Happy Monday from OPUBCO HQ, where we’re supposed to get temperatures into the the 70s today. Could spring finally be here?
Here’s what you might have missed over the weekend from our team and elsewhere:
–Watchdog reporter Michael Baker covered the plea arrangement of a state trooper accused of kicking a handcuffed female suspect who allegedly spit on his pants. Barry Jacob Rowland, 33, pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor assault and battery charge. He also agreed to give up his law enforcement certification.
Special District Judge Cynthia Pickering sentenced Rowland to one year of unsupervised probation, a fine and court costs of $796 and required him to resign from the highway patrol and CLEET by Thursday. Rowland has been a trooper since May 2006 and on paid leave since the incident.
After the hearing, [Okmulgee County District Attorney] Giulioli praised highway patrol trooper Ronnie Sites, for reporting the incident.
“It took a tremendous amount of courage for him to report this incident,” Giulioli said. “Had he not done so, I don’t think it would ever had been brought to light.”
–In other law enforcement news, Randy Ellis has a story today about alleged sexual harassment by the police chief in Fairview:
Less than two months after reaching a $40,000 settlement in a federal sexual harassment lawsuit against him, Fairview Police Chief Robert Banks is under investigation for alleged improper conduct in a class he was teaching for the Oklahoma Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET).
–The Oklahoma Public Employees Association has gotten a sweetheart deal under state law to get access to the home addresses of more than 40,000 state employees so they can send out recruitment mailings. The lawmaker who secured that favor, Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, was later named OPEA’s “Legislator of the Year” for 2009.
–Speaking of Rep. Terrill, he’s returning at least $5,000 in campaign contributions for his 2010 re-election campaign after it was discovered he has not yet set up a campaign committee for 2010 at the state Ethics Commission.
–Federal health care reform has been signed into law, but that hasn’t stopped the debate. Chris Casteel in our Washington bureau looked into how the bill might affect Oklahoma’s Medicaid program.
There are nearly 600,000 Oklahomans on Medicare, the government insurance program for seniors. So, if Medicaid expands to cover more than 1 million people and Medicare enrollment stays near the current level, about half of the people in the state will be in one of the two programs.
The [Oklahoma] health care authority is estimating that the Medicaid expansion under the new law will reduce the rate of uninsured people in the state from about 17 percent to around 11 percent. The law’s subsidies to individuals and small businesses to buy private insurance are expected to reduce that rate further.
At one time or another in the last fiscal year, the Oklahoma Medicaid program, SoonerCare, had 825,000 participants. This month, there are about 680,000 Oklahomans on Medicaid and an estimated 51,000 children whose parents have no other insurance who could be, but aren’t, enrolled.
When the new eligibility guidelines begin in January 2014, there will be 265,000 newly qualified Oklahomans, according to the health care authority.
–Political pundits are wondering how Tea Party backers will use their newfound power to influence this year’s midterm elections. The New York Times talked to some of the Tea Party organizers about their motivations:
The fact that many of them joined the Tea Party after losing their jobs raises questions of whether the movement can survive an improvement in the economy, with people trading protest signs for paychecks.
But for now, some are even putting their savings into work that they argue is more important than a job — planning candidate forums and get-out-the-vote operations, researching arguments about the constitutional limits on Congress and using Facebook to attract recruits.
“Even if I wanted to stop, I just can’t,” said Diana Reimer, 67, who has become a star of the effort by FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group, to fight the health care overhaul. “I’m on a mission, and time is not on my side.”
–The Wall Street Journal has a heart-wrenching story about the fallout from a mass-shooting at an immigrant center in Binghamton, N.Y. At issue is how much the victims and victims’ families should be compensated.
The process of distributing funds in Binghamton began when the local social-services director asked area charities, social service groups and lawyers to form a committee to oversee the task.
Among the questions they considered:
Who deserves more money: Survivors traumatized by the event, or the orphans of two slain parents?
How should they value the wounds suffered by a man who tried in vain to protect his wife by wrapping his arms around her?
Should a family with 11 children receive more than one where the breadwinner lost his job?
And what about the relatives of the dead? Should they be consulted, or would their woeful accounts inappropriately sway the committee?
In July I posted a blog about a Craigslist rental scam that I encountered. It was a beauty—misspellings, suspicious details and the listing’s poster even asked me to send him money (overseas) before I viewed the house.
It was an obvious scam, but I wanted to put the emails out there so people could see how the bilkers work. You can see the old post here.
The point of this post is to bring attention to my scam savvy. This month, the Internet Crime Complaint Center sent out an intelligence note about the same scam:
Rental and Real Estate Scams Individuals need to be cautious when posting rental properties and real estate on-line. The IC3 continues to receive numerous complaints from individuals who have fallen victim to scams involving rentals of apartments and houses, as well as postings of real estate on-line.
Rental scams occur when the victim has rental property advertised and is contacted by an interested party. Once the rental price is agreed-upon, the scammer forwards a check for the deposit on the rental property to the victim. The check is to cover housing expenses and is, either written in excess of the amount required, with the scammer asking for the remainder to be remitted back, or the check is written for the correct amount, but the scammer backs out of the rental agreement and asks for a refund. Since the banks do not usually place a hold on the funds, the victim has immediate access to them and believes the check has cleared. In the end, the check is found to be counterfeit and the victim is held responsible by the bank for all losses.
