Sustained Outrage

Once again, we present a quick look at stories that we’ve been reading:

Several prominent police chiefs believe that the controversial Arizona immigration law will lead to more crime because officers will be diverted from handling other cases, the Washington Post reported. Law enforcement officials critical of the measure, including chiefs from Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia, also fear that it will drive a wedge between officers and immigrant communities. Supporters of the law include Maricopa (Ariz.) County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who is president of the Arizona Sheriff’s Association. The article quotes Babeu as saying: “The people of Arizona believe the overall majority of Americans are not only supportive of this law, but that our measure of generosity has been crossed, a line has been crossed.”

You’ve heard that water may become so scarce people will fight wars over it? Bloomberg news reports on conditions in China, where the Wei River has dried up, where individuals tussle over the chance to fill their buckets, and where big, water-intensive companies such as Coca-Cola and Intel have a stake in how billions of people there use their water.

A First-Amendment-impaired judge in Wyoming actually prohibited two newspapers from publishing stories about a 2008 trip to Costa Rica by Laramie County Community College President Darrel Hammon. The judge was worried the stories could have caused the school to lose federal money. Here’s the Associated Press story, plus a follow-up, which noted that the judge had dissolved his own restraining order.

WVDOT’s water pollution violations hardly new

A WVDEP photo of part of the U.S. 35 highway project shows a sediment basin full, sediment overrunning the outlet and depositing in the receiving stream.

The Daily Mail’s George Hohmann had a story today about the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection fining another state agency, the Department of Transportation, over water pollution problems related to the construction of the new U.S. 35 in Putnam County.

But it’s hardly a new thing for the DOT’s Division of Highways to be cited and fined by WVDEP for such violations … as the Gazette reported in a lengthy story (Subscription required) on the subject two years ago. The story focused on another settlement involving a $125,000 fine for similar problems on the U.S. 35 project, but also reported:

DOH officials have reached three deals with the state Department of Environmental Protection over water pollution violations cited by DEP inspectors last year.

The settlements are the latest in a long line of problems the DOH has had complying with water pollution permit requirements and stormwater prevention standards.

DOH officials say they try to comply with the law, but officials said agency employees and contractors often are in such a rush to complete road projects that they forget about environmental regulations.

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Goodwin confirmed by Senate

The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed R. Booth Goodwin II to be U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia on Tuesday. The Senate also approved John Foster to be U.S. Marshal for the Southern District and Gary M. Gaskins to be U.S. Marshal for the Northern District.

In a news release, Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller applauded the confirmations. From the release:

“I was proud to have recommended Booth Goodwin as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District. His confirmation and appointment is not a day too early. There are a variety of investigations taking place which require immediate attention — including the recent mine disaster in Montcoal which took the lives of 29 West Virginia coal miners.  I believe the people of the southern coalfields deserve the competent and vigilant representation that Mr. Goodwin will bring to the table. He has some very important work to do, and the Southern District is entitled to the resources they need to see their interests protected,” said Byrd.

“I have known Booth Goodwin for many years and cannot think of a better person to fill this important position – a position responsible for investigations of tremendous significance to Southern West Virginia including the tragic Upper Big Branch mine disaster,” said Rockefeller. “His years of service show that he is fighting for the people of West Virginia – and I know that as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia he will continue to enforce our laws and protect our state’s citizens from crime. Mr. Goodwin is more than qualified as a federal prosecutor and I am pleased that the Senate has moved forward on his confirmation.”

In addition, Senators Byrd and Rockefeller applauded the Senate’s unanimous confirmation of West Virginia’s federal U.S. Marshals:  John Foster to be United states Marshal for the Southern District of West Virginia; and Gary M. Gaskins, to be United States Marshal for the Northern District of West Virginia.  Senator Byrd and Senator Rockefeller recommended both Foster and Gaskins to these positions.  They were unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 13, 2010.

“U.S. Marshals have been protecting this great nation since 1789, and their service has never been more important than it is today. The task of securing the homeland from terrorist attack must be balanced with protecting the public’s court officers and buildings and ensuring the effectiveness of our judicial system. West Virginia is fortunate to have the experience and dedication of men like John Foster and Gary Gaskins to fill those roles,” Byrd stated.

