Daily Archives: February 15, 2009

Pa. judges accused of jailing kids for cash

Hillary Transue, who was sentenced to a wilderness camp for building a spoof MySpace page that lampooned her assistant principal in White Haven, Pa., on Friday. Transue says she did not have an attorney, nor was she informed of her right to one, when she was sentenced by Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella.

Judges allegedly took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juveniles in lockups

MSNBC | Feb 11, 2009

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – For years, the juvenile court system in Wilkes-Barre operated like a conveyor belt: Youngsters were brought before judges without a lawyer, given hearings that lasted only a minute or two, and then sent off to juvenile prison for months for minor offenses.

The explanation, prosecutors say, was corruption on the bench.

In one of the most shocking cases of courtroom graft on record, two Pennsylvania judges have been charged with taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers.

Courthouse Kickbacks

Michael Conahan, center, leaves the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pa., on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009. AP Photo by David Kidwell

“I’ve never encountered, and I don’t think that we will in our lifetimes, a case where literally thousands of kids’ lives were just tossed aside in order for a couple of judges to make some money,” said Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which is representing hundreds of youths sentenced in Wilkes-Barre.

Prosecutors say Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, Western PA Child Care LLC. The judges were charged on Jan. 26 and removed from the bench by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court shortly afterward.

No company officials have been charged, but the investigation is still going on.

The high court, meanwhile, is looking into whether hundreds or even thousands of sentences should be overturned and the juveniles’ records expunged.

Among the offenders were teenagers who were locked up for months for stealing loose change from cars, writing a prank note and possessing drug paraphernalia. Many had never been in trouble before. Some were imprisoned even after probation officers recommended against it.

Many appeared without lawyers, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1967 ruling that children have a constitutional right to counsel.

‘I have disgraced my judgeship’

The judges are scheduled to plead guilty to fraud Thursday in federal court. Their plea agreements call for sentences of more than seven years behind bars.

Courthouse Kickbacks

Mark Ciavarella, in foreground, leaves the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pa., on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009. AP Photo by David Kidwell

Ciavarella, 58, who presided over Luzerne County’s juvenile court for 12 years, acknowledged last week in a letter to his former colleagues, “I have disgraced my judgeship. My actions have destroyed everything I worked to accomplish and I have only myself to blame.” Ciavarella, though, has denied he got kickbacks for sending youths to prison.

Conahan, 56, has remained silent about the case.

Many Pennsylvania counties contract with privately run juvenile detention centers, paying them either a fixed overall fee or a certain amount per youth, per day.

In Luzerne County, prosecutors say, Conahan shut down the county-run juvenile prison in 2002 and helped the two companies secure rich contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, at least some of that dependent on how many juveniles were locked up.

One of the contracts — a 20-year agreement with PA Child Care worth an estimated $58 million — was later canceled by the county as exorbitant.

The judges are accused of taking payoffs between 2003 and 2006.

Allegations of extortion

Robert J. Powell co-owned PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care until June. His attorney, Mark Sheppard, said his client was the victim of an extortion scheme.

“Bob Powell never solicited a nickel from these judges and really was a victim of their demands,” he said. “These judges made it very plain to Mr. Powell that he was going to be required to pay certain monies.”

For years, youth advocacy groups complained that Ciavarella was ridiculously harsh and ran roughshod over youngsters’ constitutional rights. Ciavarella sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10.

The criminal charges confirmed the advocacy groups’ worst suspicions and have called into question all the sentences he pronounced.

Hillary Transue did not have an attorney, nor was she told of her right to one, when she appeared in Ciavarella’s courtroom in 2007 for building a MySpace page that lampooned her assistant principal.

Her mother, Laurene Transue, worked for 16 years in the child services department of another county and said she was certain Hillary would get a slap on the wrist. Instead, Ciavarella sentenced her to three months; she got out after a month, with help from a lawyer.

“I felt so disgraced for a while, like, what do people think of me now?” said Hillary, now 17 and a high school senior who plans to become an English teacher.

‘I was completely destroyed’

Laurene Transue said Ciavarella “was playing God. And not only was he doing that, he was getting money for it. He was betraying the trust put in him to do what is best for children.”

