Sustained Outrage

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.

Continue reading…

Obama DOJ pick from polluter under fire

Obama EPA administrator Lisa Jackson isn’t commenting on allegations that, while head of New Jersey’s environmental agency, she tried to suppress a major report on the health effects of the toxic chemical PFOA.

But, EPA attorneys are talking about their concerns that a former general counsel for America’s Top Superfund polluter isn’t the right person to run the U.S. Department of Justice’s environmental division.

ignaciamoreno.jpgPresident Barack Obama’s nomination of Ignacia Moreno is moving quietly through the confirmation process, with hearings expected to begin in the next few weeks. But ProPublica’s Joaquin Sapien interviewed six EPA attorneys who questioned whether Moreno is right for the post.

As ProPublica reported:

Moreno has worked for the environment division before, during the Clinton administration. But her most recent job — as environmental counsel for General Electric — has raised eyebrows among Environmental Protection Agency attorneys. Before Moreno worked for GE, she spent five years defending other companies in pollution-related lawsuits.

For decades, the EPA has clashed with GE over the many toxic waste sites the company has been linked to through the Superfund program. For the past two years, Moreno has defended GE in some of these cases. Now, if her nomination is confirmed, she will be one of the government’s top enforcement lawyers for the Superfund program and other environmental laws.

This controversy has also gotten some attention from Greenwire (via The New York Times)  and Think Progress.

Times - and wallets - are tight as ever. Still, West Virginia families will have to shell out even more money this fall when college students head back to campus.  

Officials at 12 of the state’s public colleges and universities – all offering at least some four-year degrees – have increased tuition and fees for the 2009-2010 academic year, according to data released by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

Four schools – Concord, Glenville State, West Liberty and WVU-Parkersburg – increased tuition costs by at least 8.6 percent for resident undergraduates.

By comparison, Fairmont State and West Virginia State hiked tuition costs by 3.08 and 3.99 percent, respectively, for resident undergraduates. Still, a year’s tuition and fees at Fairmont State, at $4,952, costs more than four of the other schools. Concord, at $4,974 a year, is the exception.

For resident undergraduates, West Virginia University begs the highest yearly tuition, at $5,304 per year, while WVU-Parkersburg and WVU’s Potomac State College, at $2,845 and $2,886, will cost the least per year. The latter two schools offer a mix of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees with some two-year and some four-year programs.

Officials at both WVU and Marshall, who raised tuition 4 percent and 6.90 percent, respectively, were criticized for announcing their tuition increases so late in the spring. 

Continue reading…

Byrd on Bayer and chemical safety

byrd_150.jpg

West Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator, Robert C. Byrd, quizzed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier this week about chemical plant safety, in the wake of the congressional hearings and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigation at Bayer CropScience in Institute.

According to a MetroNews story,  wanted to clear up questions about overlapping jurisdiction among various federal agencies, including EPA, OSHA, the CSB and the Coast Guard:

“During the months since the explosion we learned that no one federal agency is responsible for the safety of chemical plants,” Byrd said. “That leaves you and me with the classic Washington question, who is in charge here?”

The senior senator asked Secretary Napolitano to look into the situation and see if there’s a better way for the federal government to secure chemical facilities and investigate accidents.

Continue reading…

Rocky IV: Jay takes on Bayer’s MIC stockpile

rockefellercolor.jpgToday’s Gazette included a story about a letter that Sen. Jay Rockefeller signed urging the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to figure out how Bayer CropScience could eliminate the huge stockpile of deadly methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant.

Yesterday, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper was telling me that he thought this was the biggest development in years — perhaps ever — concerning chemical plant safety in the valley.

Carper can sometimes be prone to exaggerate … but as I look back on this and study it, maybe he’s right. Part of the reason is exactly what Carper said it is: Rockefeller is powerful both in West Virginia and in Washington. He’s got a lot of seniority in the Senate now, and he’s chairman of its Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

But there may be much more to it than that, if you look at Rockefeller’s history with the chemical industry. He’s their friend, their supporter, and that makes it all the more significant when he criticizes them.

