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Across the Region: March 31


Branstad orders end to confidential agreements 

State agencies will be prohibited from signing confidential settlement agreements with disciplined or fired state workers under an executive order signed by Gov. Terry Branstad.

Last week’s order is Branstad’s response to criticism over agreements that state agencies reached with six dismissed state employees who were paid more than $280,000 to keep quiet.

Two state government controversies made headlines recently: the secret payments and allegations that the head of the Iowa Workforce Development, a Branstad employee, was improperly pressuring judges who hear unemployment cases to rule against workers and in favor of employers. He said he knew nothing about the agreements and called them ill-advised and unacceptable.

Branstad, a Republican, said the agreements were reached after dismissed or disciplined employees filed grievances through a state public employee process that went to a mediator. Some of the workers terminated as part of a cost-saving reorganization of government allege they were let go because of politics; two were Democrats. A state investigation confirmed that two others were registered independent voters and two were Republicans.

The order says no executive branch agency, board, commission or officer shall enter into settlement agreements without review of the attorney general, the Department of Management director, the Department of Administrative Services manager, and the head of the agency involved. It also says no personnel settlements shall be confidential, requiring them to be posted at the state’s Administrative Department website.

Des Moines Water Works settles with FEMA over flood repairs

The Des Moines Water Works board on Tuesday approved a settlement offer of more than $2 million from the federal government to resolve a lawsuit over flood repair funding approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and later withdrawn.

Des Moines Water Works, which is run independently but owned by ratepayers and answerable to a mayor-appointed board, provides drinking water to about 500,000 people.

FEMA in 2010 authorized giving Water Works nearly $7.6 million to repair erosion along the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. The repairs were designed to rebuild and strengthen the riverbanks to protect six wells used to collect drinking water from underground aquifers. The city had spent nearly $2 million by the time FEMA rescinded its funding in 2011. The agency concluded after a review of the project that improvements on natural riverbanks do not meet funding requirements.

The Water Works board’s appeals to FEMA in 2011 and 2012 were denied.

The board filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Des Moines in December 2012, asking the court to reverse FEMA’s action. The settlement will resolve the case by returning to the agency the money it had spent on the project, said Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe.


Court overturns one of Nebraska woman’s convictions

The Nebraska Appeals Court has reversed one conviction of a 62-year-old Neligh woman found guilty in an arson case.

The court said in a decision released last week that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Daphne Hansen of aiding consummation of a felony. That reversal will eliminate the sentence of six to 12 months in prison she was given. But Hansen still faces 24 to 30 months in prison for arson and conspiracy. She was convicted in May 2013.

Investigators say Hansen claimed a financial interest in a Neligh home and that she conspired with two other people to have the house burned down. No one was injured in the June 2010 blaze.

Hansen denied any involvement in the fire.

Man won’t face death penalty in fatal shooting

A man charged in connection with the death of a South Sioux City woman in northeast Nebraska will not face the death penalty.

Prosecutors in February had filed documents indicating they would seek the death penalty for Raymond Frank Gonzalez, 22. He is accused of shooting Bonnie Baker, 28, to death. She was found Dec. 15 in a mobile home park. Last week prosecutors rescinded the death penalty request. They would not discuss what prompted the change with reporters.

Gonzales has denied shooting Baker. Two others also face charges.

Gonzales’ trial is set to begin July 15 in Dakota County District Court. He faces a life sentence if convicted of first-degree murder.


4 men sentenced in Bakken oil patch drug cases

Drug convictions in cases tied to the Bakken oil patch continue to pile up with four more men recently sentenced to federal prison terms for trafficking drugs in eastern Montana.

The latest sentencings announced last week included 2½ years in prison for Keith Edward Lester of Sidney, and more than three years in prison for Sean Michael Vaira of Billings.

Both men had pleaded guilty in late 2013 in federal court to charges involving methamphetamine distribution.

The defendants were linked by authorities to a drug ring that brought in large quantities of meth from the West Coast and sold it in towns across eastern Montana.

More than 20,000 people have poured into eastern Montana and western North Dakota since oil production in the region began its meteoric rise in 2008.

