ACLU Says Virginia Beach Cannot Hide Public Papers with So-called Private Foundation

The ACLU of Virginia today filed a friend of the court brief today with the Virginia Supreme Court supporting People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ attempt to access documents held by a subsidiary of the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach. A lower court previously allowed the City of Virginia Beach to refuse access to the documents.
PETA, which opposes the proposed expansion of the Museum because of the manner in which it treats sea mammals and fish, used the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to gain access to documents concerning plans for the Museum’s new construction and programs. The Museum, which is owned and operated by the City of Virginia Beach, refused to relinquish some documents, saying that they were held by the Virginia Marine Science Museum Foundation, a private entity, that is not subject to the FOIA.
The ACLU and PETA contend that the Foundation ought to produce the requested documents because it is private in name only, as it operates out of the City-owned Virginia Marine Science facilities and does not pay any rent to the City. In addition, the Foundation has no staff of its own, meaning most of its work is done by City employees on City time. Foundation and City files are not only mixed in the same file cabinets, but within the same drawers.
“The City of Virginia Beach can call the Virginia Marine Science Museum Foundation whatever it wants,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “We’re not questioning that. But if it looks and acts just like an organ of the government, it is one. And that means it must comply with the FOIA.”
“The City is not only violating the spirit of the Virginia FOIA, but we believe it violating the letter as well,” added Willis.
“If the Virginia Supreme Court allows Virginia Beach to hide these publicly created and maintained documents in a dummy private entity, then every other government agency can do the same with any documents they don’t want released to the public. The FOIA will then be meaningless.”
Case: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals v. City of Virginia Beach. Counsel on ACLU amicus brief, ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca K. Glenberg and University of Virginia Law Student Grant D. Penrod.

Contacts: Kent Willis or Rebecca Glenberg, 804-644-8022