Continue reading…

Rocky IV on Bayer: It’s an outrage!

bayershelter.JPG

A U.S. Chemical Safety Board map shows that areas and populations forced the shelter in place by the August 2008 Bayer explosion and fire.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller had already issued one statement about the congressional investigation on the Bayer CropScience explosion and fire. It was issued prior to the hearing, and included in the hearing record.

But the West Virginia Democrat was apparently pretty upset by what he heard during the hearing. Rockefeller’s office issued another statement this morning. Here it is:

“These findings are an outrage. I was expecting bad news, but this is far worse than I could have imagined and very disturbing,” said Senator Rockefeller, who submitted testimony at the hearing. “Bayer Chemical Company owes all West Virginia families a clear explanation for this explosion, the response, and any potential hazards, and should cooperate fully with this investigation. We must make sure this never happens again.”

 

Continue reading…

 micphoto31.jpg

An overhead view showing the proximity of the 37,000-pound MIC storage tank (the day tank) to the Methomyl residue treater, which exploded. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Two members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation submitted statements for the record of yesterday’s House subcommittee hearing on the Bayer CropScience Institute plant explosion. And a third member of the delegation issued a press release later commenting on the hearing. None of West Virginia’s representatives are on the committee, so they did not get to ask questions.

I didn’t include those statements in the print edition story we published this morning, in large part because the story was already pretty long. So here’s what they had to say …

Sen. Robert C. Byrd:

byrd_150.jpg“I applaud Chairman Stupak for holding this hearing on the fatal August 2008 explosion, and for the Committees extensive examination of this matter. In addition, those individuals from the Kanawha Valley who came to testify: Saint Albans Chief of Police Joseph Crawford, Chief of Homeland Security and Emergency Response Michael Dorsey, Commissioner Kent Carper, and Ms. Pamela Nixon from the WV DEP, were essential to the Committees investigation.   I commend those first responders who tried desperately, and successfully, to protect their communities, with little assistance from Bayer.”

Continue reading…

So, does gambling pay?

reporter.JPG

The answer appears to be yes, and no.

Two political science professors have analyzed legalized gambling revenue and public spending in West Virginina in the most recent issue of “The West Virginia Public Affairs Reporter,” published by the  Institute for Public Affairs at WVU’s Politial Science Department.

In their report, “Counting the Chips: The Policy Consequences of Legalized Gambling in West Virginia”, professors Patrick A. Pierce and Richard A. Brisbin Jr., found:

— State and local governments have certainly become more dependent legalized gambling revenue. West Virginia received $25.4 million in gambling revenue in 1991, compared to $639.2 million in 2007.
— Municipal and county governments began receiving legalized gambling revenue in2003, when it amounted to $3.4 million. In 2007, cities and counties received $7.8 million.
Legalized gambling makes a small contribution to relatively low-wage job creation in the state.
— Social costs and problem gambling are difficult to measure, but an earlier study found that problem and pathological gambling was three to four times as common among people living closer than 50 miles from a casino compared to those living farther away. Practically every West Virginian lives within 50 miles of a video lottery outlet and five of the 10 largest cities are within 50 miles of a racetrack with electronic gaming.

Continue reading…

rockefellercolor.jpg

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller is urging the U.S. Coast Guard not to allow Bayer CropScience to abuse maritime transportation security regulations to hide information about the August 2008 explosion that killed two workers at the company’s Institute plant.

Rockfeller, D-W.Va., sent a letter today to Admiral Thad W. Allen, commander of the Coast Guard, outlining his concerns about the ongoing push by Bayer to use Coast Guard homeland security rules to block release of information from a federal Chemical Safety Board probe of the deadly blast.

Continue reading…

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.)

Continue reading…