Authorities say drug dealers have been moving in to profit from the boom. Drug arrests in the Bakken region more than tripled over the past several years, according to the Montana Board of Crime Control.

Federal, state and local officials launched a crackdown last year, but officials say they’ve struggled to keep pace with the rise in drug activity.

North Dakotans to get $390K in e-book settlement

North Dakota residents are getting back nearly $390,000 as part of a national settlement in an electronic book price-fixing lawsuit.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem says the refunds will be in the form of account credits or checks. They will go to consumers who bought certain e-books between April 1, 2010, and May 21, 2012.

The lawsuit was filed by 33 states against Apple Inc. and five of the nation’s six largest e-book publishers. The publishers settled claims against them for a total payment of $166 million.

Apple did not settle and was found at trial last year to have played a central role in a conspiracy to fix prices. A second trial to determine how much it owes will be held in the future.


USD mock trial team qualifies to national tourney

The University of South Dakota’s mock trial team is heading to the national competition.

The team of 10 undergraduate students recently earned one of 48 spots in the 30th annual American Mock Trial Association national championship tournament.

Teams participating in the event argue court cases in competitions against other schools’ teams to develop skills in critical thinking, public speaking and legal practices.

The University of Central Florida will host this year’s competition April 11-13 in Orlando, Fla.

The American Mock Trial Association was founded in 1985.

Supreme Court hears legal malpractice case

A dispute that began over the placement of beehives and evolved into an issue of legal malpractice has reached the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Justices listened to initial arguments in a final appeal by Vermillion at the University of South Dakota Law School.

The case goes back to 2007 with a business lawsuit over the use and registration of private property for beehives. Three beekeepers shared lawyers. When the attorneys came up with a settlement, one of the beekeepers, Roger Hamilton of northeast South Dakota, didn’t agree to comply with it.

Hamilton filed a legal malpractice suit against his original lawyers, alleging negligence.

Those original attorneys won the case in a Roberts County circuit court. One argued that this case indulges “buyer’s remorse” after settlements.

The testimony focused on which rules the state should use to govern best practices for attorneys, and therefore to determine whether the attorneys in the original lawsuit were negligent.

Those standards govern how attorneys should deal with cases like Hamilton’s, including how to address “conflicted representation” — such as when defendants in the case represented three beekeepers at once.


Appeals court upholds wind-siting ruling

A Wisconsin appeals court says state regulators didn’t have to produce a report on how wind turbines affect property values when they imposed siting standards.

The Public Service Commission implemented rules setting up uniform wind turbine construction and setback standards in 2012. The state Realtors, builders and towns associations sued, arguing the rules were invalid because the commission didn’t produce a report on the rules’ effect on property values.

A Brown County judge ruled last year no report was required. The 3rd District Court of Appeals agreed on Tuesday. The court said a report is needed only when rules directly affect housing. The PSC considered voluminous evidence about turbines’ effect on housing and reasonably concluded they don’t’ hurt residential property values.

Court: Green Bay improperly revoked plant permit

The city of Green Bay overstepped its authority when it revoked a conditional use permit for an alternative-energy plant backed by a company the Oneida Tribe owned, a Wisconsin appeals court ruled last week.

Oneida Seven Generations Corp. and its subsidiary, Green Bay Renewable Energy, received a permit for a waste-to-energy facility. The Green Bay City Council voted in March 2011 to approve a Plan Commission recommendation to grant a permit to Seven Generations and granted it a building permit that August.

But after opposition to the plant grew, the city revoked the conditional use permit on Oct. 16, 2012, based on supposed misrepresentations opponents alleged Seven Generations made about the plant’s potential environmental impact.

A circuit court agreed with the city’s decision. Seven Generations appealed, and the appeals court agreed with the tribal company.  The court ruled the city failed to show proof of any misrepresentation on the corporation’s part.

“Nowhere in its decision did the City actually identify the alleged misrepresentations,” the appeals court said. “We cannot help but believe the City’s decision was based not on a rational analysis of the statements Seven Generations made to the Plan Commission, but the public pressure brought to bear on the Common Council.”

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

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