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Across the Region: May 19

Across the Region: May 19

IOWA

Lack of charges in sacred site damage upsets some 

Watchdogs say that they’re outraged prosecutors filed no charges against National Park Service officials responsible for $3 million in illegal projects that damaged a sacred American Indian burial ground.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cedar Rapids declined in 2012 to file civil or criminal charges against employees responsible for a decade of illegal construction at the Effigy Mounds National Monument on the Mississippi River near McGregor, Iowa. The decision became public last week, when the Park Service released its 700-page report on a criminal investigation of the monument’s former superintendent Phyllis Ewing and maintenance director Tom Sinclair.

Tim Mason, a former park ranger whose complaint sparked the investigation, said prosecutors didn’t want to “prosecute one of their own and another federal employee.”

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said prosecutors should provide more of an explanation because their inaction “may have had the effect of condoning and perpetuating these flagrant cultural resource offenses.”

During Ewing’s tenure as superintendent from 1999 to 2010, she and subordinates built boardwalks, trails and a maintenance shed without following federal laws that required consultation with 12 tribes and reviews by state archaeologists before approval, investigation documents show.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the case was reviewed thoroughly but no charges were warranted.

Judge orders state to pay former worker

A judge has ordered the state to pay a former Iowa Department of Correctional Services worker more than $400,000 in a discrimination lawsuit.

District Judge Mark Eveloff said in a recent filing that supervisors retaliated against Deborah Campbell, 62, after she complained about her treatment. He ordered that Campbell be reimbursed for front and back pay, as well as emotional distress.

Campbell was fired in 2008 after working 10 years as a community program monitor for the department. She sued in 2009, claiming she was treated unfairly because of her gender and age.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office will have 30 days after the judgment is finalized to appeal the ruling.

NEBRASKA

Kearney lawyer named to fill judgeship

A Kearney lawyer has been selected to fill a county court judgeship opening in the 9th Judicial District of south-central Nebraska.

The office of Gov. Dave Heineman announced the appointment of 43-year-old John Rademacher last week.

Rademacher is a partner with Tye & Rademacher in Kearney. From 1996 until 2005 he served as deputy public defender in the Buffalo County Public Defender’s Office. Rademacher obtained his law degree from the law school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The vacancy was created by the retirement of Judge Graten Beavers. The district consists of Buffalo and Hall counties.

Proposed Nebraska power line draws opposition

One of Nebraska’s biggest utilities wants to build a 220-mile power transmission line across the Sandhills, but the project is drawing strong opposition from some environmental groups.

Nebraska Public Power District officials will discuss the preferred route they have developed for the power line at public meetings this week.

Project backers say the new line would boost wind power development in Nebraska and strengthen the electric transmission network in the region.

Rancher Dave Hutchinson said he’s especially worried about damage that could be caused to the sandy soils in the area during construction. He’s part of a group called Save the Sandhills that has more than 100 members.

NPPD spokesman Mark Becker said the utility has experience doing construction work in the Sandhills and will repair any damage, such as blowouts that might develop if the grass holding the sandy soil in place is disturbed. Becker said utility workers will use roads whenever possible, and the towers for the power line will use special foundations.

The proposed 345,000-volt transmission line would start at NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman coal power plant near Sutherland and go north to a new substation around Cherry County. Then the line would go east and connect to another new substation in Holt, Antelope or Wheeler counties.

NORTH DAKOTA

Lawmakers urge appeal of abortion decision

More than 60 North Dakota lawmakers want to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that overturns a state law banning abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy and before many women know they’re pregnant.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland ruled last month that the law is “invalid and unconstitutional” and that it “cannot withstand a constitutional challenge.”

In a letter, Republican Rep. Bette Grande of Fargo urged Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to appeal Hovland’s ruling. The letter was signed by 61 GOP lawmakers and two Democrats, Sen. David O’Connell, of Lansford, and Rep. Naomi Muscha, of Enderlin.

Abortion rights advocates call the heartbeat law the most restrictive in the country and an attempt to shutter the state’s sole abortion clinic in Fargo. Supporters of the measure have said it’s a challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that legalized abortion up until a fetus is considered viable, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.

Backed by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, the Red River Clinic filed a lawsuit against the heartbeat law last July.

Last year, lawmakers in North Dakota allocated $400,000 that was requested by Stenehjem to defend against any lawsuits arising from the state’s new abortion laws.

Records show that the state has spent $234,597 defending new abortion laws, including $154,749 on the fetal heartbeat measure.

