She raised concerns about Richmond suppressing government transparency. Then, she was fired: 'I was silenced'

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Posted at 5:19 PM, Mar 04, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-05 09:41:29-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- A former Richmond City employee said she blew the whistle about ethical concerns within City Hall, and then she was terminated.

Connie Clay used to be the city's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Officer, tasked with providing information to the public and ensuring Richmond complied with state laws that require the government to be transparent about the work it does on behalf of taxpayers.

But she said she was blocked from carrying out the duties of her job.

"I sounded the alarm, for several months, and no one listened, and I was silenced and then fired," Clay said in an interview with CBS 6. “It's just such a huge disappointment that the bureaucrats in City Hall do not want to follow the law. And if I don't say something, who will?”

Clay, an attorney who said she has decades of experience practicing law in various levels of government, took the position in July 2023.

She said she realized early on that the city was routinely violating its FOIA obligations by not meeting legal deadlines to provide responses to citizens and journalists who were requesting information. Sometimes, city leaders would prevent the release of certain records altogether, she said.

“There were many instances where I was asked to withhold information that should have been released or to sit on records that should have been released," Clay said.

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Connie Clay

Last week, CBS 6 reported on internal emails obtained through a FOIA request that revealed a pattern of city directors being unresponsive to Clay's requests for information; thus, preventing Clay from being able to fulfill the public's requests.

Clay wrote in emails to her supervisors that she could "easily" retrieve information responsive to requests, but her supervisors did not allow her to do so.

On Friday, Clay filed a $250,000 against the City of Richmond and her former boss Petula Burks, the city's public relations director.

In her complaint, Clay alleged the city acted in retaliation by firing her for her "whistleblowing about the city's ongoing FOIA violations and lack of transparency."

“In your opinion, do you believe City Hall valued and was committed to transparency?” reporter Tyler Layne asked Clay.

“No. Absolutely not," Clay answered.

The complaint stated that two lawsuits alleging FOIA violations were filed against the City of Richmond during Clay's tenure and that both could have been avoided.

In previous emails, Clay told Burks the city's "ignorance, arrogance, and pride" caused the lawsuits.

One of the lawsuits referenced in Clay's complaint was filed by CBS 6. In October, reporter Tyler Layne sued the city for improperly withholding information related to a city employee who died while removing a fallen tree.

After CBS 6 filed the petition, the city provided the requested records.

New internal emails obtained by CBS 6 revealed Burks told Clay not to release those documents, despite Clay warning Burks multiple times there was no lawful exemption to support the city's withholding of the information.

“Were you surprised to see legal action taken against the city?” Layne asked.

“Not at all," Clay responded.

“You knew that was going to happen?” Layne asked.

“Yes, and I just didn’t understand why they wouldn’t listen," Clay said.

“Why do you think they didn’t listen?” Layne asked.

“I think they just wanted to do what they wanted to do. I had a conversation with Petula at one point and she said, ‘I just don't want the city to look stupid.’ And I remember thinking, 'Well, the city needs to stop doing stupid things,'" Clay said.

Clay cited other examples of information the city allegedly attempted to suppress including records about the 2021 and 2023 casino proposals, Mayor Levar Stoney's salary, and the finance department's handling of the meals tax.

Clay said she had "several" overdue FOIAs for the finance department when she was terminated, some that were many months late.

In an email Clay wrote to Burks on January 8, she predicted the city would get sued again due to Finance Director Sheila White's "failure to comply with legal FOIA requests."

And she was right. Just a couple weeks later, White and other city leaders got sued by activists Paul Goldman and Joshua Stanfield for allegedly failing to respond to requests for meals tax records.

On January 19, Burks sent Clay a termination letter. Clay said she was told she was "not a good fit" for the position.

Her firing came just hours after Clay sent an email to Burks laying out her concerns and challenges as the FOIA officer.

In the email, she said that Burks suggested her to "do things that are unethical such as secreting parts of my FOIA log."

Clay also told Burks that internal stakeholders at City Hall were "obviously untrained in FOIA law" and that she was given "minimal authority as the city's FOIA Officer."

"The FOIA Officer should not report to the public relations person. I mean, that is just not right. And secondly, the FOIA officer should have the authority to ensure compliance. FOIA Officer is a misnomer for the City of Richmond," Clay said.

“What do you hope people at home take away from you coming forward?” Layne asked.

“I hope they will realize that you can fight City Hall, that you can stand up for your rights, that you must stand up for your rights," Clay said. “You pay the salaries of everyone in City Hall, from the janitor on up to the mayor. You pay their salaries and they should report to you.”

City Attorney Laura Drewry has responded to Clay's complaint calling the claims "baseless."

Drewry said the city intends to defend the lawsuit in court.

Depend on CBS 6 News and for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email to send a tip.

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