FOIA: Richmond bloggers score award

A conversation about what's wrong with the Richmond music scene evolved into a weblog/watchdog group called Save Richmond– and netted a freedom of information award for its founders.

Music writers/musicians Andrew Beaujon and Don Harrison were named this year's winners of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government's prestigious Laurence E. Richardson Freedom of Information Award.

"It's really just a blog where we do aggressive reporting," says Beaujon, who writes for Spin magazine, the Washington Post, and the Washington City Paper.

Beaujon and Harrison, a former Charlottesville resident who still hosts a show on WTJU (Sundays at 11pm), started looking into the finances of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, a private group with plans to build a $112-million performing arts center in Richmond.

"They kept claiming to have raised all this money, but kept going to the city to ask for more money," says Beaujon. "Their president was making $300,000, and they claimed to have raised $70 million."

Using FOIA requests to the city and state, the two discovered the Foundation had just $1 million in the bank.

"They destroyed a block of the city and the old Thalhimer's– but had no money to build [the center]," declares Beaujon. "It was so irresponsible."

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government was impressed with Beaujon and Harrison's efforts to dig up financial information about the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, and that they put the records online "using the blogging technique," says Frosty Landon, coalition executive director.

They also asked the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council– a state agency– whether the arts foundation was a public or private organization. "The office issued a four-page opinion" about the state's disclosure rules for nonprofits that receive significant public funding, notes Landon.

"We were astounded at how their research bore so little resemblance to what they were going to build," says Beaujon of the foundation.

Following their inquiries, a city audit found $636,300 in spending "inappropriate" for public reimbursement, and Richmond mayor Douglas Wilder fought an increase in local lodging taxes to pay for the $100-million-plus project.

The Richardson award, named for WINA's founder, is given to Virginia citizens who demonstrate outstanding efforts to advance freedom of information in the state. Last year, Nelson County resident Lee Albright won the award for his battles with the Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries Commission to find out why a local fish hatchery was closed.

Harrison and Beaujon, who met when they were both writing for the now-defunct arts magazine 64, created Save Richmond in 2003. "They were the Woodward and Bernstein of the performing arts center," says Virginia Living editor Garland Pollard.

Ewa Beaujon, Andrew Beaujon and Don Harrison at the would-be site of Richmond's performing arts center.