Sustained Outrage

‘How much do they need to know?’

Kanawha school board member Robin Rector has asked Superintendent Ron Duerring to clarify what information principals receive about students who are released from a juvenile detention center or similar facility and then return to a regular school.

Rector said she was concerned about what she read in a Sunday Gazette-Mail story, where some Kanawha County high school principals said they do not always know what  a student did after they’ve returned to school.

In the story, principals were asked particularly about students who had been charged with offenses related to drugs or violence.

Rector worries “that there is a lack of understanding among principals about what information is available to them.”

“I want to make sure that the principals have all the information they need to deal with this,” she said.

The question is: How much do they need to know? she said.

Also, Rector wants to keep school board members in the loop and school officials a “little more in tune with how this is handled.”

“The scale seems to be leaning a little more heavily toward [protecting] the student than toward protection of the general population,” she said. “And that’s why I needed to know.”

At the same time, Rector does not want to “create a scare or a stir.” Many students who get in trouble deserve a second or third chance, Rector said, and she hopes that teenagers who return to high school aren’t haunted by a bias because of what the principal learns.

rockefellercolorAnother full day of Toyota testimony in Washington today, this time before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, chaired by West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

Rockefeller, perhaps in response to this article by the Associated Press, which listed him among Toyota’s powerful friends in D.C., made it clear that he was disappointed in both the Japanese automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Here’s how the New York Times described the Democrat’s grilling of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood:

In a lengthy exchange with Mr. LaHood, Mr. Rockefeller suggested officials at the federal safety agency accepted Toyota’s explanation that floor mats were a cause of the sudden unintended acceleration episodes because they did not understand the cars’ computer system, which many drivers and critics have pointed to as a possible cause.

“I think N.H.T.S.A. investigators would rather focus on floor mats than microchips because they understand floor mats,” Mr. Rockefeller said. “They don’t understand microchips. We’re going to change that, but this is what the situation has been. It’s a major letdown on N.H.T.S.A.’s part, looking back and up to the present.”

Mr. LaHood said he did not know whether the agency “turned a blind eye” to the electronics issue but vowed a “complete review” of the situation.

Senator Rockefeller, who chaired the entire hearing, concluded it with a long series of questions for the company and an admonishment. “Safety took a second seat to profits,” he said. “Things do not happen in Japanese corporations by chance. They happen by decision.”

Mr. Rockefeller said he was frustrated by a lack of direct answers from Toyota executives to questions from committee members. “There is more knowledge at the table than has disclosed itself,” he said.

LaHood left open the very real possibility that the administration may require all automakers to have brake override systems in their cars, so that a driver applying the brake would automatically cause the car to stop accelerating. As I’ve reported before, some cars, including Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Nissan, already have these kind of fail safes in place.

One document released by the Committee seems to suggest that certain Toyota models experienced a significant jump in reports of unintended acceleration after electronic throttle control systems were introduced. Another suggests that Toyota was particularly leery of recalls.

One report, written by Toyota Motors North America VP of Technical and Regulatory Affairs-Safety Christopher Tinto, cites Toyota’s “close relationship with management and staff at NHTSA” and “strong negotiations with agency on difficult issues.” Tinto’s presentation also had the following bullet points:

  • Some of the quality issues we are experiencing are showing up in defect investigations [by NHTSA] (rear gas struts, ball joints, etc.)
  • NHTSA’s management is aggressive, and not technical
  • Although we rigorously defend our products through good negotiation and analysis, we have a less defensible product
  • TMA [Toyota Motors North America] has been quite successful in mediating difficult issues (ex: ES 350/Camry floor mat recall), but it is becoming increasingly challenging
  • Toyota must remain vigilant to guard its quality reputation

Remember, the Lexus ES 350 is the model that Rhonda Smith was driving during her own incident of unintended acceleration (of speeds up to 100 miles per hour) that she described to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last week. Also remember that Tinto’s department hired NHTSA investigator Christopher Santucci away from the agency in 2003, according to Santucci’s deposition under oath in December 2009.

Continue reading…

BarbaraMilanoKeenanEarlier today, the Senate confirmed Virginia Supreme Court Justice Barbara Milano Keenan to a seat on the U.S. Circuit of Appeals for the 4th Circuit by a vote of 99-0.

Keenan will fill the seat previously occupied by Judge H. Emory Widener, a Nixon nominee who died in 2007. The 15-seat panel, which covers West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, now has three vacancies remaining.

But why did Keenan, who was approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 29, have to undergo a roll-call vote?

