Ex-Virginia governor abandons effort to seal records

Tuesday, October 6, 1998

George Allen, former governor of Virginia, has dropped his request to seal some of his working papers from the public for 100 years.

His decision came last Thursday, one day after announcing his intention to seal certain records, which included negotiations with the Walt Disney Company over a proposed amusement park. Allen said the documents were not singled out for secrecy but for “the confidentiality of economic development matters.”

Allen abandoned his request once he realized that he did not have the authority to seal the documents. Under state law, governors are allowed to retain personal correspondence when they leave office, but they are required to turn over all official papers.

Earlier this year, Allen turned over all of his official records to the Library of Virginia. On Wednesday, he asked library officials to seal a portion of the documents, including the ones related to the potential Disney deal.

Allen told The Roanoke Times: “If I didn't have the authority to seal them, I don't care to have them sealed. I was under the impression that, yes, you could have it sealed.”

Media experts who denounced the former governor's efforts to close off public access to the documents applauded his quick reversal.

Dick Hammerstrom, Society of Professional Journalists' Sunshine Chair for the state of Virginia, said that it was unfortunate that Allen would sacrifice an open government policy for economic development reasons.

But now that the documents are available to the public no harm appears to have been done, said Hammerstrom, who is also city editor of the Fredericksburg-based Free-Lance Star.

Commenting on the rapid reversal, he said: “I think he took a strong stand in saying right away that 'When I did this I was under the impression that I could.'”

Ginger Stanley, executive manager of the Virginia Press Association had prepared a speech Wednesday to deliver to the Virginia Association of Government Archives of Records on Thursday attacking Allen's actions. By the time she reached the event, Allen had reversed his request.

“I was thrilled by the reversal,” she said. “It's always nice to have clear thinking on day two and go forward with that clear thinking.”

The idea of sealing records for a period of 100 years is absolutely odd and rare, Stanley said. “It would have certainly set a precedent. And because he doesn't have the power to do that it would have been proven unconstitutional.”

Allen was governor from 1993 to 1997.