  • In another, a former city employee was quoted $3,000 to fulfill a records request relating to Confederate memorial, an amount Clay alleged was meant to avoid complying with the requests.
  • Clay alleged she was instructed to delete relevant and public information from records before turning them over to a reporter.
  • Plus, she cited one occurrence of FOIA-related records being deleted from her email and instances of the city's FOIA email address simply not working.

Context: The Virginia Freedom of Information Act protects the public's right to access many government records. Journalists, interest groups and others frequently use it to hold officials accountable for taxpayers' dollars.

  • Public bodies have to comply with those requests within five business days or, if that's not possible, ask for a seven-day extension. The government can charge a "reasonable cost" to cover its cost to comply.

What they're saying: "The city believes the claims are baseless and intends to defend the lawsuit in court," Richmond City Attorney Laura Drewry said in a statement.

Separately, two days before the lawsuit was filed, a series of internal emails obtained by WTVR reporter Tyler Lane outlined Clay's repeated attempts to respond to FOIA requests while facing pushback from Burks and other city department heads.

The emails, which Lane obtained in response to a FOIA request (seven days past the legal deadline with the extension), include a request for emails from the finance department related to the city's meals tax debacle.

  • Clay emailed her boss that she could easily pull the files, redact private information and respond within three days. Burks directed her to request a 14-day extension, then advised her to stand down and said only the finance department could fill the request, WTVR reported.
  • Clay pushed back. Two days later, she was fired.
  • WTVR is still waiting for a response to the FOIA.

The latest: The city is now overhauling its FOIA department, according to an email from chief administrative officer Lincoln Saunders to the City Council sent Saturday.

  • The changes come as part of the city's ongoing effort to centralize its FOIA process "to take the burden off individual departments whose primary focus is not FOIA," per the email.
  • It comes as the city is seeing a significant increase in FOIA requests — around 80 a week.
  • Matthew Welch, a former FOIA adviser for the City Council, is now the city's interim FOIA officer.
  • The city is in the process of creating updated standards for its FOIA response and is considering hiring an outside legal firm to help with future requests.
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