Another type of scam involves real estate that is posted via classified advertisement websites. The scammer duplicates postings from legitimate real estate websites and reposts these ads, after altering them. Often, the scammers use the broker’s real name to create a fake email, which gives the fraud more legitimacy. When the victim sends an email through the classified advertisement website inquiring about the home, they receive a response from someone claiming to be the owner. The “owner” claims he and his wife are currently on missionary work in a foreign country. Therefore, he needs someone to rent their home while they are away. If the victim is interested in renting the home, they are asked to send money to the owner in the foreign country.
If you have been a victim of Internet crime, please file a complaint at http://www.IC3.gov/.
It’s the first Monday of spring, and our weekend snow has largely melted. Here’s what you might have missed from our team this weekend:
–Speculation continues in the December death of an 11-year-old Noble girl. Watchdog reporter Michael Baker takes a closer look here.
NOBLE — For days, the 11-year-old lay there dead, dressed in a purple T-shirt decorated with a butterfly pattern.
Stephanie Wilcoxson committed suicide, a state medical examiner concluded. Death caused by very high levels of methadone in her body
But the questions don’t end there.
A methadone overdose, a finding of suicide, Stephanie’s young age, her father’s suicide in 2005 and a continuing investigation all combine to shroud the girl’s December death in more questions than answers. Conjecture and some innuendo have circulated around Stephanie’s hometown of Noble, a growing one-high school town of 5,800 people situated just south of Norman.
–Legalized gambling has contributed hundreds of millions to state coffers, but does the entertainment contribute to other problems?
Gambling in Oklahoma has contributed more than $184 million to state government revenues, but it has come at a cost to tens of thousands of Oklahomans who have become problem gamblers, experts say.
–The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on corporate spending on political campaigns is still being worked out at the state level. But the Texas Tribune has found what might be one of the first directly sponsored corporate campaign ad from Texas’ primary election.
–The right to an attorney is a fundamental part of our legal system. But the system of indigent defense may be under review in New York, according to this New York Times story.
–Further afield in Afghanistan, where the opium crop is a way of life for many poor farmers, American and NATO forces are arguing against opium eradication during the latest battle for Marja.
As tornado season approaches, insurance industry experts are encouraging homeowners to confirm that they have enough insurance to replace their homes should they be destroyed or damaged by severe weather.
“Reliable estimates reveal that between 50 and 70 percent of homeowners do not have sufficient insurance to rebuild their home in the event of a major storm,” said Jerry Johns, president of Southwestern Insurance Information Service.
Some of the issues to consider are increases in construction costs, any renovations or improvements to the home and local building codes, he said.
Consumers often confuse the market value of their home rather than replacement value, Johns explained. If a person does not have adequate insurance a company may pay only a portion of the cost of replacing or repairing damaged items.
Maintaining a current inventory of personal items in your home is highly recommended, Johns said. He suggests keeping a video taped or hand-written inventory that is kept in a safe place away from the home.
With the slew of recent vehicle recalls and heightened concerns about food and product safety, it’s important to note where to go when you have a complaint about something. (You could tell me, but I can only do so much).
Non-meat food (cereal, fish, produce, nuts, cheese):
Call: (301) 443-1240 (emergency); (800) 535-4555 (non-emergency)
Or the consumer complaint coordinator in your state.
Call: The health department in your state.
USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service
What: Meat, poultry or egg products
Call: (888) 674-6854
There is no 324 area code in the United States, but many people nationally have reported receiving scam calls that showed up on their caller ID systems as originating from the 324 area code. One Internet source, wikianswers.com, reports the calls appear to be originating from Ghana, West Africa. A Northern Oklahoma businessman said he recently encountered an apparent credit card scam that used the 324 area code. A man who identified himself as Preacher Tim from Idaho tried to get the businessmanto send 600 blankets to an orphaage in Idaho, he said. The scams reportedly take many forms, but a call that appears to originate from a 324 area code should be cause for suspicion, unless a person is expecting a call from Ghana.
Happy Monday from OPUBCO HQ, where I’m glad my pick for Best Picture, “The Hurt Locker,” had such a great showing last night at the Academy Awards.
Here’s a few of our stories you might have missed over the weekend:
–Watchdog reporter Ann Kelley had an update on an investigation into a decorated state trooper who has been accused of improperly handling surplus helicopter parts. The trooper, Joe Howard, continues to draw his annual salary of $57,600 on paid leave as the investigation now drags into its 15th month.
–A plan to protest a pending Open Records request by The Oklahoman may have backfired for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, whose members could face an ethics investigation for using state equipment to e-mail and phone the newspaper and the state agency that received the request at their association’s urging. (More background on the newspaper’s request is here.)
The workers were upset because the newspaper requested birth dates, salaries and other basic employment information for all state employees. The request remains unfulfilled. The birth dates of public employees have been deemed public information under a recent opinion by [Attorney General Drew] Edmondson.
