Sustained Outrage

Gov. Manchin’s Tech Park secrecy

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Gazette photo by Chris Dorst.

You’ve got to hand it to the Daily Mail’s George Hohmann for organizing a media protest of Gov. Joe Manchin’s closed-door meeting about the future of the South Charleston Technology Park.

Gov. Manchin talks a lot about how he wants his administration to be open, but more and more — when a difficult issue gets down to the wire — Manchin seems to be willing to throw transparency aside.

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Campaign spending: open for business?

39197024.jpgLast month, at the first public meeting of the Independent Commission on Judicial Reform, several speakers from North Carolina extolled the virtues of the Tarheel State’s public financing option, in place since the 2004 election. Public financing, they said, helps insulate judicial candidates from the appearance of undue influence from campaign donors.

(A quick aside: Judges are in a tricky spot when it comes to campaign fund raising. They cannot personally solicit campaign donations, and most will tell you that they never look at the list of contributors that their campaign treasurers submit to the Secretary of State. In practical terms, however, this doesn’t mean that they don’t know who gives them money. They get a pretty good idea of who is supporting them, including lawyers, when they go to their own fundraising events. And in case it has escaped notice, many lawyers will take the first chance they get to remind judges that they gave money to their campaign. But, as a recent advisory opinion from the Judicial Investigation Commission reiterated in March, the existence of a campaign donation from a lawyer to a judge does not by itself require a judge to step down from any case involving that lawyer. The most any individual can give is $1,000, both in the primary and the general election.)

But back to campaign spending. Other speakers at the forum, including campaign law expert Kenneth A. Gross, warned the commissioners that public financing won’t touch independent expenditures. In fact, the trend has been for courts to ease restrictions on campaign spending, he said.

He and others are monitoring how the U.S. Supreme Court handles the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission case. In a rather extraordinary move, the justices asked for a rehearing of a case, and scheduled it for yesterday, during their summer recess. At issue in this case is whether the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn a ban on corporate spending in elections that has been in place since 1907.

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Your city government in action, pt. 11

Charleston’s zoning board (officially the Board of Zoning Appeals) meets Thursday morning, May 28.

Just two items on the agenda this time, but one could be a bit contentious.

Architects for Shane Holmes, DDS, are asking relief from parking requirements for a building Holmes hopes to build for his orthodontist business on Oakwood Road.

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Your city government in action, pt. 10

The Charleston Urban Renewal Authority, or CURA, will hold its monthly meeting Wednesday morning (May 20). As the agenda shows, the CURA board will receive an update on some of the renovations planned for Haddad Riverfront Park.

CURA has put up $500,000 to build a new entrance into the seating area from Kanawha Boulevard, and to do some streetscape-style improvements to the Boulevard and sidewalk in front of the park. The city, through a separate federal earmark, is building a canopy over the amphitheater and an overlook at the foot of Court Street.

Several neighborhood projects are also up for consideration:

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Students chiseled on rising textbook prices

West Virginia University student leaders worry about the rising costs of required textbooks and the low resale value of most of those texts at the WVU Bookstore, now run by Barnes and Noble College Booksellers. Our Sunday story details their concerns.

A number of reports point to a growing national concern about high textbook costs, especially in a troubled economy.

Students refer to a detailed report on those rising prices prepared for Congress and published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in July 2005. The report, “College Textbooks: Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases,” points out that textbook prices have risen at double the rate of inflation for the past 20 years (see GAO chart below). The GAO also provides a brief summary of this report.

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Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is leading efforts to get federal legislation passed to protect students from excessive textbooks costs. Durbin’s Senate website has several other statements about rising textbook costs.

The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission created a “Statewide Task Force of Textbook Affordability,” which has not yet published its report. The commission’s website discusses the forthcoming report and has links to related news publications on this issue.

The Policy Commission also provides a place on its website for people to post their own comments about textbooks costs. People can read previously posted comments here.

Students overcharged for loans

studentloanscam.jpgIn Sunday’s paper, we have a review of Alan Michael Collinge’s new book, The Student Loan Scam: The Most Oppressive Debt in U.S. History — and How We Can Fight Back. The book details how private loan companies are exploiting millions of students with interest rates much higher than federally financed loans charge.