The short answer is that some senator anonymously blocked Keenan’s confirmation, forcing the senate to invoke cloture, which requires 60 votes to override the threat of a filibuster.

But when it came time to vote on Keenan, not one senator expressed disapproval of her nomination. Not one senator took issue with her merits or qualifications. Not one senator pointed to troublesome rulings or opinions in her three-decade career as a judge on every level of Virginia’s state legal system.

So, one can only conclude that the objection to a simple up-and-down vote, which can be accomplished much more quickly and efficiently than a roll-call vote, was a political maneuver with the sole purpose of slowing the entire nomination process to a crawl.

As Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee noted on Tuesday, the Senate is moving so slowly that the number of vacancies has gone up by at least ten since President Obama took office.

Leahy added:

Although the Senate Judiciary Committee has favorably reported 29 of President Obama’s Federal circuit and district court nominees to the Senate for final consideration, because of Republican obstruction, the Senate has confirmed only 15 Federal circuit and district court nominees.  So, by March 2 of the second year of President Bush’s first term, 39; by March 2 of the second year of President Obama’s presidency, 15.  That is more than 60 percent fewer.

Despite the fact that President Obama began sending judicial nominations to the Senate two months earlier than President Bush, after President Obama’s 13 months in office the Senate is has confirmed only 15 Federal circuit and district court judges.  During the 17 months I chaired the Judiciary Committee during President Bush’s first two years, the Senate confirmed 100 of his judicial nominees.  That is the stark reality and the difference in fair treatment and approach.

Last year’s total was the fewest judicial nominees confirmed in the first year of a Presidency in more than 50 years.  Those 12 Federal circuit and district court confirmations were even below the 17 the Senate Republican majority allowed to be confirmed in the 1996 session.

Among the frustrations is that Senate Republicans have delayed and obstructed nominees chosen after consultation with Republican home state Senators.  Despite President Obama’s efforts, Senate Republicans have treated his nominees much, much worse.

I noted when the Senate considered the nominations of Judge Christina Reiss of Vermont and Mr. Abdul Kallon of Alabama relatively promptly that they should serve as the model for Senate action. Sadly, they are the exception rather than the model. They show what the Senate could do, but does not.  Time and again, noncontroversial nominees are delayed. When the Senate does finally consider them, they are confirmed overwhelmingly. Of the 15 Federal circuit and district court judges confirmed, twelve have been confirmed unanimously.

That is right.  Republicans have only voted against three of President Obama’s nominees to the Federal circuit and district courts.  One of those, Judge Gerry Lynch of the Second Circuit, garnered only three negative votes and 94 votes in favor.  Judge Andre Davis of Maryland was stalled for months and then confirmed with 72 votes in favor and only 16 against.  Judge David Hamilton was filibustered in a failed effort to prevent an up-or-down vote.

The obstruction and delay is part of a partisan pattern.  Even when they cannot say “no,” Republicans nonetheless demand that the Senate go slow. The practice is continuing. This is the 17th filibuster of President Obama’s nominees. That does not count the many other nominees who were delayed or are being denied up-or-down votes by Senate Republicans refusing to agree to time agreements to consider even noncontroversial nominees.

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It’s only Monday, but state Department of Transportation spokesman Brent Walker offered up this gem in a Daily Mail story about a public hearing on closing the main entrance to Coonskin Park — a hearing where the public won’t be allowed to speak:

It’s kind of an introduction to the project, and we encourage anyone and everyone to come and have their voices heard … Well, perhaps not their voice heard, but certainly we want them to weigh in on the project.

There’s more information about this proposal here, and if members of the public want to comment — an perhaps ask why the public isn’t allowed to speak at at public hearing — you can click on this link to do so.

Secret meetings, Feb. 26, 2010

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Today’s issue of the State Register includes five meetings that violated the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

Two of the meetings concerned West Liberty University, one a meeting of the school’s board of governors and the others of an institutional finance committee.

Other agencies that violated the public notice requirements this week included the Ron Yost Personal Assistance Services Board, the board of governors at Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College, and the Information Technology Council.

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 another installment of stories that caught our attention this week:

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has a detailed account of a New Orleans police supervisor who pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal obstruction charge, admitting that he took part in a conspiracy to justify the shootings of six unarmed people after Hurricane Katrina. An accompanying editorial, describing former Lt. Michael Lohman and the other officers involved as “a lawless gang,” explains that two NOPD investigations concluded that officers had been under fire and the shootings of civilians were self-defense. Lohman later admitted he knew at the scene that wasn’t true, and he encouraged the other officers to make up stories justifying the shootings, which killed two and wounded four.

