Sustained Outrage

Here’s another installment of stories that attracted our attention this week:

The family of a man on parole — who was fatally shot by Albany police last month after he allegedly hit an officer with his girlfriend’s car while fleeing from a traffic stop — wonders if he might still be alive if state parole officers had handled his case differently, the Albany Times-Union reports. In the wake of the incident, which a police union official described as a clean shoot, some lawmakers are calling on the parole board to revisit its policy towards parolees who test positive for drugs, as in this case.

Opponents of teaching evolution are trying to link the issue to skepticism over global warming, the New York Times reports. A Kentucky legislator recently introduced a bill that “would encourage teachers to discuss ‘the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,’ including ‘evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning,'” according to the report. While the issue is partly legal — courts have held that it’s unfair to single out evolution — it is also an attempt to appeal to “political conservatives who oppose efforts to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Economic hardship may lead to an increase in domestic violence, the Orlando Sentinel noted in this article about a murder-suicide in an Orlando supermarket. Demand for services is up 30 percent this year, the director of a shelter for victims of domestic violence told the paper.

Although New Jersey police have issued 225,000 citations for texting or talking on cell phones while driving in the almost two years since a ban went into effect, the number of motorists who admitted they text while behind the wheel has gone up, according to a poll cited by the Newark Star-Ledger. More than half — 57 percent — of drivers under 30 said they text while driving.

Black tar heroin: From Mexico to Huntington, W.Va.

heroinart.jpgToday’s must read comes from the Los Angeles Times, which just published a remarkable three-part series by Sam Quinones that traces the path of a particularly powerful brand of heroin from an obscure part of Mexico all the way to Huntington, W.Va., where it led to a rash of overdose deaths in 2007.

Here are links to all three articles: A lethal business model targets Middle AmericaBlack tar moves in, and death follows (which includes extensive coverage of how the drug moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Huntington, with deadly consequences); and The good life in Xalisco can mean death in the United States.

There’s also a powerful audio slideshow by Gina Ferazzi here, in which Teddy Johnson, a Huntington plumbing contractor, talks about the death of his son, Marshall University freshman Adam Tyler Johnson, from an overdose of black tar heroin.

Part of the strategy was steer clear of major cities and aggressively market an inexpensive brand of heroin to middle- and working-class whites, Quinones reported. In addition to providing door-to-door delivery service, the dealers actively targeted recovering addicts at clinics.

The dealers have been especially successful in parts of Appalachia and the Rust Belt with high rates of addiction to OxyContin, Percocet and other prescription painkillers. They market their heroin as a cheap, potent alternative to pills.

Additionally, university towns have proved to be especially fertile markets for Xalisco heroin, Quinones noted.

Xalisco networks are decentralized, with no all-powerful boss, and they largely avoid guns and violence. Staying clear of the nation’s largest cities, where established organizations control the heroin trade, Xalisco dealers have cultivated markets in the mountain states and parts of the Midwest and Appalachia, often creating demand for heroin in cities and towns where there had been little or none. In many of those places, authorities report a sharp rise in heroin overdoses and deaths.

Before the string of fatal overdoses in 2007, “we didn’t even consider heroin an issue,” said Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook.

Xalisco dealers have been particularly successful in areas where addiction to prescription painkillers like OxyContin was widespread. Many of those addicts, mainly young middle- and working-class whites, switched to black tar, which is cheaper and more powerful.

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It’s time for another installment of articles that caught our eye this week.

Amateur singers should exercise caution when selecting their songs for karaoke in the Philippines, because performances of the Sinatra classic “My Way” have led to a rash of deadly violence, the New York Times reported. And it’s not just renditions of Sinatra standards in the Philippines, either: “In the past two years alone, a Malaysian man was fatally stabbed for hogging the microphone at a bar and a Thai man killed eight of his neighbors in a rage after they sang John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads.'”

