Archive for December, 2009

Police Officers, Teens Indicted in Fatal Beating Classified As Hate Crime

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Washington, DC—Three Shenandoah, Pennsylvania police officers are among five people have been indicted on charges related to a hate crime homicide which took place over a year ago in a rural region of the state.

Luis Ramirez, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, was beaten into a coma after being baited and taunted by a group of teenagers who had been out drinking. Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky are accused of a hate crime for shouting racial slurs at Ramirez during the attack. Piekarsky allegedly kicked Ramirez in the head when he was lying on the ground. The medical examiner later ruled that Ramirez died from this blunt force trauma to the head.

Donchak is also charged with conspiring to obstruct justice and related offenses, as are Shenandoah Police Chief Matthew Nestor, Lieutenant William Moyer, and Officer Jason Hayes. According to the indictment, the police intentionally failed to “memorialize or record” statements that Piekarsky made about the beating, and that their reports “intentionally omitted information about the true nature of the assault and the investigation.”

Two of the police officers have connections to the teens involved in the attack of Ramirez. Hayes was dating Piekarsky’s mother, and Moyer had a son who played high school football with the students who were involved in the fatal beating.

In June, an all-white jury convicted both Piekarsky and Donchak of misdemeanor simple assault, and convicted Donchak of corrupting minors for providing alcohol to the other teens, but acquitted them on charges of aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and hindering apprehension. Piekarsky was also acquitted of third-degree murder. Each received a sentence of up to 23 months in the county jail.

After this verdict, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell sent a letter to United States Attorney General Eric Holder, asking that the Justice Department pursue civil rights charges. A petition calling for hate crimes prosecution was signed by 50,000 people.

A federal grand jury issued the indictments last week, and they were unsealed a few days later. If convicted of the hate crime charges, Donchak and Piekarsky may receive sentences of life in prison. Donchak could also face a maximum of 20 years in prison on the obstruction charges, and five years on the conspiracy charge.

Nestor, Moyer and Hayes could face up to 20 years in prison for each of the obstruction charges, if convicted, and five years on the charges of conspiring to obstruct justice. Moyer is also charged with making false statements to the FBI, and could face an additional five years if convicted on that charge.

Sports Doc Charged with Giving Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Toronto—The Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced on Wednesday that a renowned sports doctor has been charged with selling a potentially performance-enhancing drug.

Anthony Michael Galea, 51, has treated a number of Olympic athletes and professional baseball, hockey, football and golf players, including Tiger Woods. Galea was charged with selling an unapproved drug; conspiracy to import the drug; conspiracy to export; and smuggling goods into Canada.

The drug is question is Actovegin, which is derived from calf’s liver blood and which has been studied since the 1970s. Most recently, it has undergone a governmental clinical trial as a possible medication to treat nerve damage in diabetics. Among its other uses are the treatment of peripheral artery disease and strokes.

When given to otherwise healthy athletes, Actovegin has demonstrated an ability to exert insulin-like activity, including glucose oxidation and the transport of glucose throughout the body. The benefit of supplying more oxygen to working muscles is apparent for athletes.

Galea’s assistant was taken into custody last September after being detained at the United States border with an uspecified quantity of Actovegin. Galea had allegedly been planning to treat patients outside of Canada with the drug, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a statement. In October, officials searched Galea’s medical facilities, the Institute of Sports Medicine Health and Wellness Center, and seized unapproved drugs which were believed to be Actovegin.

Galea treated celebrity golfer Tiger Woods in 2008, while Woods was recuperating from knee surgery. Despite speculation on the part of the media that Woods had received a performance-enhancing substance from Galea, the doctor denies those charges, as does Woods’s agent.

“The treatment Tiger received is a widely accepted therapy and to suggest some connection with illegality is recklessly irresponsible,” said Mark Steinberg, the agent who represents Woods.

Brian H. Greenspan, the attorney for Galea, has further denied that his client has supplied any athletes, including famous ones, with any kind of performance-enhancing drug, including Actovegin and human growth hormone. He said that Galea will prove his innocence on all charges. Galea is slated to appear at Old City Hall Court in Toronto on Friday morning.

