A Look at Virginia’s ‘Working Papers’ Exemption

A great idea for Sunshine Week is to inform citizens about the damage wrought by amorphous, overbroad exemptions like this:

Officials at a conservative fiscal advocacy group thought they had struck political gold when an email surfaced recently from a union official threatening to withhold support from Democrats in the fall elections over an anti-labor vote.

So the organization, Americans for Prosperity, made open-records requests to Democratic lawmakers and the clerks of the state House and Senate to see who had received that message or others from union reps.

Some lawmakers simply didn’t respond.

Others declined to share their email, invoking a provision in Virginia law that gives elected officials discretion over whether they turn over such records.

The so-called “working papers exemption” is part of the state Freedom of Information Act, which is intended to ensure citizens’ access to government records and meetings. Working papers are defined as records prepared by or for a public official for personal or deliberative use.

The exemption is written with enough latitude to permit state officials, from the governor to General Assembly members, to reject requests for certain documents and correspondence from the public.