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Across the Region: April 20


Panel votes to keep Judicial Commission independent

The Legislature’s budget committee has broken with Gov. Scott Walker and decided that a commission that investigates judges and court commissioners should remain independent.

The Joint Finance Committee on Wednesday unanimously rejected Walker’s proposal to move the Judicial Commission under control of the state Supreme Court.

Both Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Annette Ziegler, along with the executive director of the commission, had objected to the move. Neither the court nor the commission requested the change.

Walker had defended the move as helping to streamline operations.


Judge denies voters’ attempt to intervene in Abrahamson case

A federal judge has denied an attempt by voters to intervene and stop a lawsuit brought by Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson challenging the timing of a recently approved constitutional amendment.

The amendment approved by voters April 7 allows justices on the Supreme Court to choose who will be the chief, rather than have it go to the most senior member. Abrahamson sued, arguing it should not apply until her term is over in four years.

Five voters on Monday attempted to intervene in the case and have it dismissed.

But U.S. District Judge James Peterson said in his order Tuesday that the voters’ interests will be adequately represented by those already named in the lawsuit.

An attorney for the voters said he was disappointed with the decision.


Grassley recommends two to fill openings on federal bench

The office of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley says he’s recommending a U.S. magistrate and a state district court judge to fill two openings on the federal bench in Iowa.

U.S. Magistrate Leonard Strand, of Sioux City, is being nominated to replace U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett for the Northern District of Iowa. State Judge Rebecca Ebinger, of Polk County, is being nominated to replace U.S. District Judge James Gritzner for the Southern District of Iowa.

Bennett and Gritzner are going on senior status.

Strand graduated from the University of Iowa law school and had a private practice before becoming a magistrate judge in 2012.

Ebinger, of Des Moines, has been a state judge since 2012. Ebinger has served as an assistant U.S. attorney in both of Iowa’s federal districts.


Egg executives’ jail sentences send strong message to industry

Two former egg industry executives received jail sentences Monday for their roles in a major 2010 salmonella outbreak, representing the latest high-profile victory for government officials hoping to emphasize food safety.

The three-month sentences handed down in federal court are noteworthy because only a handful of cases of corporate misconduct end with executives behind bars. The extent of harm caused by the outbreak and the pattern of problems led to the decision for jail time.

Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, each faced up to a year in jail on misdemeanor charges for shipping adulterated food. They will remain free while appealing their sentences.

“There’s a litany of shameful conduct, in my view, that happened under their watch,” U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett said.

Prosecutors said the jail sentences send a strong message about the importance of following food safety rules.

“A sentence of imprisonment is a fairly significant sentence in a case like this,” said Peter Deegan, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.

In the past 18 months, two Colorado cantaloupe farmers were convicted and received probation in a deadly 2011 listeria outbreak, and the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America was convicted in a 2008 salmonella outbreak. The peanut executive, Stewart Parnell, also could face jail time when sentenced.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked 1,939 illnesses to the outbreak, but officials estimate that up to 56,000 people may have been sickened. Investigators argue that the DeCosters knew their Iowa egg facilities were at risk for salmonella contamination before the outbreak.

The elder DeCoster, 80, of Turner, Maine, and his 51-year-old son, who lives in Clarion, Iowa, both pleaded guilty last year to introducing adulterated eggs into interstate commerce.

The DeCosters’ Quality Egg company paid a $6.8 million fine as part of a plea agreement, and the DeCosters each paid $100,000.

Quality Egg has admitted that workers knowingly shipped eggs with false processing and expiration dates to fool state regulators and retail customers about their age and bribed a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector at least twice to approve sales of poor-quality eggs.

Jack DeCoster told the judge that he prayed for the victims of the outbreak to recover, but he wasn’t worried about his court sentence.

“God is the one I’m worried about,” Jack DeCoster said. “You can throw me in jail, your honor. That’s all you can do to me. I’ve got to meet up with God one day.”


Man accused of defrauding woman out of $1M arrested

A man accused of defrauding an elderly woman out of more than $1 million has been arrested in North Dakota.

Vernon Officer, 56, has been charged with wire fraud and filing a false income tax statement. Authorities say Officer began defrauding the Virginia woman in 2011 after they both met online.

Authorities say Officer traveled to Virginia and demanded money from the woman. He eventually talked her into giving him over $600,000 to buy a former U.S. Coast Guard boat that was for sale after being decommissioned. Officer later convinced the woman to give her $400,000 more.

Officer says he has lived in North Dakota since December. He’ll remain under the custody of the U.S. Marshals until he is taken to Washington state, where the charges were filed.


Prosecutors accept plea, drop 32 charges in kidnapping case

A Sioux Falls man accused of kidnapping his girlfriend has pleaded guilty to aggravated assault in exchange for having 32 other charges dropped.

Kip Edward Hartwick, 19, faces up to 15 years in prison.

Authorities accuse Hartwick of kidnapping his girlfriend on Dec. 17 after he rammed his sport utility vehicle into her friend’s car. Authorities say the 18-year-old girlfriend texted her friend for help that day and told her she’d been having problems with Hartwick.

Hartwick drove into the vehicle after having an argument with his girlfriend. Hartwick’s girlfriend got out of her friend’s car and began running after he hit the car. He chased her, dragged her to his vehicle and shoved her into the backseat.

Authorities later located both of them in Minnesota.

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