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Watchdogs: D.C. Area Governments Need Work On Transparency

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D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray's recent attempts to restrict FOIA requests didn't go over too well with government watchdogs. 
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D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray's recent attempts to restrict FOIA requests didn't go over too well with government watchdogs. 

If "sunlight is the best of disinfectants," as former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, local lawmakers may need a refresher on the importance of government transparency. The State Integrity Investigation, looking at the risk of corruption in each state, this year gave failing grades to both Maryland and Virginia when it came to the public's access to information.

Maryland ranked 46th out of 50 states and Virginia ranked 49th. While the District was not included in the survey, the mayor's administration faced sharp criticism this summer when it proposed weakening D.C.'s public records laws and broadening the range of documents that may be exempt from disclosure.

Last month, the president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, Thomas Susman, testified before the D.C. Council about the mayor's proposed changes. Susman said the changes would amount to a step backward, especially given the recent string of scandals at city hall.

"As more and more questions come up concerning possibilities of corruption touching various areas of the District, we would want to turn up the lights and pull back the curtains rather than vice-versa," Susman said. 

D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan say the changes are needed to give government officials more flexibility and to curb "burdensome record requests."

The state integrity report found that Virginia's Freedom of Information Act or FOIA does not apply to the state corporation commission, which regulates utilities, businesses, banks and other institutions. Also exempt from FOIA requests: many law enforcement agencies, as WAMU has extensively chronicled in Northern Virginia.

The report also criticizes Maryland for poor transparency, noting that there is no independent monitor to make sure FOIA laws are being properly followed.

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