Sustained Outrage

Time for another look at stories that grabbed our attention this week.

Yum. That non-organic celery you’re eating comes with 67 pesticides, CNN
from the Environmental Working Group. Also high on the dirty list:
peaches, strawberries and apples. But there is so much more.

Oregon’s solicitor general Jerry Lidz resigned in protest over the way the state attorney general’s office handled the investigation into an unwritten, handshake deal that allowed former University of Oregon football coach and athletic director Mike Bellotti to collect millions of dollars before leaving for ESPN, the Oregonian reported. Lidz’s wife, Melinda Grier, lost her jobs as the university’s general counsel after the details of the undocumented contract surfaced.

A federal judge dismissed extortion charges against two candidates in a Jersey City municipal election, ruling that they could not be charged with peddling influence in offices they did not hold, the Newark Star-Ledger reported. Louis and Ronald Manzo allegedly accepted a bribe from a government informant posing as a developer looking for building approvals, but they were not yet in office. Prosecutors argued that taking money and promising favors based on the power they hoped to gain after election was enough to convict them under the Hobbs Act, but U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares disagreed.

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.

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.

Here’s another installment of stories that made us take notice this week:

The former mayor of West Linn, Ore., admitted in court on Tuesday that she knowingly lied on an election document in 2008, claiming that she was “degreed in English” when she had no such degree, the Oregonian reported. Patti Galle resigned from office in April, two days after the paper reported that she had bought a degree from what investigators called an online degree mill in February 2010. Galle, who originally claimed she had a degree from San Jose State University, had the online degree backdated to 1973, although Redding University has only existed since 2003, according to investigators.

After spending more than $1 million and three and 1/2 years defending the case, the city of Portland agreed to a $1.6 million settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a mentally ill man who died in police custody, the Oregonian also reported. James P. Chasse Jr.’s family contended that three officers tackled him face-first on a concrete sidewalk then brutally beat him, breaking 16 ribs (some of which punctured a lung), then engaged in a cover-up (which included bagging bread crumbs as evidence of cocaine and telling civilian witnesses that Chasse had cocaine convictions and was on drugs). The police were prepared to argue that Chasse died of excited delerium, and that the fractured ribs were the result of multiple attempts to revive him using CPR. Notably, the settlement requires the police department to release to the family records including the internal affairs investigation and training and discipline records, which had been under seal while the case was pending.

Residents in Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood are outraged after learning that the area was put on lockdown after a city police officer lied, saying he had been shot by a black man with cornrows and a mark or tattoo underneath his left eye, according to this account by the Philadelphia Daily News. In fact, Sgt. Robert Ralston (who is white), apparently unhappy that he had been transferred to a high-crime district, shot himself in the shoulder then concocted a detailed story about a struggle with an assailant in the early morning hours of April 5. The department suspended the 21-year veteran for 30 days with an intent to dismiss, according to the story.

Here again is another installment of stories that caught our eye this week.

Officials are investigating complaints that employees at a Los Angeles County hospital ran a makeshift beauty salon in the neonatal intensive care unit, the Los Angeles Times reported. “The smell of acetone permeates the back area of the NICU,” according to one complaint, which alleged that doctors and nurses were getting manicures during their shifts. There have also been allegations that the unit is understaffed and that unqualified doctors and staff are providing substandard care.

In the wake of the tragic murder of a member of the University of Virginia’s women’s lacrosse team, allegedly at the hands of a member of the men’s lacrosse team who had a drunken confrontation with a female police officer in Lexington, Va., in 2008, the Washington Post noted that eight out of 41 players on the men’s team have been charged with an alcohol-related offense during their tenure with the team. The charges included underage alcohol possession, using a fake ID and driving while intoxicated, according to the Post, and resulted in six convictions and two acquittals.

A former Chicago Police commander accused of participating in widespread torture of suspects will stand trial on federal perjury charges this month, the Chicago Tribune reported. The city has paid out millions of dollars in civil lawsuits related to Jon Burke and other officers’ conduct, but he avoided criminal charges until 2008, when prosecutors accused him of lying under oath during a civil case in 2003 by saying he neither knew about nor participated in the torture of suspects. “In 2006, an investigation by a special Cook County prosecutor concluded that Burge and his officers obtained dozens of confessions through torture, but found that prosecutors had no recourse because of the statute of limitations,” the article notes.