Edmondson released the birth dates for his employees to the newspaper last month. Oklahoma City Public Schools this week released birth dates for more than 5,000 district employees in response to an open records request.
–While we’re talking about background checks, Watchdog reporter Sonya Colberg dug into just how much information can be gleaned from the state’s standard background check. Not included in the standard background checks by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation are criminal records from other states, protective orders or civil filings. For a good explanation of what is and isn’t covered, check out the box that ran with the story.
–The debate over what to do with health care reform continues to rage in Washington, but one company based in Tennessee appears to be playing on the fears of customers. Watchdog reporter Vallery Brown has the story in today’s paper about an alleged health insurance scam that has left a trail of unpaid claims across the country, including Oklahoma. (More background on that story here.)
–Courts reporter Nolan Clay had an interesting story on the limits of technology and law enforcement. It turns out a convicted felon who had already served time in federal and state prison for weapons and drug convictions was allowed to wear a GPS ankle bracelet:
Early last year, convicted drug dealer Ricky Fitzgerald Reese was sent to state prison to serve a five-year sentence for selling crack cocaine near an Oklahoma City high school.
He stayed 10 months.
In late November, prison officials put an ankle monitor on him and let him loose. By February, prosecutors allege, he was selling drugs again — even as corrections officials were supposedly monitoring him by global positioning satellites.
I talked to state Insurance Commissioner Kim Holland today about this story I did in December about an “insurance plan” that has left many Oklahomans high and dry. The company is called American Trade Association (And Healthcare America, Superior Healthcare, Smart Data Solutions and Real Benefits Association, among others).
The bottom line is, they are taking money from people on the plan and not paying on claims, Holland said. Some plan buyers say the company has paid on smaller claims like routine check ups, only to turn around and reject larger claims like emergency room visits.
Here is an advertisement for the plan:
Notice all of the Americana and emotional references in the ad? Here is an “informercial” about ATA as well.
Look for lots of documents and another story on ATA in The Oklahoman and on www.newsok.com this weekend.
And for those looking to buy insurance in the near future, the state Insurance Department encourages all consumers to call and confirm that any company or insurance agent offering insurance or insurance-like products is properly licensed to do business. Call the Oklahoma Insurance Department consumer hot line at (800) 522-0071 or visit www.oid.ok.gov.
Good Monday from OPUBCO HQ, where I’m wondering what to watch on TV now that the Olympics no longer dominate the prime-time slots.
Here’s a look at what you might have missed from our Watchdog team over the weekend:
–Reporter Sonya Colberg took a look at a proposed law to tighten up the educational requirements for drug and alcohol counselors in Oklahoma. It’s a complicated issue, because on one side you’ve got counselors with great life experience who might leave the profession if they have to get master’s degrees. On the other side is the state Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services’ effort to increase the professionalization of the counselors in Oklahoma.
–Randy Ellis explored one lawmaker’s efforts to revamp the state’s foster care system. Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, is looking to Florida as a possible model to privatize Oklahoma’s foster care.
–It’s Oscar week, so I had story explaining how film producers are using the state’s film rebate and a separate tax credit to recoup up to 49 percent of their qualified movie making expenditures in Oklahoma. With the state budget crunch, the tax credit part of that incentive package might hit the cutting room floor.
–Finally, Ellis had interviews with both of the people involved in a dispute in Lindsay involving the mayor.
–Tulsa had some problems with concrete falling off an Interstate 44 bridge last week. The Tulsa World‘s Data Editor Gavin Off asked the state Transportation Department for a database of damage claims against the state. What he found is that it’s fairly easy to file a claim, but a lot harder to actually get the money.
–The Associated Press had a comprehensive story on the latest efforts by state lawmakers to expand exemptions to the Oklahoma Open Records Act, closing off public access to things like public employees’ dates of birth, information from the state’s Film Office and autopsy reports.
–Detroit is losing thousands of people in the wake of the recession, but its new mayor isn’t losing hope. He’s pursuing a new strategy of “smaller is better,” a rarity among mayors who typically tout grand projects. The Wall Street Journal has more on the story:
Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Bing, a Democrat first elected last year to finish the term of disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, hasn’t touted big development plans or talked of a “renaissance.” Instead, he is trying to prepare residents for a new reality: that Detroit—like the auto industry that propelled it for a century—will have to get smaller before it gets bigger again.
–Oklahoma has its own long-running lawsuit over poultry waste. Today, the Washington Post delved into the larger issues surrounding industrial farming and the most basic of byproducts. Oklahoma gets a mention:
Despite its impact, manure has not been as strictly regulated as more familiar pollution problems, like human sewage, acid rain or industrial waste. The Obama administration has made moves to change that but already has found itself facing off with farm interests, entangled in the contentious politics of poop.
In recent months, Oklahoma has battled poultry companies from Arkansas in court, blaming their birds’ waste for slimy and deadened rivers downstream. In Florida, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed first-of-their-kind limits on pollutants found in manure.
–Finally, The New York Times had its own pollution story in Sunday’s paper. This one looked at the difficulty of establishing jurisdiction in pollution cases involving the Clean Water Act.