Weekend open thread: Non-election clips

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? More posts related to Tuesday’s elections are going up today and tomorrow, so after the jump I’ve enclosed a few links on stories not related to any political campaigns.

This is an open thread. Don’t forget to turn your clocks back one hour before you go to sleep on Saturday night.

Fire officials are pushing longer-life batteries to reduce the failure rate of smoke detectors. They also recommend replacing smoke detectors that are more than 10 years old.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy might create an opening for scam artists.

Bill Brauch, chief of the Consumer Protection Division at the Iowa Attorney General’s office, has some advice for those who are considering donations. “Give your money to a known charity like the Red Cross,” Brauch says. “Check out any charity that contacts you out of the blue by phone or by mail or email and don’t agree on-the-spot to make a donation when someone solicits you.”

Brauch says scam artists can be very convincing, so there’s often a number of well-intentioned people who become fraud victims after a disaster like this. “Please, file a complaint with the Iowa Attorney General’s office, we can help,” he says. […]

If you feel you’ve been scammed, call 888-777-4590 or send email to: consumer@Iowa.gov

The Des Moines Register’s environmental reporter Perry Beeman has been researching how runoff from Iowa farms contributes to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone.”

• Nine states account for 75 percent of the nitrates flowing into the Gulf. Over 11 percent of that comes from Iowa, making it and Illinois, which contributes more than 16 percent, the two largest sources.

• The vast majority of that nitrate pollution – about 70 percent – is the result of agricultural runoff, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And as demand for corn has soared in recent years, farmers in Iowa and elsewhere have faced increasing pressure to plant more acres and use more fertilizer.

• Voluntary programs, including some backed with billions of dollars in federal subsidies, have failed to stem the fertilizer runoff rushing downstream to Louisiana. Even as efforts were under way to reduce runoff 45 percent by 2015, data show nitrate levels have instead jumped another 10 percent since 1980.

• Some of Iowa’s neighboring states – Minnesota and Wisconsin among them – limit how much nitrogen or phosphorus can enter waterways. Iowa’s political leaders, farm organizations and many individual farmers have opposed similar restrictions.

• Elevated nitrate levels in rivers and streams are also exacting a toll in Iowa, causing bacteria outbreaks in lakes, threatening fish populations and triggering higher water treatment costs. That means bigger water bills for residential and business users.

I recommend reading Beeman’s whole report, which quotes officials in Louisiana and Iowa, shrimpers, farmers and representatives of the agriculture-based industry.

Late last month a federal jury could not reach a verdict on whether the University of Iowa’s law school violated Teresa Wagner’s equal-protection rights when the conservative, anti-abortion activist was not hired for a position on the law school faculty. The jurors agreed that the university had not violated her First Amendment rights, however.

In the lawsuit, which she first filed in 2009, Ms. Wagner accused Ms. Jones of discriminating against her because of her conservative beliefs and her affiliation with conservative organizations, in violation of her First Amendment rights of political belief and association.

Having unsuccessfully applied for a tenure-track position in 2006 and for adjunct positions on five separate occasions from early 2007 through early 2009, Ms. Wagner argued that the real obstacle she faced in seeking such jobs was not any lack of academic qualifications, but faculty animus as a result of her past work with conservative advocacy groups. […]

Ms. Wagner, who graduated from the Iowa law school in 1993, began working heavily with conservative advocacy groups two years later, after moving to Washington, D.C. She spent several years working with the National Right to Life Committee, which opposes abortion and euthanasia, and the Family Research Council, which promotes conservative views on social issues. […]

Of the 50 applicants for the two jobs, Ms. Wagner was one of five who were called back for a second, full-day interview. Her lawsuit alleges that John Carlson, an associate dean of the law school, advised her before the second interview to conceal that she had previously applied for a position at an institution with a conservative reputation, the Ave Maria School of Law.

Her lawsuit also alleges that a second associate dean there, Eric G. Andersen, was unable to provide her with an answer when she asked if her conservative views would be held against her in the hiring process.

One of the Iowa law school’s 50 faculty members is a registered Republican, the lawsuit states, while at least 46 others are Democrats.

During the trial, some faculty testified that Wagner did poorly in her second interview. However, the tape of that interview was later erased. The Des Moines Register reported,

The university says its rejection of Wagner for the full-time job was based largely on a presentation she gave before the university’s faculty where four professors today said she dismissed the role of teaching legal analysis as part of the schools “Legal Analysis, Research and Writing” academic program. Instead, the four testified that she proclaimed her focus would be on grammatical-type structure in legal writings.

