|NMU||VIRGINIA||Freedom of Information|
Town council rejects denial of credit card records
- A Virginia town council voted unanimously to release a former employee’s government-issued credit card records, against the wishes of a state prosecutor.
Oct. 2, 2003 — Despite the concerns of Virginia commonwealth attorney Robert Anderson, the Leesburg Town Council voted unanimously yesterday to make copies of town-issued credit card bills available to the public.
Anderson had ordered town officials not to release any information relating to the alleged embezzlement of taxpayer money by Michael Aguija, the former Information Technology Director for Leesburg. Aguija, who supervised a staff of four and was one of the highest-paid town employees, was arrested Monday for charging as much as $25,000 on a town credit card for escort services.
Anderson argued that releasing the credit card records might jeopardize his investigation. “My concern is FOIA requests being used to circumvent the discovery process,” Anderson said.
The town council said it will allow Anderson time to file an emergency injunction against its order.
Aguija, who was hired in 1999, was earning $92,000 when he resigned Sept. 15 after learning that a FOI Act request had been made for his credit card records. The town initially approved the FOI Act request, made by Dan Telvock of Leesburg Today, but later rescinded the decision before Telvock could see the documents.
Anderson immediately demanded that the town not release any of the information, and used what town attorney William Donnelly called “strong-arm tactics” to impose his will.
“Anderson threatened to prosecute me for obstruction of justice and haul me before the grand jury unless I ‘refuse to respond to any and all pending requests for information concerning town purchase cards,'” Donnelly wrote to Mayor Kristen Umstattd and the town council in a Sept. 27 e-mail obtained by the Loudoun Times-Mirror. “He was well aware of my legal position that obeying such a sweeping edict would place the town in jeopardy of violating the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.”
Under Virginia law, prosecutors are allowed to withhold public records that relate to any case under active investigation. However, according to open-record advocates, it’s a law fraught with loopholes.
“Virginia’s law enforcement records law is one of the weakest in the country, because a prosecutor could abuse [the requirement for disclosing records] by just dragging on an investigation,” said Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “In a case like this, I think it’s just absurd because the records are there, and they ought to be there for all to see, and releasing them won’t affect the investigation one bit.”
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press