Easing federal regulations over the past decade has made it easier for private loan companies, such as Sallie Mae, to charge annual interest rates of 19 percent, or even higher, Collinge documents.

In addition, Collinge operates a website, called StudentLoanJustice.org, where borrowers and students can share their stories with other students and find more resources.

Some interesting additional studies and resources are also available online, including:

The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s Democratic Staff and the Senate Democratic Policy Committee released a report titled: The College Cost Crunch: A State-by-State Analysis of Rising Tuition and Student Debt.

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NiSource: The glass is half full

NiSource, the Indiana energy company that owns Charleston-based Columbia Gas Transmission Co., had a pretty darned good year in 2008, according to its Feb. 4 press release.

The company earned $369.8 million from continuing operations — up $67 million or 22 percent from its 2007 profits, the report says.

Stockholders — the folks these announcements presumably are aimed at — should have been encouraged to see that yearly income per share of stock from continuing operations rose at a similar rate, almost 23 percent.

Things look a little less rosy in the very first paragraph, where NiSource says net operating income for 2008 ($348.5 million) fell slightly compared to 2007 — about 4 percent.

NiSource, you’ll recall, announced a few weeks later it was cutting 95 jobs in Charleston and 75 more elsewhere in the state, as our Eric Eyre reported. In its press release,<co link> it said the job cuts were among “several structural changes designed to enhance operation efficiency, support growth initiatives, and maintain safe, reliable service to customers.”

And yes, NiSource once owned, then sold, Columbia Gas’ former well drilling and production unit here, now owned by Chesapeake Energy. That probably didn’t work out so well, as you’ll see below.

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How healthy is your bank?

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You can type in the name of your bank and find out all kinds of interesting information at the Bank Tracker, created by Wendell Cochran at the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication.

It lists banks’ assets, amount of loans more than 90 days overdue, whether the bank has received funds through the federal Troubled Assets Relief Program and more. For example, little Huntington Federal Savings Bank in West Virginia, shows a troubled asset ratio — the percentage of the bank’s loans that aren’t worth much — of 2.6, compared to the national median of 9.9.  BB&T Financial, FSB, based in Columbus, Ga., has a troubled asset ratio of 6.9. Both figures are from December 2008. BB&T’s parent, BB&T Corp., has received TARP money, according to the Bank Tracker.

It also lists TARP recipients by state. In West Virginia, those are

First Bank of Charleston, Inc.

Centra Financial Holdings/Centra Bank Inc. of Morgantown

Wesbanco Bank Inc. of Wheeling

Thanks to Andrew McGraw and The Rural Blog, a project of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, for spreading the word about this handy resource.

That didn’t take long

On Tuesday, the day before state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Albright was laid to rest in Parkersburg, I got an unsolicited e-mail from a public relations flak in northern Virginia, judging from the 703 area code on her phone number. The e-mail offered to put me in touch with “a West Virginia legal expert on the type of jurist Governor Manchin should select to fill the high court vacancy.”

Curious as to who would have hired a p.r. firm regarding Albright’s replacement, I called CRC Public Relations and asked who their client is, and they told me: the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group that, according to Wikipedia.org, at least, advocates a strict originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Philosophically, I was told, the Society’s 40,000 or so members believe in judicial restraint over what they see as judicial activism, or, as the Society’s Web site says, that “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.”

All three of the local lawyers quoted in the e-mail — Blair Gardner, Luke Lafferre and Robert Ryan — are members. In fact, “Booter” Ryan is one of two attorneys listed on the group’s site as contacts for the West Virginia chapter.

(Astute readers will note that Gardner’s bio on Jackson Kelly’s Web site doesn’t say that he is a member. I called him and asked him, and he confirmed his association with the Society.)

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Probing the Bayer blast

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Indeed, as an alert Sustained Outrage reader pointed out, a congressional hearing will be held on April 23 to investigate the August explosion that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute.

The hearing is being convened by Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and by Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of Waxman’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The hearing is to “examine the causes of the accident, the adequacy of the response, and the scope of the information provided to the first responders, employees and the public.”

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