Legal analysis is considered critically important because strong writing without understanding the legal content is essentially useless in the practice of law, the professors testified.

Wagner has denied that she ignored or dismissed the analytical portion of the job’s duties in a presentation to the faculty and her legal team has pointed out the liberal leanings and poor student evaluations of some other employees who have been given full-time teaching positions. […]

University officials have testified that the video was only made for the purpose of allowing other faculty unable to attend Wagner’s presentation an opportunity to see her talk prior to taking a vote on whether or not to recommend to the school’s dean that she be hired. They have insisted that – had the tape been kept – the university wouldn’t be in court.

“Oh, I wish we had that video tape,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, one of the four professors who testified this morning. “We wouldn’t be here today if we had that video tape.”

I’m guessing that in the future, academic departments will start preserving more tapes from job interviews.

Wagner is asking for a retrial.

As the matter stands, the case may be retried only on the second count, but Wagner’s attorney, Stephen Fieweger, has asked Shields to vacate the verdict in favor of Jones on the First Amendment count. He argued that Shields asked jurors whether they had reached agreement only after announcing that he was declaring a mistrial.

“It’s very bizarre,” Fieweger said. “How can you accept a verdict after you declared a mistrial?”

Additionally, Fieweger said, he was entitled under federal law to poll the jury on the first count, but was not given that opportunity because Shields released the panel before announcing his acceptance of the verdict on the First Amendment count.

The university is trying to have her lawsuit dismissed.

This week Pennsylvania prosecutors charged three former senior officials at Penn State University with crimes related to the cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children.

[Former University President Graham] Spanier, along with former Athletic Director Tim Curley and ex-Vice President Gary Schultz, each face the same eight counts related to the Sandusky scandal, including perjury, conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children, Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly announced Thursday.

Curley and Schultz are scheduled for a preliminary arraignment at Magisterial District Judge William C. Wenner’s office at 2 p.m. on Friday, and Spanier’s preliminary arraignment is slated for next Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. at the same judge’s office, according to a Pennsylvania courts spokesman Jim Koval. Each of the three men is expected to attend his arraignment, said Koval.

This is the first time Spanier has been charged in the wake of the scandal, which started unfolding publicly a year ago. Curley and Schultz previously had been charged with perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse. […]

“This was not a mistake by these men. It was not an oversight. It was not misjudgment on their part. This was a conspiracy of silence by top officials working to actively conceal the truth, with total disregard for the children who were Sandusky’s victims in this case,” she said.

Ever since Louis Freeh released his damning report on the cover-up at Penn State over the summer, analysts have speculated that some of the administrators might face criminal charges. Spanier has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, saying he was abused as a child and would never “have knowingly turned a blind eye to any report of child abuse or predatory sexual acts directed at children.” He will have his day in court. Freeh’s report turned up many disturbing facts.

In the 1998 case, the earliest criminal investigation of Sandusky’s activities, university police reviewed allegations brought by a young victim’s mother who became suspicious of the former coach after learning that he had showered with her son following a workout at the university.

A local prosecutor decided not to charge Sandusky at the time but, according to the new charging documents filed Thursday, police briefed Schultz on the matter, who then informed both Curley and Spanier of the allegations. […]

In the 2001 incident, the three men and head football coach Joe Paterno were informed of Sandusky’s suspicious activities with another young boy in a university shower witnessed by then-graduate assistant Michael McQueary.

Spanier told the Freeh team that he believed at the time that the incident amounted to “horseplay,” although an e-mail sent by him to Curley reflected a much more somber tone.

In a series of messages, according to court documents, the men “formulated” a plan to handle the matter that specifically involved not contacting youth authorities or police.

Curley, in an e-mail dated Feb. 27, 2001, allegedly informed Spanier and Schultz that he would meet with Sandusky and urge him to get “professional help.”

“Additionally, I will let him know that his guests are not permitted to use our facilities,” the Curley e-mail said.

Spanier allegedly responded, saying the “approach is acceptable to me.”

“The only downside for us is if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it,” Spanier wrote. “But that can be assessed down the road. The approach you outline is humane and reasonable.”

Fine and NCAA sanctions against a university won’t do nearly as much to deter cover-ups as criminal charges against complicit administrators.  

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