October surprise: Lunsford faces lawsuit over FOIA request

Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford contends a pre-election FOIA lawsuit is politically motivated.
Staff photo Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford contends a pre-election FOIA lawsuit is politically motivated. Staff photo

Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford, in a hotly contested race for reelection, faced additional heat October 29 when Richmond attorney Matthew Hardin filed a lawsuit against her for creating a “barrier to transparency” in her response to a Freedom of Information Act request issued earlier this week.

The FOIA request asked for information on Lunsford’s credit card usage, reimbursements she received from the county and correspondence about convicted former supervisor Chris Dumler, overturned abduction-conviction defendant Mark Weiner and Albemarle police officer James Larkin during the period of January 2012 and December 2013.

“We were curious whether she paid for [personal business] trips on personal funds or with taxpayer money. Of course correspondence was requested to see what standards her office was using as regards more controversial cases,” Hardin explains.

Lunsford responded by saying she would need $3,200, as well as five additional weeks to produce the requested documents.

“It’s an incredibly high number and it impedes access to the records,” Hardin says. “It’s more than an average Charlottesville citizen pays for health insurance.”

Hardin acknowledges that Lunsford is allowed to charge a reasonable fee in response to the request, but says that by insisting on reviewing the records herself, Lunsford unnecessarily increased the fee.

“She’s the highest paid employee in the office,” he says, “We believe that her assistant commonwealth’s attorneys could review these at a much lower cost and we believe when that’s available, that’s what the law requires.”

Alan Gernhardt, staff attorney at the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, says the costs do not surprise him and that he has seen similar fees in the past. Gernhardt specifies that depending on what the search involves, Lunsford’s $3,200 could be a reasonable amount to charge.

“There’s tons of practical and technological questions involved,” Gernhardt says, “Just searching through the mass volume of e-mails can be time consuming.”

Gernhardt adds that the time delay also is not surprising and it’s “not out of the realm of possibility” that Lunsford would require that amount of time to retrieve all of the records.

Hardin stresses that he’s not trying to cause trouble for Lunsford. “It might turn out that everything she’s done is completely correct and honest and I hope that that’s the case,” Hardin says, “but the problem is that without the records I can’t tell.”

The lawsuit falls at an inconvenient time for Lunsford, who runs for reelection November 3. Hardin, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Tyler Pieron, denies any political motivation in the requests.

“We’re not interested in the elections,” Hardin says, “I will happily drop the lawsuit if the records are produced in a reasonable way at a reasonable time.”

Denise Lunsford did not respond to CVILLE’s e-mail requesting comment, but in other media accounts, she has called the lawsuit “politically motivated.”