Here, after an unintended hiatus, is another installment of stories that caught our attention recently.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on whether supporters of a referendum to overturn Washington State’s domestic partner law could keep the names of 138,000 people who signed a petition secret, the Los Angeles Times reported. Justice Antonin Scalia remarked: “You know, you can’t run a democracy this way, with everybody being afraid of having his political positions known.” The petition’s signers fear repurcussions if their identities become public. The court’s ruling could effect campaign disclosure laws throughout the country, including West Virginia, which has faced successful lawsuits claiming that its revised campaign disclosure laws are unconstitutional.

A Cook County judge ruled Tuesday that there was no probable cause to arrest an off-duty Chicago police officer for driving under the influence after he was involved in a crash that killed two young men on Thanksgiving Day 2007, the Chicago Tribune reported. None of the four officers at the scene noticed any sign of John Ardelean being drunk, and neither did the EMT who responded, Circuit Judge Thomas Gainer noted. That conclusion was reached by a police lieutenant hours after the crash, when no probable cause existed to arrest Ardelean, according to the judge. In a subsequent article, columnist John Kass questioned Gainer’s ruling, noting that a civil attorney for one of the deceased men’s families had Ardelean’s phone records, which indicated that the off-duty officer called another police officer and the bar where he had been drinking, but never called 911 following the crash.

The decision by the San Diego Unified School System to buy a certain type of computerized whiteboards has drawn scrutiny from the FBI, reported Wednesday. Similar purchases in Florida and Iowa are also under federal investigation, according to the article. A spokeswoman for Promethean, the company that makes the whiteboards, said that she believes the company is a witness, and not the target, of the Florida and Iowa investigations.

Here’s this week’s installment of stories that made us take notice:

A police-led investigation into the shooting of an unarmed pastor in Georgia by members of a drug task force failed to uncover that one of the officers involved wasn’t properly certified to even carry a gun, writes’s Radley Balko. Three masked, undercover officers swarmed Jonathan Ayers after he used an ATM, and they shot him after he grazed an officer with his car as he tried to get away, thinking that he was being robbed. “[T]he aggressive and short-sighted apprehension of Jonathan Ayers that led to his death [is] bad enough. That a police officer untrained in the use of lethal force and unqualified to be holding a badge and gun was put on a narcotics task force, and then placed in a position where he was able to shoot and kill a non-suspect is worse,” Balko concluded. “But the kicker has to be that the subsequent police-led investigations of this high-profile case failed to turn up such a critical piece of information. It ought to cast more doubt on the already dubious notion that police shootings should only be investigated by other police officers.”

Atrocities committed by U.S.-led military forces in Afghanistan — and subsequent misinformation from official sources — are often unreported, unquestioned and unchallenged by a press corps that has become caught up in “embed culture,” says Jerome Starkey, who reports from Afghanistan for the Times of London, in this commentary published by Some reporters, constrained by security policies set in far-off newsrooms and dependent on their military hosts for food, shelter and protection, “prefer access to truth,” Starkey writes.

Parents’ cigarette smoke gives 15,000 kids asthma every year in the United Kingdom, according to a new report from the Royal College of Physicians. Even more develop chest infections and ear problems because of their parents’ second-hand smoke, the Guardian reports.

It’s time for our weekly roundup of stories that caught our attention this week.

A judge ordered a California advertising company to pay a San Francisco lawyer $7,000 for violating the state’s anti-spam laws, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Daniel Balsam filed the suit in 2008, while he was still in law school. Under California’s anti-spam law, unlike its federal counterpart, individuals can sue (and receive up to $1,000 in damages for each unwanted e-mail) even if they didn’t lose any money or accept any offers.

People pay more for cable than they pay for water, says the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. People complain if you try to raise water rates, but the nation is filled with century-old pipes that bring water to you or carry waste away. These largely unseen systems have been neglected, and they’re falling apart, the New York Times reports as part of its Toxic Waters series.