Kurt Kruger, now 22, had never been in trouble with the law until the day police accused him of acting as a lookout while his friend shoplifted less than $200 worth of DVDs from Wal-Mart. He said he didn’t know his friend was going to steal anything.

Kruger pleaded guilty before Ciavarella and spent three days in a company-run juvenile detention center, plus four months at a youth wilderness camp run by a different operator.

“Never in a million years did I think that I would actually get sent away. I was completely destroyed,” said Kruger, who later dropped out of school. He said he wants to get his record expunged, earn his high school equivalency diploma and go to college.

“I got a raw deal, and yeah, it’s not fair,” he said, “but now it’s 100 times bigger than me.”

Maine breaks record low temp set in 1925

Maine’s new record beats the old 48-below mark set in 1925 in Van Buren, also in the northern part of the state. The Jan. 16 low came as part of a blast of arctic air that swept across the state, leaving many other spots in the state shivering in temperatures that were in the double digits below zero.

A Maine event of 50 below excites scientists

Houston Chronicle | Feb 10, 2009


AUGUSTA, Maine — Teeth are chattering in New England, where scientists just spent about a month scrutinizing weather data before proclaiming Tuesday that, yes, Maine has pulled even with Vermont in bragging rights for the region’s lowest recorded temperature — 50 below.

That’s wicked cold, as a New Englander might say, the breath freezing in a puff on the first syllable. But even though it’s far from the chilliest the nation has ever seen, the attention to detail in declaring the tie — and not really the temperature itself — might show how deeply we feel about the weather.

“The general public, meteorologists and the media … we’re fascinated with extremes, whether it be with extreme snowfall, or how much rain fell, or in this case, how cold did it get,” said Hendricus Lulofs, chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service bureau in Caribou. “It’s the fascination of achieving something, or maybe having measured something that at least in modern times has never been measured before.”

The frigid Fahrenheit reading was recorded about 7:15 a.m. Jan. 16 at a remote data-collecting station in Big Black River, about four miles from the Canadian border. It ties the record set in 1933 in Bloomfield, Vt., for New England’s lowest temperature in roughly a century of record-keeping, and reflects the actual air temperature, not the wind chill factor.

But weather experts don’t award temperature extremes willy-nilly.

The National Weather Service’s first report of what appeared to be a new record low activated a group called the State Climate Extreme Committee, whose members represent state and federal weather agencies. They examined all data pertaining to the reading and called for a testing of the thermistor, an electrical device used in measuring temperatures.

By chance, a monitoring crew that been at the site 10 days before the minus-50 reading checked the device and found it in perfect working order. But before any final decisions were made, a device just like the one at Big Black River had to be tested at 50 below, and it, too, turned out to be on the mark.

“It turned out it was spot on,” said Bob Lent, Maine director of the U.S. Geological Survey, which shares its monitoring sites with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A vote was taken by the State Climate Extreme Committee, and the final call was made by the National Climatic Data Center, based in Asheville, N.C.

Maine’s new record beats the old 48-below mark set in 1925 in Van Buren, also in the northern part of the state. The Jan. 16 low came as part of a blast of arctic air that swept across the state, leaving many other spots in the state shivering in temperatures that were in the double digits below zero.

The record on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, known for its wild weather extremes, is “only” 47 below.

While Mainers may be proud to bolster their hearty reputation with the new who-can-survive-this temperature, the minus-50 is nothing like what other parts of the continent, not to mention the world, have seen.

The lowest temperature in North America — 81 below — was recorded on Feb. 3, 1947, at Snag, Yukon Territory. In the United States, the coldest reading was minus 80 at Prospect Creek, Alaska, on Jan. 23, 1971. And in the lower 48, the all-time cold spot is Rogers Pass, Mont., where it was minus 70 on Jan. 20, 1954, according to NOAA records.

The lowest natural temperature ever recorded on Earth was 129 below at the Russian Vostok Station in Antarctica on July 21, 1983.

Now, that’s wicked cold.

