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NSA warning label would give oversight to VA agency with transparency woes

By   /   January 17, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

By Bre Payton | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

TRANSPARENCY IRONY: Virginia Lawmaker wants phone companies to include an NSA-spying warning label in monthly statements. But the oversight agency that is going to be regulating  the new policy isn't subject to FOIA.

IRONY: Virginia Lawmaker wants phone companies to include an NSA-spying warning label in customer’s monthly statements. But the oversight agency to be regulating the new policy isn’t subject to FOIA.

PURCELLVILLE, Va. — A Virginia lawmaker wants phone companies to notify their customers if they are passing along data to federal agencies like the National Security Agency.

But the oversight agency that would force phone companies to comply with the new disclosure regulation is not a model of transparency itself.

The bill proposed by Del. Bob Marshall would require the State Corporation Commission to make sure phone companies were indeed issuing a statement about their involvement with the NSA.

“It’s a ‘big brother is watching you’ warning label on your phone bill,” Marshall said of HB-13.

The SCC regulates business and sets prices for things like electricity and health insurance in the commonwealth, and it isn’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

That means Virginians who may want to know how effectively the SCC is enforcing the new regulation can’t file a FOIA request to find out.

“In a case like this where a government agency is making decisions about whether companies are complying with state regulations, it seems there is a clear public interest in having access to information about this process,” said Alisha Green, policy associate at the Sunlight Foundation.

Del. Scott Surovell has been trying to get the SCC to be accountable to FOIA for the past two legislative sessions.

After an earlier version of Surovell’s bill to strip the SCC of its FOIA exemption failed last session, an audit revealed the SCC wasn’t complying with its own loose purchasing and contracting guidelines.

Low-level employees were allowed to spend up to $1 million without mid-level approval. That policy has been reduced to $100,000 after the audit was published last year.

“We can’t even know how transparent they have or haven’t been if we don’t have any kind of systematic access to their records,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

“It’s a state agency that is supported by taxpayer dollars. Like other agencies, we feel there should be some reliable way to measure accountability,” Rhyne said.

Marshall said he hasn’t seen the SCC’s exemption from FOIA to be a problem for his bill.

“Not yet, anyways,” he said.

Contact Bre Payton at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter@Bre_payton.

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Bre formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.og.org