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Across the Region: Nov. 24

NEBRASKA

Grand Island man sentenced in fiancee’s death

A Nebraska man who killed his fiancee in a drunken-driving crash has been sentenced to five to eight years in prison.

A judge on Tuesday sentenced 30-year-old Johnny Alvarez. He pleaded no contest to felony motor vehicle homicide and driving under the influence in September. Both charges were reduced in a plea deal.

Alvarez was hospitalized for four months after the August 2013 crash that killed passenger Jamie Lohman Sandate. He had two pervious DUI convictions and his blood alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit at the time.

Authorities say he lost control of his car, hit an electrical pole and then drove into a tree. Sandate died at the scene.

 

Omaha officials offer no details in student death

Omaha Public Schools says it plans to meet with the mother of a 12-year-old boy who died following an incident at a school swimming pool.

Superintendent Mark Evans on Tuesday did not provide new details about the Thursday incident at Nathan Hale Magnet Middle School. Student Demariont’e Brown-Elliott died Friday at a hospital.

Evans says the school district is not permitted to share information about the incident with anyone other than the boy’s mother.

An attorney representing the family of Demariont’e tells Omaha television KETV that the school district owes them an explanation.

NORTH DAKOTA

Former oil worker files lawsuit about overtime pay

A North Dakota oil patch worker says his former employer misclassified him and other employees as independent contractors to avoid paying taxes and employee benefits.

Matthew Ross is seeking class-action status for his lawsuit against Williston-based Baha Petroleum Consulting Corp. He says that during the two years working for the company, he and other employees regularly worked more than 40 hours per week and should have received overtime pay for those extra hours.

Mark Larson, a lawyer for Ross, and officials with Baha Petroleum did not respond to phone messages Wednesday seeking comment. Court documents do not list an attorney for Baha Petroleum.

In his lawsuit, Ross says he worked as a roustabout for Baha Petroleum from September 2012 until last June. He was hired by various oil rigs to build water tanks, operate equipment, contain spills, do construction and perform other tasks.

The lawsuit seeks to add to the class all roustabouts who worked for the company for the last three years and who have not been paid for overtime. The company typically employs about 50 people who work on oil rigs, according to the lawsuit.

Several lawsuits have been filed against oil and gas companies over the classification of workers. Independent contractors do not receive overtime and are required to pay their own Social Security and Medicare taxes.

 

Report on tribal youth and violence urges action

American Indian and Alaska Native children are exposed to violence at rates higher than any other social group in the nation, according to a new report that urges creation of a new Native American affairs office, additional federal funding and other measures to combat the problem.

The report released Tuesday by a U.S. Department of Justice advisory committee reflects information gathered at public hearings across the country in 2013 and 2014.

“We discovered something we’d known when we started — that this is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed,” committee co-chair and former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said during a teleconference.

Based on the public input and research, the committee assessed the effects of violence on tribal youth and came up with an action plan.

The report’s goal is to be a catalyst for action by Congress and the Obama administration, said Dorgan, who served as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee until his retirement in 2010.

“State and federal governments must recognize and respect the primacy of tribal governments,” the report said.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Mines president denies role in unlawful lobbying

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology President Heather Wilson has said she was not involved in any unlawful attempts to lobby federal officials on behalf of one of the nation’s premier federal laboratories.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General said in a report earlier this month that managers at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico improperly used taxpayer money to influence members of Congress and other officials in an effort to extend the lab’s $2.4 billion management contract.

The report includes recommendations, and Sandia officials have said they will cooperate with the inspector general.

The inspector general determined that the lab formed a team and worked with consultants beginning in 2009 to develop a plan for securing a contract extension without having to go through a competitive process — a violation of federal codes as well as provisions in the contract itself.

Wilson, a former New Mexico congresswoman who ran a consulting company, is named in the report. National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Frank Klotz said in response to the report that Sandia had reimbursed the agency more than $226,000 for fees paid to Wilson’s company.

Wilson, in response to the report, denied being a lobbyist for Sandia and said she did not contact any federal officials or members of Congress regarding the lab’s contract extension. She also said the inspector general did not contact her as part of its latest review.

Wilson was hired in April 2013 to lead the School of Mines in Rapid City.

 

Man gets more than 30 years in child’s death

A Rapid City man accused of killing a 10-month-old boy at a home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has been sentenced to more than three decades in prison.

U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson says 32-year-old Michael Dubray has been sentenced to 30 years and five months in prison. Authorities say Dubray caused significant head trauma to the child with a blunt object, resulting in the child’s death in a home in Oglala on May 2013.