NYPD Cuts Cops, Keeps Spycams for Terror Defense


Turning New York’s financial district into a panopticon was just supposed to be phase one

Wired | Feb 12, 2009

By Noah Shachtman

Turning New York’s financial district into a panopticon was just supposed to be phase one. The real heart of the New York Police Department’s “Lower Manhattan Security Initiative,” I was repeatedly told, was going to be 800 more officers, protecting the bridges, tunnels, skyscrapers, and landmarks of the most visible terrorist target on the planet.

But now, bad economic times are forcing the NYPD to “slow down plans to assign 800 officers to the area near Ground Zero and Wall Street,” Newsday reports. The surveillance cameras are remaining, however, at least for now.

300 of a planned 3,000 specially-equipped electronic eyes have already been deployed. Thousands more are actually owned by the companies of the financial district, and are already in place — if not hooked up to the network. “On the street, 30 police cars with two roof-mounted cameras have begun reading license plates of passing and parked cars,” WCBS TV notes. And a 28th-floor command center is up and running, monitoring the spycam feeds.

Many of lower Manhattan’s most important sites, like the New York Stock Exchange, are already guarded with vehicle barriers, bomb-sniffing dogs, and M-4-carrying officers. But the larger plan, to cover the 1.7 mile area below Canal Street with cops, is now officially a question mark.

Scientists warn of first ever case of human mad cow disease from blood plasma


Scientists fear there could be a second wave of the human variant of mad cow disease, which was caused by cattle being fed the remains of other cattle in the 1980s Photo: EPA

The first case of a person being infected with the human form of mad cow disease after receiving contaminated blood plasma has been identified by scientists.

Telegraph | Feb 15, 2009

By Patrick Hennessy and Laura Donnelly

The man was one of thousands of haemophiliacs who received blood plasma transfusions in the years before strict controls were brought in to eliminate the spread of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

Until now, scientists had maintained that the 4,000 people who may have received plasma from infected donors were at very low risk of developing the fatal brain disease. Warnings were issued to them as a “highly precautionary measure”.

But the Health Protection Agency is expected to announce on Tuesday that an elderly man, who died from other causes, contracted vCJD from plasma.

Although vCJD has been transmitted by blood donations in the past, leading to three deaths, no cases of infection had ever been linked to plasma, which is used to clot blood. Scientists had believed the processing and dilution of the product before it is injected into patients significantly reduced the risks.

BSE expert Professor Hugh Pennington, Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at Aberdeen University said the findings would have “significant implications” for thousands of people who had been given plasma before the dangers were suspected.

“This looks like pretty grim news for a group of people who have been through fire and water for so long; they have already had increased exposure to hepatitis B and HIV,” he said.

Warnings were sent to 4,000 haemophiliacs, and patients suffering from other rare blood conditions in 2004 to warn them that they had had received transfusions from 200 batches of blood products at risk of contamination with vCJD. The plasma was collected from nine people who went on to develop the brain-wasting disease.

All 4,000 were advised not to give blood or donate organs and to warn doctors and dentists that they had been put at risk by the use of plasma.

To date, 164 people have died from vCJD in Britain, with most cases linked to eating meat infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Prof Pennington said details of the way the new link had been detected would be crucial in determining further investigations.

“There is a lot more we still need to know. The fact that this person is elderly, when most of the deaths from vCJD have been young people, and that they died from another cause, is another area for research,” he said, suggesting that it might mean that the disease progressed more slowly in some people.

He said restrictions over blood donation, which mean anyone who has had a transfusion cannot donate, and that all plasma is now taken from stocks in the United States, meant the risks to those receiving blood or plasma now were “vanishingly low”.

The brain-wasting disease vCJD was first detected in the mid 1990s. Most vCJD patients have been infected after eating BSE contaminated meat. The number of deaths peaked in 2000, when there were 28 deaths. That number has dropped to about five cases a year since 2005.

The epidemic of BSE in the 1980s and 1990s was caused by cattle being fed the remains of other cattle in the form of meat and bone meal, causing an infectious agent to spread.

More than 4 million cattle were slaughtered after almost 200,000 were infected with the fatal neurodegenerative disease.

Scientists recently warned that Britain could see a second wave of the vCJD, affecting as many as 300 people, after discovering that genetic differences can affect how long it takes a person to incubate the disease.

