GMU Foundation gift disclosure case argued in Richmond
BY DANA NICKEL, CO EDITOR-IN-CHIEF; JACK HARVEY, ASSISTANT NEWS EDITOR; ALLY MCALPINE, ART DIRECTOR
Transparent GMU and Augustus Thompson’s case against Mason and the George Mason University Foundation (GMU Foundation) was brought before the Supreme Court of Virginia in Richmond on Wednesday, Sept. 11. The court’s decision will be handed down in approximately six weeks.
The case was first heard in the Fairfax County Circuit Court by Judge John M. Tran in 2017. The case was ruled in favor of Mason and the GMU Foundation. Transparent GMU later appealed the case in Oct. 2018.
In 2017, Judge Tran stated that the case was “historic” because of what it could mean for the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Mason and the GMU Foundation were represented by Sean F. Murphy, Robert L. Hodges and E. Rebecca Gantt from the McQuireWoods law firm for the original lawsuit.
The arguments presented at the Supreme Court of Virginia were similar to the arguments in the Fairfax County Circuit Court.
Thompson and Transparent GMU are being represented pro bono by Evan Johns, a staff attorney at the Appalachian Mountain Advocates. They argued that because the GMU Foundation conducts business on behalf of Mason, a public institution, the foundation should be considered an entity of a public body.
If the GMU Foundation is considered an entity of a public body, then all records within the foundation would be accessible under FOIA.
Mason is now represented by Toby Heytens, the solicitor general of Virginia. The GMU Foundation is represented by Matt Fitzgerald, a partner of the McGuireWoods law firm in Richmond.
Both Heytens and Fitzgerald argued that the foundation is a private entity that operates independently from Mason. Because of this, they argue that the GMU Foundation is currently exempt from FOIA requests.
Student leaders and alumni that lead Transparent GMU during the original lawsuit gathered outside the courthouse before the oral arguments began for a press conference.
“This has been…five, six years in the making,” Sam Parsons, campaign director for UnKoch my Campus, told the audience.
“We are here because we believe that the public and students at large deserve to know who is influencing their education … I’m just really honored to be part of an effort of young people who are taking steps to protect our democracy and the transparency and the access that we all have a right to.”
After the case was heard, MacKenzie Earl, a member of Transparent GMU, said they were “encouraged by the engagement of the justices throughout oral arguments,” but explained that it was out of their hands.
“We recognized that the hard work on our part was already done,” she continued. “The results of the hearing are partly dependent on interpretation of legal text. And there is little we can do to influence that kind of deliberation.
Though the case has not been decided, Transparent GMU felt that the case making it to the Supreme Court of Virginia was a victory in itself.
“Our representation presented clear arguments that rang true with the principles of academic integrity and transparency we value,” Earl stated.
Editor’s Note: This is a developing story. Details will be updated as Fourth Estate receives them.