When private records are public or vice versa in Virginia Beach

Lawyers for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argued Monday that private records generated by public employees on city equipment, maintained in city files, and stored in city facilities at taxpayer expense should be public.

PETA is seeking access to the records the city is 'hiding' under the guise of ownership by the private Virginia Marine Science Museum Foundation.

The state's Freedom of Information law says such records must be made public if they are used in the transaction of public business.

That's the legal question Circuit Court Judge Frederick Lowe was left to decide after the smoke cleared following a nearly 4-hour hearing.

It was revealed the city covers foundation costs to the tune of more than $746,000 a year.

The foundation was created as a fund raising arm of the museum, but evidence showed there was such a commingling of  records and responsibility as to blur the line of what's public and what's not.

There was no evidence that any member of the foundation had any independent access to any of the records the foundations claims it privately owns without going through a city employee.

PETA showed, through the foundation's own 1999 federal tax return,  that it claims no value on the services and in kind contributions of more than $746,000 it receives from the city.

[The foundation's tax return showed it received a total of $887,000 and had expenses of $1.2M that tax year.]

Both the city and the foundation's lawyers argued that PETA failed to prove that while the city generates and is the custodian of the records, none are used for the transaction of the public's business as required by the law.

Lowe said after studying the evidence and records, he will issue his ruling on whether the records must be made public.