“In these two men we have almost six decades of law enforcement experience, said Rockefeller. “Whether serving as a West Virginia State Trooper or in the U.S. Marshal Service, John Foster and Gary Gaskins have protected West Virginia communities for their entire careers and I am confident that they will keep serving us with integrity and dedication. I look forward to seeing them take office and I thank them for their willingness to continue their incredibly important and honorable work.”

Holds and the 4th Circuit

With so much attention naturally focused on the nomination of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s easy to forget that there are still 99 federal judicial vacancies, including 16 on the appellate level.

Several recent editorials have blamed the slow pace of confirmations on anonymous holds, a procedural maneuver that allows a single senator to block a nomination (or legislation) without having to provide any justification.

Here’s the Washington Post’s take, which blamed Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) for torpedoing a recent bipartisan effort to ban holds by attaching a last-minute amendment:

There is no excuse for the Senate institution known as the secret hold–the process by which a single, anonymous senator can block action without having to come forward and explain why. Senators know this, which is why every time the question has come before them, they have voted to do away with the secret hold. But somehow the hold has always held on — because while no senator has the guts to defend it publicly, behind the scenes the secret hold is a useful tool for those who are more interested in blocking and extorting than in legislating.

On Tuesday, an editorial in the Charlotte Observer claimed that a senatorial hold by Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) was responsible for holding up the nominations to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit of two North Carolina judges, Albert Diaz and James A. Wynn Jr. They were reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 28.

Their nominations, as those of so many North Carolinians whose names have been sent to Washington for Senate approval, ran afoul of U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, and they have moved not one inch closer to Senate confirmation. Kyl has given no compelling reason for his action in late April blocking a vote by the full Senate. He has said only he did not want to jeopardize a deal between Republicans and Democrats on some other nominees, but Kyl appears to be using Wynn and Diaz as pawns in one of the pettiest displays of pertinacious politics in a congressional session noted for it.

The refusal to hold a confirmation vote on the two N.C. nominees is indefensible. There is no question about the character of these two nominees or their abilities. The only question is how long Sen. Kyl will block a vote. [North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard] Burr should use his influence with his party to allow this vote to go forward and put these outstanding jurists to work on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

This piece in the Roanoke Times quoted Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who co-sponsored the effort to get rid of holds, as saying the cause of open government was “blindsided” by DeMint, who effectively “kneecapped” his colleagues.

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Time for our regular look at stories that we’ve been reading over the last week:

The investigations into allegations that two New York City police officers used their positions to coerce sexual favors from women unearthed multiple alleged victims, the New York Times reported. In separate cases, former officer Wilfredo Rosario and Det. Oscar Sandino both appeared in court on Tuesday. The case against Sandino, a 13-year veteran on the narcotics squad, includes allegations that he threatened to take a woman to jail and see that she lost custody of her children unless she performed oral sex on him in a precinct bathroom. Rosario, who has already been convicted of promising an 18-year-old that he would get rid of her summons in exchange for oral sex, is accused of using promises of help with job applications and programs for their children to assault two women.

Eighty-five percent of poor 4th graders in low-income schools are not “proficient” in reading, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports. The foundation is starting a 10-year effort to raise 3rd graders’ reading proficiency, says Education Week.

The Sacramento City Unified School District could face bankruptcy if the teachers union doesn’t agree to concessions, according to the Sacramento Bee. A new report by the Sacramento Grand Jury (which can investigate not only crimes but the way that public agencies are run, as explained here) says that “it’s time for unions to become more of an advocate for children.” The school system faces a $30.6 million deficit, and has an unfunded liability for retirees’ health benefits of $560 million, as compared with its annual budget of $366 million.

STOP Violence Against Women grants announced

On Friday, Gov. Joe Manchin announced the distribution of federal funds from the Office on Violence Against Women, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice. All told, 24 projects in West Virginia received almost $1 million in grant money. The grants are part of the STOP (Services, Training, Officers, Prosecutors) Program, initiated under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and renewed in the Violence Against Women Act of 2000 and Violence Against Women Act of 2005.

“The purpose of these funds is to establish or enhance teams whose core members include victim service providers, law enforcement, and prosecution to improve the criminal justice system’s response to violence against women,” the governor’s news release states. “Grants provide personnel, equipment, enhancement of those teams. Additionally, statewide projects are funded to provide training and educational opportunities for all victim service providers, law enforcement, prosecution, and court personnel across the state.”

The funds are administered locally by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. A complete list of the agencies and the amounts awarded is after the jump.