Patterson to Extend Protection to Transgender Employees in New York

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

New York—Just two weeks after the New York State Senate voted down a bill that would have made it legal for same-sex couples to marry, Governor Patterson will sign an executive order extending protection from discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression.

This measure, which Patterson is expected to sign on Wednesday during a ceremony held at Greenwich Village’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, is the broadest protection yet offered to transgender public employees on a statewide basis. Several cities within the state, including Rochester, Buffalo, Albany, and the city of New York, have already made it illegal to discriminate against an individual because of their gender identity or expression. Yet no such law exists on the state level.

Advocates for transgender rights have been working for years to pass a law through the State Legislature. Thirteen other states, as well as the District of Columbia, have prohibited discrimination against not only those individuals who have undergone gender reassignment surgery or who cross-dress, but also those whose outward appearance and expression of gender are at odds with their biological gender. Additionally, more than 100 cities and counties in the United States offer similar legal protections.

The new executive order, however, will not extend the legal protection of transgender people to the private sector. It will only be applicable to state employees who work under the authority of the executive branch.

The State Assembly has already passed a measure called the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which would not only outlaw discrimination against transgender people in areas of everyday life—just as current laws protect people from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and sexual orientation—but would also add gender identity or expression a category under the state’s hate crimes law. Transgender people are particularly vulnerable to hate crimes and also face discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation.

“This will bring New York up to par with other states that are taking the lead on workplace fairness,” said Dru Levasseur, an attorney who specializes in transgender rights at Lambda Legal, the national LGBT equality advocacy group.

The New York State Senate voted on December 2 to deny marriage equality for same-sex couples. Governor Patterson had previously gone on the record to say that while he did not expect the measure to pass, he pushed it to the legislature in order to open up discussion on the issue. Yet the vote, which was 38-to-24, was more decisive than marriage equality advocates had expected.

Patterson will be joined by leading LGBT rights activists at a high-profile ceremony to sign the order.

Supreme Court To Rule on Privacy, Free Speech in Police Texting Case

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Washington, DC—The United States Supreme Court has announced that it will hear a case which concerns a worker’s expectation of privacy when using a government-issued communications device. It will also decide whether the service provider for that device can be held liable if it releases the communications without the sender’s consent.

The case in question concerns a police sergeant in Ontario, California who used his city-issued text-messaging pager to send personal texts, some of which were sexually explicit in nature. Although Jeff Quon had signed a statement agreeing that “use of these tools for personal benefit is a significant violation of City of Ontario Policy” and that “users should have no expectation of privacy or confidentiality when using these resources” such as the Internet or E-mail, he also claims to have been unaware that this police extended to his department. Quon also claimed that there was an informal policy in place that allowed officers to send personal texts, as long as they paid for any overages—a custom that Quon was used to following.

Indeed, Quon turned out to be one of the department’s prime users of the department-issued mobile texting device, and when the chief of police ordered transcripts from his pager, he discovered that of 456 texts Quon sent during one month, only three were work-related. A federal judge said that many of the messages were not “light personal communications,” as generally acceptable by the official policy, but extreme in their sexual explicitness.

Quon, a SWAT team sergeant, had sent the racy texts to his wife, his girlfriend and a fellow officer.

Quon sued the city and the wireless company, USA Mobility, for invasion of privacy, and a federal appeals court ruled in his favor, because the department had ordered the pager transcripts without his consent.

In the past, courts have rules that private communications are protected from “unreasonable search and seizure” even if they are transmitted or delivered through public means, as when a handwritten letter is sent in a sealed envelope through the U.S. Postal Service.

Officials for the city claimed that the review was only undertaken in order “to determine whether the city’s monthly character limit was insufficient to cover business-related messages.” The contract held by the city has a limit of 25,000 characters per month which can be transmitted, with any additional characters constituting an overage.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the matter next spring.

New Hampshire Lawmakers Consider Decriminalizing Adultery

Friday, December 25th, 2009

Concord, NH—State representatives are teaming up to pass legislation that will take off the books a 200-year-old law which makes it illegal to commit adulterous acts.