Baltimore City administrative judge Marcella A. Holland recently banned Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms in Baltimore Circuit Court, the Baltimore Sun noted in this commentary. But it’s not just typing in the courtroom that’s barred. “[T]his order extends the scope of the restrictions from the courtroom to the entire courthouse, and at that point, any justification for them ends. It is impossible to imagine a situation in which posting information on Twitter from the hallway outside of a courtroom would be in the least bit disruptive, or that forcing someone to walk outside the courthouse before tweeting would do anything to enhance security.”

Rural high schools have a lot of problems and challenges, but also have strategies that could help their urban and suburban counterparts, says a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, that group led by former Gov. Bob Wise. The graduation rate for public high school students is 73 percent, which is higher than cities (59 percent) or towns (70 percent) but lower than suburban areas (74 percent), the report says. And, two thousand of the country’s high schools are so bad that researchers call them ‘dropout factories.’ More than 20 percent of them are in rural areas. (See map above.) Thanks to the folks over at The Rural Blog and Get Schooled, a blog at the Atlanta Journal Constitution for turning us on to this one.

School systems across the country face “funding cliffs” when federal stimulus money runs out. According to the New York Times, several states will run out of stimulus money, meant to shore up state education budgets, at the end of this school year or early next year. For now, West Virginia is in a better position than many states, but could face its own “cliff” during the 2011-2012 school year.

richardshelby.jpgOn Friday, Sen. Richard Shelby (left) confirmed that he had placed a “hold” on all of President Obama’s nominees who need to be confirmed by the senate. Shelby’s spokesman explained that the Alabama Republican was upset over bidding for a Pentagon contract that could create jobs in the Mobile area and financing for building a counterterrorism in Alabama.

As this Politico article explains, a senatorial hold doesn’t completely block a nominee, but it does require 60 votes to override a hold and schedule an up-or-down vote by the entire senate. And with the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, the Republicans now have 41 votes in the senate, meaning they can filibuster any nominee of their choosing.

Shelby’s action came just two days after Obama said, “Let’s have a fight about the real stuff,” as he discussed how his nominees have been held hostage with senate Democrats.

Shelby’s holds prompted New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to weigh in on senatorial procedure:

In the past, holds were used sparingly. That’s because, as a Congressional Research Service report on the practice says, the Senate used to be ruled by “traditions of comity, courtesy, reciprocity, and accommodation.” But that was then. Rules that used to be workable have become crippling now that one of the nation’s major political parties has descended into nihilism, seeing no harm — in fact, political dividends — in making the nation ungovernable. … And with the national G.O.P. having abdicated any responsibility for making things work, it’s only natural that individual senators should feel free to take the nation hostage until they get their pet projects funded.

NPR’s Watching Washington blog concluded that all American should be grateful to Sen. Shelby:

Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Shelby, the senior Republican senator from Alabama, and the rest of the Senate should be furious at him.

The reason is simple. Shelby has overstepped the usual bounds of caution and produced an act of senatorial arrogance so breathtaking that the country just might notice. And if the country actually knew that such shenanigans were possible, the country would be amazed and, one would hope, perturbed.

That is why 99 other senators should be short of breath, too. Because if Shelby gets noticed with this extreme version of business as usual, other senators conducting smaller-scale hostage operations on similarly selfish impulses may get noticed, too.

The post continues:

The tactic works by inducing pain. It slows or disrupts the work of literally dozens of federal agencies and courts. It interferes with the normal execution of the functions we all pay taxes to support. But this is not the goal; it is merely pressure, a means to an end.

Placing a hold on a bill or appointment has another purpose. It gives any senator leverage over the White House and the rest of the Senate.

In this case, it serves notice that until Richard Shelby has been satisfied, nothing on the Senate agenda will be more important than satisfying Richard Shelby.

Continue reading…

Toyota recap: Tough talk from NHTSA

toyota-logo.jpgIt’s been quite a week for Toyota.

