Sustained Outrage

Secret meetings, Aug. 13, 2010

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It’s a good week for open government in West Virginia. Only one meeting listed in today’s edition of The State Register violated the public notice requirements of the state’s open meetings law.

That agency responsible? The Putnam County Solid Waste Authority.

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.

Here’s our weekly look at work at other media outlets that attracted our attention.

Not all of the articles have been published yet in Agents’ Secrets: Junk Science, Tainted Testimony, an in-depth, four-part investigation of problems at North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation by the Raleigh News & Observer. But from what we’ve seen already, this is a series worth following. On Day 1, the report looked at a discredited confession by a mentally retarded defendant who spent 14 years in a mental hospital before he was released in 2007. Day 2 examines testimony and reports by the SBI’s blood-spatter experts, which one juror described as “fraud.”

Anyone in your house complaining about boredom this summer? You might be interested in a Time magazine story by David Von Drehle, “The Case Against Summer Vacation.” No kidding. For a century, researchers have been documenting the cumulative loss of learning and achievement, particularly among kids with the least advantages, during the long summer break. But it affects middle- and upper-income students, too.

Even though a recent opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the release of names on petitions in favor of (or against) ballot referedums, a federal judge in Tacoma declined to release a list of supporters of a 2009 measure that unsuccessfully sought to repeal expanded benefits for gay and lesbian couples, the Seattle Times reported. The state is seeking the release of the names under Washington’s Public Records Act, while Protect Marriage Washington contends that identifying the signers would voilate their First Amendment rights by exposing them to the possibility of reprisals.

Pharmaceutical drugs and suicide attempts

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Here’s yet another reason to be extra careful with what’s in your medicine cabinet: When young adults try to kill themselves, the suicide attempt almost always involves pharmaceutical drugs.

More than 92 percent of suicide attempts by people between the ages of 18 and 24 included some kind of pharmaceutical drug use, according to this new analysis of emergency department visits in 2008 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Which is not to say that the pharmaceuticals were the method that every young adult used to try to kill him or herself (most likely herself: 57.6 percent of drug related suicide attempts in this age group were by women). But it does put drugs into the mix, with potentially devastating results. According to the study, suicide was the third leading cause of death in this age group in 2006. This age group was three times more likely to attempt suicide than adults in other age groups, with 1.2 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 25 having made an attempt.

Of the 600,000-plus emergency room visits by adults aged 18 to 24 in 2008, more than 38,000 — or 6.3 percent — involved a suicide attempt. Of the suicide attempts, the combination of alcohol and drugs is involved roughly three times out of ten.

You can read more about other SAMHSA reports here, here and here.

Americans lose more than $1 billion a year to international scams, the Federal Trade Commission says. Considering that there were two e-mails waiting for me this morning, informing me that I had won $24,000,000 (or it may not have been dollars; I don’t really remember) in some overseas lottery, I thought I’d pass along these tips from the FTC for avoiding scams, particularly since the agency claims that mass-marketing scams are funding international crime rings.

  1. Keep in mind that wiring money is like sending cash: the sender has no protections against loss. Con artists often insist that people wire money, especially overseas, because it’s nearly impossible to reverse the transaction or trace the money. Don’t wire money to strangers, to sellers who insist on wire transfers for payment, or to someone who claims to be a relative in an emergency (and wants to keep the request a secret).
  2. Don’t send money to someone you don’t know. That includes an online merchant you’ve never heard of — or an online love interest who asks for money or favors. It’s best to do business with sites you know and trust. If you buy items through an online auction, consider a payment option that provides protection, like a credit card. Don’t send cash or use a wire transfer service.
  3. Don’t respond to messages that ask for your personal or financial information, whether the message comes as an email, a phone call, a text message, or an ad. Don’t click on links in the message, or call phone numbers that are left on your answering machine, either. The crooks behind these messages are trying to trick you into giving up your personal information. If you get a message and are concerned about your account status, call the number on your credit or debit card — or your statement — and check it out.
  4. Don’t play a foreign lottery. First, it’s easy to be tempted by messages that boast enticing odds in a foreign lottery, or messages that claim you’ve already won. Inevitably, you’ll be asked to pay “taxes,” “fees,” or “customs duties” to collect your prize. If you send money, you won’t get it back, regardless of the promises. Second, it’s illegal to play foreign lotteries.
  5. Don’t agree to deposit a check from someone you don’t know and then wire money back, no matter how convincing the story. By law, banks must make funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks. You are responsible for the checks you deposit: When a check turns out to be a fake, it’s you who is responsible for paying back the bank.
  6. Read your bills and monthly statements regularly—on paper and online.
    Scammers steal account information and then run up charges or commit crimes in your name. Dishonest merchants sometimes bill you for monthly “membership fees” and other goods or services you didn’t authorize. If you see charges you don’t recognize or didn’t okay, contact your bank, card issuer, or other creditor immediately.
  7. In the wake of a natural disaster or another crisis, give to established charities rather than one that seems to have sprung up overnight. Pop-up charities probably don’t have the infrastructure to get help to the affected areas or people, and they could be collecting the money to finance illegal activity. Check out to learn more.
  8. Talk to your doctor before buying health products or signing up for medical treatments. Ask about research that supports a product’s claims—and possible risks or side effects. Buy prescription drugs only from licensed U.S. pharmacies. Otherwise, you could end up with products that are fake, expired or mislabeled — in short, products that could be dangerous. Visit for more information.
  9. Remember there’s no such thing as a sure thing. If someone contacts you promoting low-risk, high-return investment opportunities, stay away. When you hear pitches that insist you act now, guarantees of big profits, promises of little or no financial risk, or demands that you send cash immediately, report them to the FTC. For more information about investment fraud, visit
  10. Know where an offer comes from and who you’re dealing with. Try to find a seller’s physical address (not just a P.O. Box) and phone number. With VoIP and other web-based technologies, it’s tough to tell where someone is calling from. Do an internet search for the company name and website and look for negative reviews. Check them out with the Better Business Bureau at