Exxon Executive Renews Company’s Call For Carbon Tax

Dow Jones Newswires | Feb 10, 2009

By Susan Daker

HOUSTON -(Dow Jones)- An Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) executive renewed his company’s call for a carbon tax in lieu of a cap and trade program aimed at lowering emissions in the U.S.

Michael Dolan, a senior vice president at Exxon, said that governments need to “resist the urge to micromanage.”

Exxon has said before the cap and trade was inefficient. Cap and trade is supported by President Barack Obama’s administration, though how the program would work is still under debate.

The carbon tax allows companies to plan for the cost of emissions, Dolan said Tuesday.

With cap and trade, “the cost floats,” Dolan said during a question and answer period with the audience at CERA Week in Houston.

When asked how much the tax should be, Dolan said that should be left up to the policy makers.

Earlier on Tuesday, BP PLC (BP) Chief Executive Tony Hayward gave his support to the U.S. government’s plan to establish a carbon cap-and-trade system, because it gives “environmental certainty.” Hayward was the keynote speaker Tuesday morning at CERA.

Judge deals blow to families suing Blackwater

Associated Press | Feb 10, 2009

The survivors of four Blackwater Worldwide contractors killed in a grisly ambush in Iraq five years ago have suffered yet another setback in their legal battle with the company.

A federal administrative law judge ruled last week the children of one of the slain contractors should receive compensation through a government insurance program known as the Defense Base Act. It prohibits those eligible for benefits from filing lawsuits against companies covered by the insurance.

The families of the four dead contractors have received payments through the program for several years. Seeking to keep their right to sue, the mother of contractor Scott Helvenston’s two children asked the judge to rule they never were entitled to the benefits they’ve been receiving.

They argued the Defense Base Act does not apply to Blackwater’s work as a subcontractor, the insurance doesn’t apply to independent contractors, and the family should be able to sue because Blackwater committed willful misconduct in how the company handled Scott Helvenston and his fateful mission. Helvenston was one of four contractors killed in the attack in Fallujah in 2004.

William Dorsey, a U.S. Labor Department administrative law judge in San Francisco, disagreed on each point in a ruling issued last week. Thought the decision was based on the Helvenstons claims, it appears to further complicate the chances the four families have of winning a wrongful death lawsuit against North Carolina-based Blackwater. The company has already successfully gotten the case moved from federal court and into arbitration.

“The ruling speaks for itself,” said Blackwater general counsel Andy Howell in a statement. “It is reassuring to see the purpose and intent of the Defense Base Act upheld.”

Marc Miles, an attorney for the families, said in an interview that they plan to appeal Dorsey’s ruling. And he didn’t think it would have any impact on the wrongful death case, which is set to go to arbitration in June and could be resolved before the appeal is heard on the Labor Department case.

“It’s an erroneous ruling,” Miles said. “As soon as we file an appeal, the ruling will have no force and effect, and probably never will if it gets overturned.”

Family members for Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona and Michael Teague first filed suit in January 2005. They have argued that Blackwater failed to prepare the men for the mission and didn’t provide them with appropriate equipment, such as a map, before sending them through volatile Fallujah.

Grisly images of two of the contractors’ charred bodies strung from a bridge over the Euphrates River were broadcast worldwide and triggered a U.S. siege of the restive city west of Baghdad.

U.S. to open military to temporary immigrants

Reuters | Feb 14, 2009

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military will begin recruiting immigrants with special skills who are in the United States on temporary visas, offering a chance to become citizens in as little as six months, The New York Times reported.

A report on the newspaper’s website on Saturday said it would be the first time since the Vietnam War that the armed forces would be open to temporary immigrants, provided they have lived in the United States for at least two years.

Immigrants with permanent resident status, or “green cards,” are eligible to enlist in the U.S. military.

A Pentagon spokesman said he knew of the program but had no details.

The Times said the program could help the military fill shortages in medical care, language interpretation and field intelligence analysis. It will be limited to 1,000 enlistees in its first year, most for the Army and some for other services.

Temporary immigrants who want to enlist would have to prove they had lived in the United States for two years and had not been out of the country for more than 90 days during that time. They would also have to pass an English test.