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Across the Region: Oct. 27


Cedar Rapids woman pleads guilty to wire fraud

A Cedar Rapids woman has admitted defrauding clients of her law firm.

Prosecutors say 54-year-old Susan Hense pleaded guilty last week in federal court to one count of wire fraud. She faces up to 20 years in prison.

In a plea agreement, Hense admitted that she falsely represented to her firm’s clients that money belonging to them would be held in trust on their behalf in a bank account. Hense admitted that over three years she stole more than $837,000 from her clients. Hense has since been disbarred.

Prosecutors say she has agreed to pay restitution.


Appeals court revives Syngenta, Bunge GMO lawsuit

A federal appeals court gave agricultural chemical-maker Syngenta Seeds hope last week that it may be able to proceed with a lawsuit against grain storage and transportation company Bunge North America for refusing to accept one of Syngenta’s genetically modified corn varieties.

Syngenta sued Bunge in 2011, claiming it illegally refused to buy Syngenta’s Viptera corn from farmers that year. Viptera is genetically modified to control pests.

China is a significant buyer of U.S. corn but has strict rules against accepting GMO grain.

When Bunge made its decision not to accept Viptera “China maintained a zero tolerance policy regarding imports of corn grown from seed with genetically-modified traits China had not approved,” court documents said. “Pursuant to the policy, Chinese officials could prohibit an entire shipment of corn from entering the Chinese market if the shipment contained traces of corn with an unapproved genetically-modified trait.”

Rather than risk that, St. Louis-based Bunge posted signs at its Midwest businesses that said it was unable to accept Viptera.

Minnesota-based Syngenta said that caused some farmers who had purchase contracts with Bunge and who had planted Viptera corn seed to incur additional expenses. Syngenta said that as a result, it lost profits, market share and goodwill.


Woman named to southeast judgeship

The governor has appointed a Fairbury lawyer to a county court judgeship in southeast Nebraska.

Gov. Dave Heineman’s office announced last week that Linda Bauer will be replacing Judge J. Patrick McArdle, who has retired from his post in the 1st Judicial District. The district is composed of Gage, Jefferson, Johnson, Nemaha, Pawnee, Richardson, Saline and Thayer counties.

Bauer, 48, has been a partner at Schwab & Bauer in Fairbury since 1996 and has been Jefferson County attorney since 1996. She is a law school graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Pilot program offers alternative in neglect cases

Nebraska officials have launched a pilot program to keep more neglected children with their families, as long as steps can be taken to keep them safe.

The program gives parents a chance to avoid law enforcement and the courts if they are deemed a low risk to hurt their children.

Many cases are rooted in poverty, so the alternative response program seeks to connect families with services that provide food, transportation, shelter and other needs. The program started Oct. 1 in Lancaster, Dodge, Sarpy, Hall and Scotts Bluff counties, and could eventually spread statewide.

Under the pilot, state workers are still required to call law enforcement in more extreme cases, such as children who are seriously injured, sexually assaulted or exposed to methamphetamine.

The program stems from a 2013 law that allowed social workers to take a different approach when responding to abuse and neglect allegations, if factors such as poverty are at play.

The new approach seeks to give the state more flexibility in cases where circumstances are beyond a parent’s control, said Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who proposed the law.


Judge won’t lower bond for Mandan murder suspect

A judge has refused to lower bond for a Mandan man accused of killing a neighbor and setting a mobile home on fire to cover up the crime.

The attorney for Rodney Friesz, 49, asked Judge Bruce Romanick to reduce bond from $250,000 to $100,000. Romanick rejected the request, citing public safety.

Friesz is accused in the Oct. 9 slaying of Gene Jassmann, 62. Authorities allege Friesz shot Jassmann in the head with a .22-caliber rifle after the two argued, then lit the home on fire.

Friesz will enter pleas later to charges of felony murder and arson. He could face life in prison without parole if convicted.


Attorneys general letter targets human trafficking

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee urging passage of three bills targeting human trafficking.

Stenehjem and more than 50 other state and territorial attorneys general signed the letter sent to the committee last week.

