HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Henrico Deputy County Manager Doug Middleton has posted an interesting new sign on his office door.
It reads: "HUD FOIA REQUEST," then the current date, as well as the current number of days since he submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for more information about the recent sale of the beleaguered Essex Village apartment complex.
This is an example of the sign posted January 23, 2018. On that day, Middleton said it had been 84 days since he submitted his FOIA request.
CBS 6 investigative reporter Melissa Hipolit requested a copy of the FOIA Middleton submitted to HUD.
It was submitted November 16, 2017, and included six specific requests, including all documents, drawings, and plans related to the scope of work proposed by the new owner of Essex Village, Ernst Valery, and his company which have been submitted to HUD.
It also requested Valery's financing plan for the property, as well as the documents Valery submitted to HUD to request a dramatic rent increase CBS 6 previously reported on, which would be subsidized by taxpayers.
Middleton said the county received none of this information from Valery himself, even though Middleton said Valery has requested the county support his request for a tax credit from the Virginia Housing Development Authority.
"It is disappointing that in an era when the Federal Government has stated through its spokespersons multiple times their intentions to be transparent, a request for documents that requires little or no effort to accumulate would take such an inordinate amount of time," Middleton said. "HUD has the documents and at the time the request was made they were fresh and on their desk. The deal with HUD had just been made. HUD Officials even suggested in October that we make a request to their local office for the documents. We did precisely what they instructed us to do to obtain them. To this point, no one has even provided an estimate of the amount of time it would take."
HUD spokeswoman Lisa Wolfe refused to get specific about why it has taken so long to fulfill Henrico's request.
"I don’t believe we are in the position to comment since the County is the requester," she said.
She did provide information on HUD's website that explained the FOIA process.
It said requests are processed in the order of receipt, and the time it takes to respond will vary depending on the complexity of the request and the backlog of requests already pending at the agency. The website said a request can be expedited if there was a threat to someone's life or physical safety, or if there is an urgency to inform the public about an actual or alleged Federal Government activity, if made by a person who is primarily engaged in disseminating information.
She also suggested we speak with Jerry Brown, the General Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Public Affairs, who told us there was no law that mandated a FOIA had to be fulfilled within a certain amount of time.
Brown said that "depending upon the complexity of a FOIA, sometimes it can take up to a year to send a response."
But, Middleton said, "Each time the question of 'when' is asked, the response is that someone else is reviewing it. The fact that it has taken this long raises questions and suspicions about why. This request was not a hunt to find something to create a problem, but an effort to solve one as a local government. It was based on a need to know in order to support our citizens and ensure their welfare was being properly attended to. Why it would take this long is a question to which no one has provided and answer."