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Secret meetings, May 14, 2010

My duties covering the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster have kept me away from the weekly review of open meetings notices in the State Register for the last month.

And I’m pleased to report that today’s issue of the Register contains not a single meeting that violates the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

But, a review of the Register over the weeks I missed revealed seven violations by different agencies of those public notice requirements. The offending agencies were: The Courthouse Facilities Improvement Authority, the Juvenile Justice Subcommittee of the Criminal Services Division, the Public Service Commission’s Tower Access Assistant Fund Review Committee, the Board of Physical Therapy, the Region 7 Workforce Investment Board, the Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists, and the Shepherd University Board of Governors.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

Vicki Smith over at The Associated Press has this interesting piece out this morning:

West Virginia may be sued over Clean Water Act violations that a Georgia lawyer claims have continued for decades.

Atlanta lawyer William “Bo” Gray says more than 160,000 households are piping raw sewage into waterways, and government has done nothing to stop it.

Gray represents a developer who discovered the problem after his planned upscale community overlooking Kanawha Falls was denied sewage permits.

Notices of intent to sue within 60 days have been filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Bureau for Public Health and all 55 county governments.

DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco says the agency is evaluating the claims. The Department of Health and Human Resources, which oversees the Bureau for Public Health, says it doesn’t comment on litigation.

For those who are interested, I’ve posted a copy of the notice of intent to sue here.  Among other things, the suit relies on WVDEP’s reports about how many streams statewide are contaminated with “straight pipe” sewage pollution. We’ve addressed this issue previously in our series on the Coal River, but it is certainly a matter that needs more attention.

Remember back in late January, when the federal Chemical Safety Board said it wanted a preliminary report on the safety problems at the DuPont Co. Belle plant within 30 days?

Well … we still don’t know what the preliminary report said. And we don’t have much more information about what the CSB is — or isn’t — up to regarding its investigation of the string of leaks at DuPont, including the phosgene release that killed plant worker Danny Fish.

I tried this week to find out what was up, and all I’ve gotten out of the CSB is this short statement:

A report of investigative team’s initial deployment activities to the board has taken place. We are evaluating documents received and are awaiting test results on equipment involved in the incidents. Cooperation from the company continues to be very good. A full report of the three incidents is anticipated and will be developed as information becomes more concrete.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced today that joint efforts by the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services recovered more than $2.5 billion for the Medicare Trust Fund during the fiscal year 2009. This represents an increase of more than $500 million from the previous year.

“Over the years, we’ve seen that as long as health care fraud pays and goes unpunished, our health care system will remain under siege,” Holder said at a press conference. “These crimes harm all of us — government agencies and programs, insurers and health care providers, and individual patients. But we are fighting back.”

The Department of Justice also won or negotiated $1.6 billion in judgments and settlements, Holder said.

The Justice Department’s Criminal Division and our U.S. Attorneys’ Offices opened more than 1,000 new criminal health care fraud investigations and had more than 1,600 health care fraud criminal investigations pending. We reached an “all-time high” in the number of health care fraud defendants charged, with more than 800 indictments in nearly 500 cases and close to 600 convictions. And the Justice Department’s Civil Division opened nearly 900 new civil health care fraud investigations and had more than 1,100 pending cases.

The Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program’s annual report, which you can read here, does not break the money or cases down by state, so we don’t know how much of that may have come from West Virginia. But last November, in announcing that his office had recovered $8 million in the last fiscal year, Charles Miller, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said that nearly $1 million came from frauds against federal health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

I mention this because over the last year or so, there have been several high-profile investigations into alleged wrongdoing at several medical facilities in West Virginia, including Justice Medical Clinic on the border of Wayne and Mingo counties and Mountain Medical Care Center in Williamson. The teeth of the Justice Medical prosecution (no criminal charges have been filed against anyone associated with Mountain Medical, although authorities raided the facility in March) was health care fraud.

It can be notoriously difficult to prove that, say, a doctor knowingly prescribed pain pills to an addict; the doctor can always argue that he or she was legitimately trying to treat a patient’s ongoing pain. If a patient lies about an ongoing pain issue, how is the doctor supposed to know? But it’s often harder for a doctor to explain why a medical facility billed a federal program for services that he or she didn’t provide, which constitutes health care fraud.

The lead investigator in the Justice Medical probe? A special agent with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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