Senate confirms Wynn but not Diaz

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Last night, after the Senate confirmed Elena Kagan to become an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, it also approved four federal judges, including North Carolina Judge James A. Wynn Jr. to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Wynn’s confirmation means that 13 of the 15 seats on the 4th Circuit are now occupied, the highest number for the very busy appeals court in years. It also, the Greensboro News & Record rightly points out, gives North Carolina a much-deserved second judge on the court. North Carolina is the biggest state in the 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction (which also includes West Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia), and has been under-represented since Judge James D. Phillips Jr. took senior status in 1994. In fact, Wynn will fill Phillips’ seat, which has been unoccupied for 16 years.

Yesterday’s confirmations, however, did not include North Carolina Judge Albert Diaz, who, like Wynn, was nominated for a seat on the 4th Circuit by President Obama on Nov. 4. Diaz and Wynn appeared on the same panel together before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and passed out of committee together on Jan. 28. Ironically, Wynn garnered one vote against him in committee, while Diaz was approved by a unanimous, 19-0 vote.

James Wynn and Albert Diaz are not a package deal, and their fates need not be tied together just because they have moved through the confirmation process at the same time. But it is hard to see the logic of confirming one and not the other without someone coming forward to raise a specific objection to Diaz’s qualifications.

Most likely, the lack of action on Diaz is meant to serve as a reminder from Republicans that they will continue to slow-walk President Obama’s nominees through the confirmation process. There are still 103 vacancies in the federal judiciary, and that number has hovered around 100 for months, even as nominees sit in the pipeline.

Continue reading…

The Obama administration’s Labor Department tried to make a pretty big splash yesterday, announcing that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had levied $16.6 million in fines for three construction companies and 14 site contractors for violations related to the Feb. 7 explosion that killed six workers at the Kleen Energy power plant construction project in Middletown, Conn.

As described in the OSHA news release:

On Feb. 7, a gas blow operation was being performed in which flammable natural gas was pumped under high pressure through new fuel gas lines to remove debris. During this operation, an extremely large amount of natural gas was vented into areas where it could not easily disperse. Welding and other work was being performed nearby, creating an extremely dangerous situation. The explosion occurred when the gas contacted an ignition source.

In connection with the explosion, OSHA has cited O&G Industries Inc., the project’s general contractor; Keystone Construction and Maintenance Inc., which was in charge of the piping and oversaw the gas blow; and Bluewater Energy Services Inc., the commissioning and startup contractor for the plant.

All three companies were cited for performing the gas blow procedure in a way that exposed workers to fire and explosion hazards, including the configuration of the vent pipes in close proximity to scaffolding and other structures, and the failure to remove non-essential personnel from the area. Citations were also issued for failing to install and use electrical equipment in accordance with its listing and labeling, allowing welding work during the gas blows and failing to train employees to recognize hazards associated with gas blows.

There’s coverage of the OSHA announcement from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, and the Middletown Press.

Most of the coverage includes comments from OSHA chief David Michaels, lamenting what he said was his agency’s inability to ban the inherently dangerous practice of natural gas blows during pipe venting.

Continue reading…

It’s a good week for open government in West Virginia. Today’s issue of the State Register contains no meetings that violate the public notice provisions of the state’s open meetings law.

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.

It’s Thursday again, which means that it’s time for another installment of stories by other media outlets that we’ve appreciated.

In the first vote of its kind in the nation, the New York State Senate approved a measure Wednesday to temporarily ban hydraulic fracturing in the state, effectively stopping any drilling for gas or oil until next spring, reported. The legislation “initially arose out of concerns that New York could experience the same rash of water contamination, spills and air quality impacts that have affected Pennsylvania since it embraced widespread Marcellus Shale drilling two years ago,” the article states. The bill’s speedy passage was inspired in part by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the bill’s sponsor told ProPublica.

In a rare peek behind the reporting curtain, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed how hard it can be to assemble information regarding medical mistakes. Following up on multiple tips that a doctor may have removed the wrong kidney from a patient in 2007, the reporters sifted through 18,000 medical malpractice claims over the last decade before narrowing the field. Ultimately, state and federal regulators wouldn’t confirm that a report about an incident involving urologic surgery at DePaul Health Center was the case the reporters have been investigating.

In the wake of a salary scandal in the city of Bell, Calif., in which several officials resigned after it was revealed that they earned hundreds of thousands of dollars annually while serving a city of roughly 37,000, the city has not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Los Angeles Times that asked for the salaries of two interim officials, among other information. The city clerk had previously told the paper that the city’s top priority was providing information to the state attorney general’s office, the article states. “For them to essentially say we’re being investigated for breaking the law, and so we don’t have time to give you the records, that seems outrageous to me,” said one attorney who specializes in public records litigation.

@“Fo lawyer r them to essentially say we’re being investigated for breaking the law, and so we don’t have time to give you the records, that seems outrageous to me,” saidtag:Reach Andrew Clevenger at or 304-348-1723.