The Los Angeles Board of Education, the district that boasts the highest number of charter schools in the nation, voted Tuesday to reject a number of applications from charter school operators. Instead, they chose to hand control of nearly 30 schools to nonprofit educational groups formed by teachers and administrators already employed by the district, according to an Associated Press story that appeared in Education Week. The vote awarded 12 chronically under-performing campuses and 18 new campuses to nonprofit educational groups, most of which are led by teachers and administrators already in place. Los Angeles Mayor  Antonio Villaraigosa called the board’s vote a terrible blow to reform. Local teachers unions had successfully lobbied the board’s vote.

Five years after a convicted sex offender kidnapped, raped and killed  9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in a case that grabbed national headlines, Florida legislators are beginning to rethink “how the state monitors sex offenders and whether current laws are really making children safer,” the Miami Herald reported. In the last five years, after the enactment of tougher laws, the number of people on Florida’s sex offender registry has gone up by almost 50 percent, and the state spends an additional $36 million a year on programs for sex offenders.

Remember BPA, that chemical used in many food containers and baby bottles, that is implicated in health issues such as reproductive problems and cancer? It’s in all kinds of things, such as the linings of food cans, dental sealants and ATM receipts. The Washington Post reports this week that it is proving difficult to avoid. Small amounts of the chemical show up in foods processed by companies that have switched to BPA-free containers.

Here’s another installment of stories from the last week that made us sit up and take notice:

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last weekend that the Environmental Protection Agency delayed regulation of the controversial chemical bisphenol A — known as BPA — just eight days after industry lobbyists met with White House officials and “aggressively pleaded its case that BPA should not be flagged for greater regulation.” You can read more from ProPublica here.

Lobbyists for the soft-drink industry apparently quashed a proposal to tax sugared drinks, the Los Angeles Times reported. Proponents of the suggested tax said that it would both reduce obesity and produce revenue that could help offset healthcare costs, but the industry lobbied lawmakers and financed favorable studies, according to the article.

Some studies concluded that electro-magnetic fields pose a health risk to humans, but others say they do not, and scientists can’t seem to agree, according to the Los Angeles Times. The paper offered more coverage on the issue here and here.

And the Internet may not be as anonymous as many users think, the Chicago Tribune reported, particularly after news organizations and courts are subpoenaing people who post defamatory comments. In deciding whether to reveal the identity of anonymous posters, media companies must balance “values such as free speech, public safety and the ability to foster an online community.”

Upgrading…

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We’re upgrading our blogs and moving them to a different server. We ask that you, our loyal readers, have a little patience while we do this. Check back if Sustained Outrage is down overnight or in the morning.

When we get back up and running we’ll have a little bit of a new look and new software that will let us do more.

Also, when the switch happens, some comments might get lost in the process, so check to see that your comments post.

Thanks for reading.

Military exposure bills approved by Veterans’ Committee

rockefellercolor.jpgLast week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs approved two bills geared towards improving health care and homelessness for veterans, particularly those who may have been exposed to hazardous materials during their service. You can read the press release here.

Particularly of note, the Homeless Veterans and Other Health Care Authorities Act of 2010 contains provisions that extends health care eligibility for Gulf War veterans until 2012, “including those exposed to sodium dichromate at Qarmat Ali.”

As the Gazette and others have reported, those exposed to the toxic chemical at the Qarmat Ali water plant included members members of the West Virginia National Guard’s 1092nd Engineer Battalion.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who serves on the Veterans’ Committee, issued the following statement:

For years, these soldiers were kept in the dark — not told about their exposure and left to fend for themselves. Today, they are struggling to get the health care they need and deserve — that is absolutely deplorable. This week’s comprehensive legislation is an important step forward and makes clear that we will fight for the men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line every day.

Sen. Byrd urges CSB to investigate DuPont plant

byrd_150.jpgThis just in from West Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator, Robert C. Byrd:

I urge OSHA and the Chemical Safety Board to fully investigate this incident.

That deadly toxic chemicals reportedly were allowed to escape over a period of days undetected suggests a severe breakdown in even the most basic safety protocols. I am urging the relevant Federal and state agencies to act swiftly in mitigating any threats that may exist at the plant, to identify breakdowns in the safety structure, and to recommend and implement corrections. I stand ready to offer any assistance my office can provide in helping these agencies execute their duties to provide for the safety of the workers and the public.