The letter asks the committee to approve the Stop Advertising Victims Exploitation Act. The measure would add more oversight for websites that offer adult services.

Stenehjem says that for every predator authorities “take down,” dozens more are hiding behind the anonymity of websites.

The letter also addresses the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act of 2013, which would promote a victim-centered approach to cases.

Senators are also being encouraged to approve the Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act. The proposal would increase federal penalties and victim restitution.


Jackley seeks May execution for Rodney Berget 

Attiorney General Marty Jackley has asked South Dakota court officials to set a spring execution date for a man ordered to die for his role in killing a state prison guard during an escape attempt 3½ years ago.

Jackley has requested that Rodney Berget, 52, die by lethal injection at the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls the week of May 3, 2015.

Defense attorney Jeff Larson said if the court grants the date, he likely will request a stay. He said it was too early to comment on possible legal grounds for such a request.

Berget and another prisoner, Eric Robert, attacked penitentiary guard Ronald Johnson during an April 2011 escape attempt. Johnson was alone in an area where inmates work on projects such as upholstery and signs. Robert donned Johnson’s uniform and tried to move a large box with Berget inside toward the prison gate. They were caught before leaving the prison.

Robert was executed in 2012. A third inmate, Michael Nordman, was sentenced to life in prison for providing plastic wrap and a pipe used in the slaying of Johnson, which happened on his 63rd birthday.

Jackley said in an interview that he consulted with the state Department of Corrections and with Johnson’s widow before deciding on which week to request. One reason for the choice is that “there’s considerable work for the Department of Corrections in preparing for carrying out a death sentence,” he said.


Feds reaffirm state’s sex offender registry

The U.S. Department of Justice has reaffirmed South Dakota’s compliance with a national sex offender registration act.

Attorney General Marty Jackley says the state’s Sex Offender Registry continues to comply with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.

South Dakota currently has 3,300 registered sex offenders living in the state.

Jackely says the state has a compliance rate of 98.9 percent and has had only 36 instances of non-compliance.

South Dakota was the originally the fourth registry in the nation to be certified.

South Dakota finished its renewal process in May. The Department of Justice reaffirmed the state’s compliance status this week.


Supreme Court takes double homicide case

The state Supreme Court will decide whether a Milwaukee man accused of killing his parents deserves a new trial.

Prosecutors charged Corey Kucharski with two counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the 2010 shooting detahs of Ralph and Pamela Kucharski. Corey Kucharski said voices told him to kill them. He was sentenced to life.

He argued on appeal that a judge wrongly ruled he was mentally responsible for his actions even though it was undisputed that he was suffering from schizophrenia. A state appeals court in May granted him a new trial, ruling Kucharski was in a psychotic state when he killed his parents and there was no other explanation for his actions.


Happ: GOP ignores facts, feds pursued bomb case

Republicans have accused Democratic attorney general hopeful Susan Happ of letting a bomb builder off scot-free, even though Happ stepped aside so federal prosecutors could pursue the case.

Happ’s campaign issued a statement accusing Republicans of ignoring the facts. The statement was titled, “Republican smear campaign blows up in its face.”

Happ, the Jefferson County district attorney, and Schimel, the Waukesha County district attorney, are vying to replace outgoing Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen in the Nov. 4 election. Schimel and his allies have been digging through her cases in Jefferson County, searching for plea deals they claim shows she’s soft on crime.

The state GOP’s statement Friday noted that Happ filed charges of possessing a pipe bomb against Christopher Hamlin of Waterloo in August 2009. Police arrested Hamlin that month after finding a pipe bomb. He told officers he made the bomb and had used pipe bombs to blow up a burn barrel and a tree in the past.

Happ’s office dropped the counts just short of a month after filing them.

GOP Executive Director Joe Fadness said in the news release that Happ’s decision to drop the charges is “alarming.” He accused Happ of putting the community at risk.

Happ countered on Saturday that she dropped the case in consultation with federal prosecutors after a federal grand jury in Madison indicted Hamlin on a bomb possession count.

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