On Monday, the automaker announced its “comprehensive plan” for fixing sticking gas pedals, and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. president and COO James E. Lentz did a series of media appearances, trying to address concerns about the massive recall.

Lentz’s statements prompted members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to send him a letter on Tuesday, asking him to clarify the apparent discrepancies in information provided by Toyota to the public and to Congressional staffers.

On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said: “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it,” he said. “Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it.” He later clarified his comments, and here’s a statement LaHood made on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site on Feb. 3:

lahood.jpgI want to encourage owners of any recalled Toyota models to contact their local dealer and get their vehicles fixed as soon as possible. NHTSA will continue to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues.

LaHood’s tough stance on holding Toyota accountable for producing safe cars stands in marked contrast to previous NHTSA investigations. As the Gazette-Mail reported on Jan. 30, Toyota employee Christopher Santucci, hired directly away from NHTSA, admitted under oath in a December deposition that he discussed the 2004 investigation with his former colleagues at the federal safety agency. Following those discussions, NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations limited the scope of the investigation, excluding incidents of unintended acceleration that lasted longer that one second and where the car couldn’t be controlled by applying the brake.

And it’s nice to see the national media is catching on to the chummy relationship between Toyota and the agency that was supposed to be monitoring it. It only took five days for the New York Times and ABC News to publish their own stories about Toyota, NHTSA and Santucci. Here’s ABC’s lead from yesterday’s “Revolving Door: From US Safety Agency to Toyota Representative” story:

Federal safety investigators agreed to exclude reports of the most serious cases of alleged “runaway Toyotas” after the intervention of a former safety official hired to be a Washington, D.C. representative of Toyota, an ABC News investigation has found.

According to this latest update on the recall, Toyota is still focusing on floor mats and sticking accelerator pedals. It’s also looking at issues with software that controls the braking system in 2010 Prius models.

Here’s another look at reports that caught our attention this week:

Are schools expected to guarantee a certain level of proficiency of all students, or sort and route them into fields in which they will excel? Both, actually, which creates a tension between whether it is best to group students by ability or mix students of different abilities. A recent summary from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research explains all the pros and cons and some recent international scholarship and concludes, “Ultimately, how students are arranged matters less than the instruction they encounter.”

Twelve years after the publication of an influential article by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in the international medical journal the Lancet that linked autism to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, the Lancet formally retracted the paper, the Los Angeles Times reported. The U.K. General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practice Panel had recently concluded that “Wakefield had provided false information in the report and acted with a ‘callous disregard’ for children in the study,” according to the article. Wakefield, whose findings led to a drop in vaccinations in both the U.S. and the U.K., may lose his medical license.

Republicans are courting big Wall Street donors, hoping to capitalize on feelings of buyers remorse in executives who have become disenchanted with President Obama, the Wall Street Journal reports. While Democrats have dominated fund-raising from executives at big financial institutions during recent elections, Republicans are promoting the idea that they are banks’ best hope for fending off a crack-down, according to the article. “GOP strategists hope to benefit from the reaction to the White House’s populist rhetoric and proposals, which range from sharp critiques of bonuses to a tax on big Wall Street banks, caps on executive pay and curbs on business practices deemed too risks,” Brody Mullins and Neil King Jr. write.

Here’s another installment of stories and issues that caught our attention this week:

More than 4,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan may receive medical benefits to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, the Associated Press reported. In response to a class action lawsuit alleging that recent veterans with PTSD had been illegally denied benefits, the military has agreed to review records of thousands of discharged veterans.

Another reason not to smoke during pregnancy: Researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute have measured a difference in the way babies who were exposed to cigarette smoke regulate their blood pressure, the BBC reports. It appears the smoke exposure changes the way the young bodies control drops and surges in blood pressure — the way the body ensures a steady supply of blood and oxygen to the brain. Researchers theorize that the smoke could play a role in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Children enrolled in Head Start programs see positive impacts in their learning while in the program, but the benefits begin to disappear by the end of the first grade, Education Week reports. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said a new federal report shows that Head Start needs to improve its quality, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan agreed.