Pasta maker settles false-advertising lawsuit

A company accused of falsely advertising the health benefits of its nationally distributed Dreamfields Pasta line has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit and pay $5 million to consumers who bought the products in the last decade.

The complaint, filed last summer against Carrington, North Dakota-based Dakota Growers Pasta and its parent company at the time, challenged claims that the product was a low-carbohydrate alternative to traditional pasta but didn’t sacrifice the taste. Dreamfields is marketed under the slogan “Healthy Carb Living.”

Under the agreement, consumers will be refunded $1.99 for each box of pasta bought since February 2004. It limits the payments to 15 boxes of pasta bought at any store, but all boxes bought online will be reimbursed. The deal also calls for new labeling.

A U.S. District judge who presided over the mediation called the settlement “extraordinary.” On Friday, U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano in New Jersey signed a preliminary approval order for the settlement; a Sept. 24 hearing has been set to finalize the deal.

The plaintiffs said they would not have bought the more expensive Dreamfields pasta had they known about the false claims on carbohydrate intake and low glycemic index, a system that ranks foods on a scale from 1 to 100 based on their effect on blood-sugar levels and is often monitored by people with diabetes.

SOUTH DAKOTA

ACLU protests distribution of Bibles at school

The American Civil Liberties Union is urging a central South Dakota school district to reverse its decision to allow the distribution of Bibles to fifth-graders.

The South Dakota chapter of the organization said it wrote to the Miller School District detailing how U.S. courts have prohibited Bible distributions in public schools under a variety of circumstances.

Courts have repeatedly said that schools must also avoid favoring or appearing to favor a religious view, and they may not create any situation in which students feel coerced to participate in religion, the ACLU said in a letter to the school district.

The school board recently voted to allow the group Gideons International to distribute pocket-size New Testaments to fifth-graders. The ACLU has previously protested similar efforts across the country.

The organization said in its letter that schools that allow the distributions venture “onto shaky constitutional ground” and open themselves up to legal challenges.

Aside from reversing the Bible distribution decision, the ACLU is also asking the board to craft policies on the distribution of non-school materials that meet legal standards.

State uses tobacco settlement dollars for education

South Dakota has directed annual funds from a 1998 tobacco settlement toward a state trust fund for education.

Top cigarette makers have made about $6 billion in annual payments to 46 states to cover smoking-related health care costs. States are not required to use that money on tobacco-related programs.

South Dakota officials will deposit $4.8 million from this year’s settlement in the Education Enhancement Trust Fund. The remaining $18.8 million this year will make up bond payments due to the trust fund backers.

In 2002, the state created the trust fund with money from Educational Enhancement Funding Corporation bonds. It is paid back annually from the tobacco settlement dollars.

The trust fund currently has $480 million. Four percent of the fund’s market value must go to education enhancement each year.

WISCONSIN

Wisconsin appeals ruling striking down voter ID

A federal court ruling striking down Wisconsin’s voter identification law as unconstitutional has been appealed.

Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen filed the appeal with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week.

Last month U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman ruled that Wisconsin’s law requiring voters to show a state-issued photo ID at the polls imposes an unfair burden on poor and minority voters and violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

Two separate cases challenging the Republican-backed law are also pending before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Van Hollen would have to win all of the cases in order for the law to be in effect for the November elections.

Van Hollen also asked Adelman to stay his ruling while the appeal is pending.

Court ruling may change Wisconsin open records law

Government officials can consider the intentions of people who file open-records requests when deciding whether to fill them, according to a recent court ruling that experts say marks a significant change in Wisconsin law.

The Court of Appeals ruled last week that the Milwaukee school board acted appropriately when it denied a request for an employee’s attendance and disciplinary records from a man accused of abusing her. The employee had obtained a restraining order against Korry Ardell in the past, and the board said it worried about her safety.

The appeals court said records custodians rightfully considered Ardell’s history when denying his request. Ardell’s attorney, Rebecca Mason, said that had not been allowed in the past and the decision changed state law.

The woman obtained a restraining order against Ardell in July 2008. He violated it twice by sending the woman text messages and he served three months in jail. But he was free and the order had expired when he filed his open records request in November 2012.

Wisconsin law denies access to most public records to people who are incarcerated. The appeals court said Ardell’s history put him in the same category as inmates even though he wasn’t in jail and had never been criminally charged with abuse.

The court said the facts of the case were “exceptional.”

Across the Region is compiled from Associated Press wire, staff reports and news releases.

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