The incident occurred when the woman Dubray was seeing at the time left her three children under his care while she ran errands. Authorities say Dubray caused the boy a skull fracture, brain hemorrhages and a liver laceration.

Dubray earlier was convicted of second-degree murder. His attorney didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

WISCONSIN

Lawsuit: Open enrollment violates disability law

Three families of children with disabilities argue in a federal lawsuit that Wisconsin’s open enrollment program is unconstitutional because school districts can reject students with disabilities while accepting others.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Madison, also argues that it’s discriminatory for schools to set quotas for how many students, both with disabilities and without, they will accept under open enrollment every year.

The law requiring that districts determine the number of both regular and special education spaces available for open enrollment was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011. It went into effect in the 2012 school year.

Some districts won’t accept any students with disabilities, the lawsuit said, which violates the families’ constitutional rights to equal protection that the Americans with Disabilities Act was designed to address. The lawsuit alleges that more than 1,000 students with disabilities were rejected for open enrollment last year.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the families by Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which announced on Wednesday that the case had been filed.

It names state Superintendent Tony Evers, the state Department of Public Instruction and the Elkhorn, Greendale and Muskego-Norway school districts.

John Johnson, a spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction, declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit, saying attorneys at the Department of Justice will be handling the case once the state is officially served.

But Johnson said access to open enrollment would be improved under the agency’s budget request submitted to Walker earlier this month. That proposal would provide a higher payment to school districts that accept students with disabilities than they receive for taking other students. Districts would also no longer be allowed to reject an open enrollment transfer on the grounds that it would cause a financial burden.

“We’re seeing changes to open enrollment,” said Sally Flaschberger, who works on the issue for advocacy group Disability Rights Wisconsin and supports the changes proposed by DPI. “We think we’re moving in the right direction.”

That group also opposes creating a taxpayer-funded voucher program for those students to attend private schools, arguing that they are better served in public schools. Advocates for special needs vouchers, who failed in the past two years to create the program, are expected to push the issue again in the coming legislative session.

One resides in the Wauwatosa School District and applied to open enroll in the Greenfield School District but was rejected. Two sisters who live in the Milwaukee Public School District applied to attend the Greenfield and Greendale school districts but were rejected, the lawsuit said. Another student in the Racine Unified School District applied to enroll in Muskego-Norway, but was denied.

 

Man reaches plea deal on animal abuse charges

A man in western Wisconsin has been sentenced to probation on animal abuse charges after 26 cows were found dead on his farm.

John Nelson was arrested in September after a tip led authorities to search his Rice Lake property. Investigators say they found the decomposed cows still chained in their manure-filled stalls.

WQOW-TV reports Nelson’s felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors Tuesday in a deal with prosecutors. He was sentenced to probation and 30 hours of community service. A judge also ordered him to refrain from owning any more livestock.

IOWA

Judge orders trial over U.S. Bank’s role in fraud

Jurors will decide whether U.S. Bank mishandled customer funds, enabling the founder of a collapsed Iowa-based brokerage to embezzle $215 million, a judge ruled Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Linda Reade’s ruling sets up a civil trial that will dive into U.S. Bank’s relationship with disgraced Peregrine Financial Group founder and CEO Russell Wasendorf Sr. At issue is whether the bank will have to pay millions of dollars in restitution and penalties or will be vindicated of any wrongdoing related to Wasendorf’s fraud.

Wasendorf, once a prominent businessman in northeastern Iowa, is serving a 50-year prison term after he admitted in 2012 to embezzling $215.5 million from 13,000 customers over a 20-year period. He carried out the fraud by repeatedly falsifying U.S. Bank records to fool regulators into believing that Peregrine’s customer account had more money than it did.

The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission sued U.S. Bank last year, contending that it failed to follow rules requiring banks to segregate customer accounts. The commission contends that U.S. Bank improperly accepted customer funds as security on loans it made to Wasendorf and knowingly allowed him to transfer customer funds to pay other personal and business expenses.

U.S. Bank has said it wasn’t aware of the fraud, noting that Wasendorf owed it $6 million in a loan when his company went bankrupt.

The lawsuit seeks restitution for $35.6 million in customer losses, which was the amount Wasendorf transferred out for other uses, and civil penalties.

Reade rejected both sides’ requests to rule in their favor before a scheduled January trial, saying there were key factual questions that jurors should decide. She said jurors should determine if U.S. Bank had actual knowledge that Wasendorf was “committing a breach of his obligation as fiduciary,” or whether the bank acted in bad faith by failing to investigate obvious indications of fraud.

While noting that U.S. Bank and Wasendorf claim the bank’s employees were unaware of his crimes, Reade ruled that reasonable jurors could find otherwise, given the facts of the case.

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