The push to repeal the outdated law comes in the wake of New Hampshire’s marriage equality initiative that legalized gay marriage. That law takes effect on January 1, 2010.

“We shouldn’t be regulating people’s sex lives and their love lives,” said state Representative Timothy Horrigan. “This is one area the state government should stay out of people’s bedrooms.” Horrigan, D-Durham, is working together with state Representative Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, in order to spearhead the legislation that would repeal the law.

It’s relatively rare for a state to enforce criminal adultery laws, mostly due to a precedent created by a 2003 United States Supreme Court decision. In Lawrence v. Texas, the court rules that the state did not have a legitimate interest justifying its intrusion into the private and personal lives of two gay men who were arrested in their bedroom during a police investigation into a weapons violation. The men were charged with sodomy, which is still illegal in many states.

That case has relevance in the New Hampshire debate over adultery because both involve acts of private sexual conduct.

In 1987, a Merrimack man filed a complaint against his wife and her boss, with whom she was having an affair. Police refused to file the adultery charges, so Robert Stackelback brought the charges himself, although he later dropped them. This case led to efforts to appeal the law in both 1987 and 1989. On each instances, the House voted in favor of the appeal, but the Senate nixed it. Another motion, to reduce the penalty to a violation, was brought in 1992 but also was voted down by the Senate after passing the House.

Some conservatives have claimed that the decriminalization of adultery would weaken marriage, but others say that the law is relatively useless because it’s not being enforced. Also at issue for some lawmakers and citizens is the idea that taking the law off the books would reduce the potential for settlements in divorce cases that are brought on grounds of adultery.

The bill will be heard by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which is chaired by Representative Stephen Shurtleff, D-Concord. Shurtleff has said that the committee will probably back the repeal.

Back in the day, convicted adulterers faced Scarlett Letter-like punishments, including 39 lashes or standing on the gallows with a noose around their neck for one hour. The current punishment is now a misdemeanor and a fine of up to $1,200.

Ghost Town in the Sky Haunted by Lack of Cash Flow

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

Maggie Valley, North Carolina—Despite having warned its employees that it might not be able to issue checks for the full amount of the pay in the final two weeks of its operation, an amusement park company could still be in violation of state labor laws.

Ghost Town in the Sky is currently operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and hopes to be able to reorganize and then reopen. The company owes over 215 companies a total of $2.5 million in unpaid debts, and also has a $9.5 million mortgage on the amusement park property.

Usually when workers are not paid, they can take it up with the labor department. In this instance, however, the labor department does not have jurisdiction, because of the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings.

The park has had a troubled year, and has struggled to make payroll on more than one occasion in the past. Sometimes payday was delayed from Friday to Monday in order to take advantage of weekend ticket sales. Eventually the regularly scheduled payday was moved to Monday, but even that did not help. At times, only partial checks were issued, and the balance made up the next week after another weekend’s worth of revenue.

In October, just two weeks before both the end of the season and the permanent closure of the park, Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver called a meeting of the employees and leveled with them, telling them that cash flow was tight and that they might not receive their full paychecks for the final pay period. He also gave them the option of shutting down the park early, but in a unanimous vote the employees agreed to keep the park running and come to work in spite of the financial risk.

The employees’ dedication to Ghost Town in the Sky, however, does not excuse the company from its obligation to pay them.

“The law says they must pay all accrued wages to employees on the regularly scheduled payday,” said Darrell Sanders, supervisor for the Wage and Hour Bureau with the North Carolina Department of Labor. “Even with the employees’ agreement, nobody can waive the law.”

One employee, who opted not to come to the meeting and who says he was never informed of the risk that wages might not be forthcoming, has filed a claim with the bankruptcy court in the amount of $386.

“Nobody ever said we might not get paid,” said Ron Coates.

Ohio Inmate Executed With New, Single-Drug Lethal Injection Method

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Lucasville, OH—A new method of lethal injection was used in the execution of an Ohio inmate on Tuesday, marking the first time this single-drug method has been employed in the United States.

