Seeking the Truth: Why We're Taking Augusta County to Court
Written by: Michael Phillips
AUGUSTA COUNTY, VIRGINIA - Today, we at Breaking Through News took legal action to uphold the principles of transparency and enforce the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Our pursuit of accountability and truth has always been at the forefront of our mission. This action, filed in the Circuit Court for Augusta County, is a reflection of that commitment.
According to court records, our lawsuit focuses on the alleged failure of Augusta County and its Board of Supervisors member, Dr. Scott Seaton, to provide public records in response to our FOIA requests. We believe that these records, which pertain to meetings labeled as "executive sessions," have been improperly or even fraudulently labeled to hide information from the public. This information is not only of public interest but is also legally required to be disclosed.
Our Editor, Samuel Joseph Orlando, initiated a FOIA request on August 7, 2023, seeking notes and recordings of the aforementioned executive session (Court Record Exhibit A). After not receiving a response, we followed up on August 24, 2023, pointing out the lack of acknowledgment and reminding Augusta County of its legal obligations under FOIA (Court Record Exhibit B).
The subsequent responses we received from Augusta County officials, as documented in court records, were puzzling and concerning. We did not receive any of the records we requested.
Of particular concern is Augusta County's decision to assert various exemptions to justify withholding the recordings. These exemptions seem to be applied without clear merit, potentially undermining the intent and express mandates of the FOIA.
Additionally, court records indicate that the Augusta County Board of Supervisors may have improperly conducted discussions about the resignation of a board member in an executive session, rather than in a public meeting as required by law.
Supervisor Scott Seaton, in a letter to the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigations, wrote: “I am concerned that if I turn these recordings over to the board without a court order, I could be obstructing potential criminal investigation. I don’t think they are concerned only about bad jokes”. Seaton’s letter seems to refer to an ongoing scandal about the charging of illegal fees by the County’s animal shelter, another topic that appears to have been designated as “executive session” exempt material, illegally and in order to avoid public scrutiny, according to the complaint.
We believe that our community has the right to know about the actions and decisions of its elected officials and government entities. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act exists to ensure this transparency. By taking this legal action, we are advocating for the rights of all Virginians and striving to keep our local government accountable.
Our suit seeks several remedies, including a court order to release the recordings in question and an injunction preventing further violations of the FOIA by Augusta County.
Augusta County is a beautiful part of our amazing country, and the good people of Augusta County deserve transparency in their government. They do not deserve leaders who hide records and use their positions to enrich themselves. These are the reasons Breaking Through filed suit.
At Breaking Through News, our commitment to journalism and our community remains unwavering. We will keep you updated on this lawsuit and continue to shine a light on the important issues that affect our region.
Thank you for your trust and support as we navigate this important legal challenge. Together, we can ensure that the principles of transparency and accountability remain intact.