After three recent apparent suicides in the deep gorges on campus, professors at Cornell University are interrupting class to remind their students that they care about their well-being, according to the New York Times. The deaths, including two on successive days last week, have revived talk of the university’s reputation, which school officials say is undeserved, as a high-stress “suicide school.”

Although a judge threatened him with jail, an Ohio newspaper reporter who obtained a psychiatric evaluation of a suspected serial killer remains free after his source, another judge, came forward. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold said her colleague, Common Pleas Judge Timothy McGinty, was within his rights to release the report, although she blasted the paper’s coverage of her at the start of the hearing, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

Here’s our weekly installment of stories that made us sit up and take notice this week.

Black lung lofts is an eye-catching story from the LA Weekly News about asthma and other life-long damage suffered by Los Angeles children and adults who live near busy highways. Some of the dense housing areas are trendy and promoted by people working on sustainable urban living.

How much medical marijuana is too much? That’s the question that a Sacramento jury had to decide in the case of a man caught trying to take three pounds of the drug onto a flight to New Orleans, the Sacramento Bee reported. The man, a deep sea diver who had been injured in an oil-rig accident, had a doctor’s recommendation that he could possess up to five pounds of pot. But the jury convicted of misdemeanor possession and illegally transporting marijuana, a felony that carries up to four years in prison.

For patients with Altzheimer’s disease who exhibit dementia, their treatment can lead to legal entanglements, as this story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel details. Dementia, whose symptoms can include irritability, blow-ups, yelling and hitting, is a medical, not a psychiatric, condition, yet patients can end up committed to psychiatric institutions, sometimes forcing their families to confront legal hurdles as well as treatment-related issues.

Toyota to mount its own information campaign

Toyota is preparing to go on the offensive this week, several media outlets are reporting, particularly against those who have criticized the automaker’s response to allegations of problems with electronic throttle control systems in its cars.

From the Wall Street Journal:

With embarrassing vehicle recalls and testy congressional hearings behind it, Toyota Motor Corp. is planning an assault next week on its critics as the company digs in for a mammoth legal battle.

In a media event planned for Monday and a Tuesday address to 1,000 suppliers, the Japanese auto maker plans to defend its electronics systems.

It will roll out independent experts like the head of Stanford University’s auto-research center to discredit a study that suggests electronics are to blame for sudden acceleration in some Toyota vehicles.

The company is also challenging the credibility of a self-described whistleblower who has turned over internal company documents to congressional investigators. The company is providing reporters with court filings that it says show the former employee has a history of mental illness and poor performance reviews.

And the Financial Times:

Toyota will on Monday hit back at one of its most high-profile critics by staging a technical demonstration intended to rebut his claim to have uncovered a potentially dangerous flaw in the carmaker’s onboard electronic control systems.

Toyota’s rebuttal of tests carried out by David Gilbert, associate professor of auto technology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, comes amid growing pressure on the Japanese company to back up its insistence that electronic defects had nothing to do with reported acceleration problems suffered by its cars.

There was also a very interesting article published Sunday by Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post (registration required) that explored why it is so difficult for Toyota — or any company that markets complex products full of electronics — to definitively get to the root of the problem.

After receiving complaints about unintended acceleration, the company has to try to reproduce the incident, and then try to determine what may have caused it, Ahrens noted.

Then follows a process of elimination. It’s not dissimilar to a doctor diagnosing an illness: Take a thorough reading of the symptoms, then begin eliminating causes. Treat what you think is the illness. If it doesn’t go away, treat your second guess at the illness.

Toyota appears from the start to have removed its electronic throttle control from the list of possible causes of the runaway acceleration and focused on two mechanical issues: floor mat entrapment and sticky gas pedals.

Ahrens draws a parallel between Toyota’s predicament and that of software developers, who test and test and test their product before releasing it, only to have glitches and errors they never envisioned pop up during public use.

If you put a lot of parts together to form a complex electromechanical machine and make it talk to itself via software, it can behave, sometimes, in ways you cannot anticipate. It can fail for reasons you cannot anticipate.

That’s the problem Toyota faces. And, after thorough testing by Toyota, NHTSA and garage mechanics trying to win the $1 million prize, no single answer may be found. Obviously, this will not stop juries from awarding damages in the liability lawsuits already filed.