Kenneth Biros, 51, had been convicted of killing and dismembering a 22-year-old woman in 1991 in what was described as a “particularly heinous” crime. After meeting Tami Engstrom in a bar and then driving her home, Biros robbed and attempted to rape her before murdering her, dismembering her, and spreading her body parts across two states. Biros said that he had acted in a fit of drunken rage.

The new method of execution consists of one injection of sodium thiopental, which had previously been used as the first drug in the three-drug method of execution. It has been successfully used to euthanize animals, but some opponents of capital punishment argue that the sodium thiopental is not long-lasting enough, and that it may wear off and leave the inmate vulnerable to experiencing pain as the other medications take effect.

The execution of Biros is the first one to take place in Ohio since September, when a botched execution attempt on another prisoner, Romell Broom, led the state’s governor and the federal courts to issue a moratorium on capital punishment. Authorities in this case attempted for hours to find a vein that would allow them to administer the lethal injection. Governor Ted Strickland then declared that two other men’s executions would also be delayed until Spring 2010. Broom’s execution has not yet been rescheduled.

Biros, who had originally been slated for execution in 2007, had been involved in a lawsuit challenging the old three-drug method. He received a stay of execution as a result of the litigation. His attorney had also called the one-drug method, in this instance, unconstitutional. Lawyer Timothy Sweeney wrote in an appeal that it was “human experimentation, pure and simple.”

An appeal for a second stay was denied by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that since the one-drug method was being implemented as the new protocol, Biros’s argument regarding the three-drug injection was not applicable.

Biros’s execution began at approximately 11:00 am on Tuesday. He died about ten minutes after the injection, but was not officially pronounced dead until 11:47am. According to a spokesperson for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Biros’s last words were: “Sorry from the bottom of my heart. I want to thank all of my family and friends for my prayers and who supported and believed in me. My father, now I’m being paroled to heaven. I will now spend all of my holidays with my lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Peace be with you all. Amen.”

U.S. Citizen Charged With Involvement in Mumbai Attacks

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Washington—A Chicago resident and United States citizen has been charged in the terrorist attacks that took place in Mumbai, India last November.

According to the Justice Department, David Headley, 49, helped to plan the attacks which resulted in the deaths of 160 people, including six Americans. Headley allegedly attended terrorism training camps in Pakistan, and was involved with the foreign terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.

Headley, who was born in Washington, DC, is already charged with allegedly planning to attack a Danish newspaper. According to a source close to the investigation, when Headley was arrested on October 3, he was en route back to India in order to plan a second attack.

The Justice Department said that Headley was charged in Chicago on six counts of aiding and abetting the murder of U.S. citizens in India, and six counts of conspiracy to bomb locations in India and to murder and main persons in India and Denmark.

Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, which has been variously translated as Army of the Good, Army of the Pure, and Army of the Righteous, is a large and very active Islamist military organization based in South Asia. Several countries, including the United States, India, Pakistan, the UK and others have banned the group as a terrorist organization. Its objective, according to its websites and journals, is to destroy the Indian republic and wipe out Hinduism and Judaism as the “enemies of Islam.” Additionally, it aims to introduce an Islamic state in South Asia, as well as to “liberate” Muslims who live in Kashmir.

The organization has been active since 1993, when it was formed as the military wing of Markas-ad-Dawa-wal-Irshad, a Pakistani Islamist organization. There has been widespread speculation that Lashkar-e-Tayyiba was also behind the July 11 bombings that took place on Mumbai’s commuter railroad. A spokesperson for the group, however, has denied involvement in that attack.

After the attacks on Mumbai, an international investigation revealed a total of over 300 locations which Lashkar-e-Tayyiba had targeted for attack.

Headley, who remains in federal custody with his arraignment not yet scheduled, is cooperating with authorities investigating both terror plots, according to attorneys who are involved with the case.

Also charged with conspiracy in planning to attack the Danish newspaper was Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, a retired major in the Pakistani military, and Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Pakistani native and Canadian citizen who lives in Chicago.

