Youngkin administration denies FOIA request from member of own task force

This article was reprinted with permission from Virginia Mercury

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has called for more transparency as Virginia looks for new ways to handle the growing costs of a program that provides tuition-free college to spouses and children of military veterans killed or disabled as a result of their service.

However, Youngkin’s administration isn’t practicing full transparency itself.

Kayla Owen — a military spouse who’s also a member of the governor’s task force studying the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program — initially submitted a FOIA request to Youngkin’s office for a handful of officials’ internal communications involving the program.

Her initial request didn’t give a time frame, but she later narrowed it to records going back to June 2023. The administration said it wouldn’t release anything.

Youngkin’s office is withholding the documents, enough to fill two binders, under a sweeping Freedom of Information Act exemption for gubernatorial “working papers and correspondence.”

Those records would shed light on the Youngkin officials’ discussions about the program prior to VMSDEP being put on the chopping block. They could also offer clarity on what led the administration to draft a bill that included the same VMSDEP downsizing measures the governor now wants to undo.

“Moving forward, we need all parties on all sides to commit to transparency or there will never be improvements and harm will continue to be done,” said Owen, who lives in the Fredericksburg area. As a leader of the advocacy group Friends of VMSDEP, Owen was appointed to a spot on Youngkin’s task force reviewing VMSDEP and its future.

Youngkin has vowed to protect the program from recent cost-cutting reforms he and the Democratic-led General Assembly approved in May, positioning himself as veteran-friendly and eager to help military families that want to preserve the program.

He has also called for more openness with affected families, who were angered that the VMSDEP changes were enacted through the state budget instead of being proposed as a stand-alone bill subject to more public scrutiny.

For weeks, advocates who have called for restoring VMSDEP to its prior state have been trying to figure out how and why the program’s rapid growth over the past five years became a major budgetary concern.

As part of that effort, Owen filed a FOIA request with the governor’s office last month.

On June 13, she requested VMSDEP-related communications involving Youngkin Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera, former Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services Daniel Gade, the State Council for Higher Education of Virginia (SCHEV) and several other officials who could potentially have been involved in policy discussions about VMSDEP.

After a few weeks of back-and-forth over the timeline and parameters of the request, Youngkin FOIA officer Denise Burch gave Owen a final answer on July 1. The requested records, Burch wrote, were being “entirely withheld.”

Burch did not say exactly how many documents were being withheld, only that the records would fill “two Redwell folders,” an apparent reference to a type of binder used to hold documents.

Virginia law says officials must identify the volume of records they’re withholding with “reasonable particularity.” Officials often give an exact number of pages instead of describing how many receptacles the documents fill.

The law also says FOIA exemptions should be applied narrowly in order to maximize government transparency.

Like past Virginia governors, Youngkin routinely invokes the working papers and correspondence exemption to shield a wide range of activity involving the governor’s office and cabinet secretaries. The exemption is discretionary, meaning officials can choose to use it but are also free to release records that fall under it.

Asked why the governor’s office chose not to release the records, Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez characterized the denial as routine.

“The records requested, like all similar requests of [the] governor’s working papers and correspondence, are exempt under the FOIA statute,” Martinez said. “However, the administration has been having open dialogue with the veteran and first responder communities, including Friends of VMSDEP and all members of the Preserving VMSDEP Task Force.”

The changes to the VMSDEP program, meant to shrink the pool of eligible students and bring in more funding to public colleges and universities, would impose a stricter Virginia residency requirement, prevent the waivers from being used for advanced degrees or a second undergraduate degree and require participants to first pursue other forms of financial aid.

The program currently has around 6,400 participants, according to state data, up nearly 357% from 2019.

That increase, and the program’s estimated financial cost rising to more than $65 million per year, set off alarms among state officials concerned about runaway growth and potentially unsustainable financial impact on colleges and universities.

General Assembly leaders reached a deal this week to reverse the cost-cutting measures and provide $65 million in each of the next two budget years. Youngkin has signaled his support for the proposal, which is expected to be formally approved when the legislature reconvenes on July 18.

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