Whistleblowers tried to alert the Securities and Exchange Commission to violations of securities law, but the SEC “has a haphazard, decentralized system for analyzing outsider information,” the Washington Post reports.

Poverty is growing in the Baltimore suburbs while decreasing in the city, the Baltimore Sun reports. This fits with a national trend identified by a study released by the Brookings Institution, which found that the suburbs are now home to the largest and fastest growing population of poor people in the country.

unemploymentinsurance.JPGUnemployment insurance problems? ProPublica.org has an Insurance Tracker that maps which states’ unemployment insurance programs are in trouble. So far, 25 states have run out of money and either borrowed, raised taxes or cut benefits. The six-month projections show which states are expected to be insolvent or in trouble. So far, West Virginia is listed “in the clear.”

Caperton, recusal and judicial elections

benjaminap.jpgInteresting column by Adam Liptak in today’s New York Times, in which he observes that the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court may be a little bit better at interpreting precedent than predicting what impact their rulings may have in the future.

Liptak mentioned in passing the Caperton case, in which a 5-4 majority ruled in June that West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin (pictured) should have stepped down from a case involving the company of major campaign donor Don Blankenship. (See previous coverage here, here and here.) Liptak wrote:

[D]ire prediction sometimes seems the court’s default rhetorical mode.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., dissenting from a decision about judicial disqualification in June, said the majority opinion would “inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be.”

That overstated the decision’s likely effect, Penny J. White, a former judge who is now a law professor at the University of Tennessee wrote in The Harvard Law Review in November. She said there would be no “onslaught of judicial recusal motions,” basing her view “on my experience as a state trial and appellate judge and my interaction as a judicial educator with judges from all 50 states.”

I haven’t seen any academic studies on recusal in the wake of the court’s ruling. Anecdotally, it doesn’t appear that there has been a deluge of “Caperton motions” in the courts that I cover. I did take note when Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey voluntarily stepped aside from the criminal case against Natasha Light, the passenger in the truck involved in a high-speed chase the night Charleston Police officer Jerry Jones was killed. Bailey’s clerk, Lori Teel, is Jones’ sister.

(Readers, feel free to bring any cases to my attention if I’ve missed the boat on recusal motions.)

I’m also curious to see if groups with defined agendas have been busy donating money to justices and judges they would want off of their cases, but inexplicably, the Campaign Finance Center section of the Secretary of State’s Web site doesn’t currently allow the public to review campaign finance reports online.

Continue reading…

Here’s another look at stories that caught our attention recently:

Pennsylvania’s Judicial Conduct Board, which is tasked with overseeing judges in the Keystone State, conducts its business behind closed doors, leading some to question whether it is effective in maintaining public confidence in the integrity of judges, writes William Ecenbarger in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

An Associated Press investigation found that “a federal spending surge of more than $20 billion for roads and bridges in President Barack Obama’s first stimulus has had no effect on local unemployment rates, raising questions about his argument for billions more to address an “urgent need to accelerate job growth.” ” The story drew this response from Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The Gazette’s Coal Tattoo blog recently pointed out a Rolling Stone magazine article that listed Massey Energy President Don Blankenship among the top “climate killers.”  A reader commented that Rolling Stone is hardly a good source for information about global warming and similar issues … but in fact, the magazine’s politics section is full of great stuff, including this piece about how President Obama has packed his economic team with Wall Street insiders.

Be warned. This story might spoil your lunch.  In case you missed the New York Times story over the holidays, you should know that several years ago federal officials let beef producers use a new process of injecting ground beef with ammonia to kill E. coli bacteria and salmonella. They also let producers use fatty trimmings — that are particularly susceptible to contamination and that had once been relegated to pet food and cooking oil. Bon appetit.