Woman Charged With Attempted Abortion of Rival’s Baby

Monday, December 21st, 2009

New York—Brooklyn prosecutors have filed a complaint against a suspect who is charged with tricking a pregnant woman into taking an abortion-inducing drug.

Kisha Jones, 38, who suspected that her husband had fathered a child with 25-year-old Monique Hunter, allegedly concocted an elaborate ruse to end the pregnancy of her rival. She used a stolen doctor’s prescription pad to forge a prescription for a drug that would induce labor, and may have sent an accomplice to the hospital with a toxic substance to try to kill the baby after it was born despite the attempted abortion. It is unclear how she obtained the prescription pad, or how she was able to convince a pharmacist that the drug was necessary for a “procedure” as she claimed. The doctor whose pad was used has denied treating Hunter, and said that the prescription was not written by him or by anyone in his office.

According to authorities, Jones went on to trick Hunter by impersonating staff at the obstetrician’s office, and calling her numerous times to inform her that the doctor had ordered a prescription for her to pick up and take immediately. Believing that the medication was a legitimate one authorized by her provider, Hunter picked up and took the drug. She then experienced severe abdominal pain and rushed to the hospital, where she gave birth to a premature baby boy.

Following the baby’s birth, an unidentified man took a liquid to the hospital and tried to get nurses to administer it to the baby, claiming that it was breast milk, but the liquid was determined to be toxic. Staffers at the hospital contacted the police, who say they are still investigating the matter and are not sure whether or not the two incidents are connected.

Jones has been charged on several counts, including attempted abortion and assault, reckless endangerment, forgery of a medical prescription, possession of a forged instrument and criminal impersonation. The complaint against her was filed by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office after a month-long investigation into the alleged crimes.

Jones is currently being held in a local jail, after being arraigned on Saturday. She has been denied bail, but will appear again on Wednesday at a court hearing.

No information was given in the criminal complaint about Hunter’s physical condition, but it did state that she was providing information to investigators. The baby is being held in an intensive care unit.

Businessman Guilty of Nation’s Second-Largest Ponzi Scheme

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Minneapolis—Business mogul Tom Petters has been convicted of fraud, mail fraud, money laundering and conspiracy, to the tune of $3.5 billion.

The Minnesota businessman was found guilty on 20 counts in a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, despite having pled not guilty and maintained his innocence throughout the trial. Petters is the founder and former CEO of Petters Group Worldwide, a company that was established in the early 1990s to buy and sell electronics. In the company’s infancy, its transactions were legitimate. As time went on, however, investors’ money was used not only for large cash bonuses to Petters Group employees and to prop up the company’s less profitable ventures, but also to pay dividends to earlier investors.

According to U.S. Attorney Joe Dixon, who prosecuted the case against Petters, the fact that the money being netted from investors, many of which were hedge funds, was being used to shore up legitimate, yet unsuccessful aspects of the business was a “well-kept secret.”

After deliberating for more than 31 hours, over several days, the jury returned the verdict against Petters of guilt on 10 counts of wire fraud, three counts of mail fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, one count of money laundering conspiracy and five counts of money laundering, all of which he committed through a lesser-known corporate entity called Petters Co. Inc. (PCI).

As part of the Ponzi scheme, according to investigators, Petters submitted false purchase orders, fraudulent checks and other bogus documents in order to convince the lender GE Capital that he was using credit extended by them to purchase and sell goods. Investors who asked to speak with retailers such as Costco, with whom Petters claimed to have special insider relationships, were told that they could not do so because their inquiries might scare off other buyers.

During the credit crisis of late 2007 and early 2008, Petters’s scam began to come to light. Petters and PCI found it harder and harder to attract new investors, whose cash was needed to pay the high-interest returns to earlier investors. Eventually PCI executive Deanna Coleman approached federal officials with evidence of the fraud, and Petters was arrested in the fall of 2008.

Petters faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Judge Richard Kyle said he would determine the sentence in the next few months. This is the second-largest Ponzi scheme discovered to date, behind Bernie Madoff’s infamous billion-dollar scheme.