Category Archives: News Brew

Court Ruling in Major Education Case

Photo: Chris Sessums/flikr/cc

STATE SUPREME COURT FINDS FOR PLAINTIFFS IN MAJOR SCHOOL FUNDING CASE

November 18, 2014 – New York, NY -- Rejecting the state’s attempt to dismiss a major litigation seeking to enforce the funding and other constitutional mandates established in the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York litigation (“CFE”), Justice Manuel J. Mendez of the New York State Supreme Court, New York County, issued an order today that upholds the right of the plaintiffs in New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (“NYSER”) to proceed with their litigation against the state, and against Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state defendants.

The NYSER litigation, filed earlier this year, alleges that in 2007, following the Court of Appeals’ final decision in CFE, the governor and the state legislature enacted a major reform act that committed the state to increasing funding for students in the New York City Public Schools by approximately $5 billion per year, and for students in the rest of the state by approximately $4 billion per year, all to be phased in over a four-year period. Since 2009, however, the state has reneged on these commitments. Although the state has never repealed the 2007 legislation, it has failed to fund schools in accordance with its foundation formula. Despite some increases in state funding for education over the past few years, the state is still $5.6 billion short of the amounts owed under that formula, according to the plaintiffs.

Referring specifically to some of the devices and mechanisms the state has used to reduce its education appropriations, Justice Mendez held that “the ‘gap elimination adjustment’…. the cap on state-aid increases, the supermajority requirements concerning increases in local property tax levies,” together with penalty provisions imposed on New York City students last year in connection with the implementation of the new teacher evaluation system, all “could potentially be found irrational, arbitrary or capricious and capable of preventing a sound basic education.”

The Court also held that, “The claims asserted by plaintiffs are not tenuous, there is a potential risk of harm to public school students and to school districts derived from financial distress.”

Justice Mendez also rejected the state’s claim that individual plaintiffs from all of the approximately 700 school districts in the state would need to participate for plaintiffs to proceed with this lawsuit and that NYSER as an organization lacked standing to sue. He held that “This Court will not ‘close the courthouse doors’ on the individual plaintiffs’ potentially viable constitutional claims affecting schoolchildren in New York State,” and that NYSER, whose “stated mission is to ensure that all students in the State of New York receive the opportunity for a sound basic education” also has standing.

The state now has 20 days to file an answer to the complaint, after which preparations for trial can commence.

“We are pleased that the Court has quickly and definitively rejected the state’s motion to dismiss, and we look forward to quickly moving this case along so that students throughout the state can receive the educational opportunities that the state constitution clearly intends them to enjoy,” said Douglas Schwarz, a partner at Bingham McCutcheon, who serves as co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

“We hope that this important decision will cause the governor and the legislature to reconsider their current approach to funding for education and to work with us to promptly ensure that all students truly receive the opportunity for a sound basic education. However, if further litigation is necessary, we are prepared to continue to fight this case vigorously,” added Michael A. Rebell, co-counsel for the NYSER plaintiffs. (Rebell also served as co-counsel for plaintiffs in the CFE litigation.)

NYSER v. State of New York was filed earlier this year by 16 parents from New York City and from urban, suburban and rural districts throughout the state, and by NYSER, an organization whose members include the New York State School Boards Association, the New York State Council of School Superintendents, the New York State PTA, the New York State Association of School Business Officials, the Statewide School Finance Consortium, the Rural Schools Association, 11 of New York City’s Community Education Councils, and a number of parent groups and advocacy groups around the state. The plaintiffs are seeking immediate financial relief, as well as the adoption of a series of mechanisms that will ensure adequate and equitable funding for all students in New York State on a sustained, long-term basis. For more information on the suit, visit www.nyser.org 

Banning Medical Pot Makes No Sense

Photo via Tha Goodiez/Flickr/CC

A few months back, a friend of mine died of cancer. I’ll call her “Karen,” for her privacy. By the time we met, she was already terminally ill and had been for months.

Over the next year and a half, I watched my friend lose her hair and waste away until I could hardly distinguish her from her middle-school-aged son. She tried chemotherapy, radiation, and any other treatment her doctors would give her, even though she had little hope for remission.

There’s hardly anything “lucky” about her story. But Karen was fortunate in one regard: She lived in California.

In her last years, Karen relied on medical marijuana regularly for relief she couldn’t get from any other medication. In California plus 22 other states and the District of Columbia, medical marijuana is legal. Elsewhere, it isn’t.

Medical Marijuana in Pill Bottles

The absurdities that keep patients suffering are a cruelty for many experiencing the most severe types of pain. (Photo via Tha Goodiez/Flickr/CC)

Why deny a cancer or AIDS patient a medication that reduces suffering? Because a healthy person somewhere might use it recreationally for pleasure?

Karen’s medical marijuana use struck me as normal — until I moved away from California after living there for eight years.

I’m now going to graduate school in Wisconsin, a state where medical marijuana is almost completely illegal.

At first, I thought of medical marijuana as simply a moral issue: It’s inhumane to deny an effective medication to someone who is ill. Then, things got personal.

I’ve endured chronic migraines for the last two decades. I get them from visual triggers like videos and projectors. I’ve seen doctors in four states. I’ve tried 20 different meds, without luck. Since starting school, I’ve had migraines every single day. I have one right now. These days, the main culprits are the fluorescent lights that illuminate just about every university building.

Oh, and the neurologist has a six-month wait list for appointments.

One possible treatment? Medical marijuana. Apparently, certain strains are more effective than others for treating different conditions. In other words, if it’s a medical use you’re after, you’re best not buying something random illegally from a dealer.

And here’s what I’ve learned.

First, more research needs to be done to verify when and how marijuana is medicinally effective. It has not had the rigorous testing that any FDA-approved drug requires before it’s put on the market.

That said, there is some research happening. Scientists recently found that medical marijuana legalization could cut deaths from painkiller use. In my case, the only other drug I’ve found that reduces my pain is oxycodone, a habit-forming opioid. About 100 Americans die from overdosing on drugs like oxycodone every day — but it’s just about impossible to die from too much marijuana.

Second, “legalized” pot doesn’t always mean legalized pot. In some states (Illinois, I’m looking at you), you can only use medical marijuana for a defined list of conditions (migraines not included). In its proposed rules, Illinois also plans to charge $100 and fingerprint you like a criminal if you apply to use medical cannabis.

Minnesota has an even smaller list of approved illnesses, charges $200, and won’t allow you to smoke your legal pot — although you’re free to vaporize it. Most states require that you live in-state — and prove it.

For Pete’s sake, I’m no criminal — I’m just trying to overcome a common debilitating disease.

I want relief from my crushing daily migraines, and I want better quality of life. I want to remain a productive member of society. I don’t know if medical marijuana will help me, but I’d like to find out. Legally. Under the supervision of a doctor.

It hurts that there’s a potential solution for my pain and the pain of so many others but state and local governments won’t let us give it a try. Let’s reform our laws to give patients relief, and engage in the scientific study needed to understand if, how, and when medical cannabis works.


 

This article published through CC license via Otherwords.org. OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. OtherWords.org. Photo via Tha Goodiez/Flickr/CC

Private Donors Supply Spy Gear to Cops

Photo via Elvert Barnes/CC/flickr

In 2007, as it pushed to build a state-of-the-art surveillance facility, the Los Angeles Police Department cast an acquisitive eye on software being developed by Palantir, a startup funded in part by the Central Intelligence Agency's venture capital arm.

Originally designed for spy agencies, Palantir's technology allowed users to track individuals with unprecedented reach, connecting information from conventional sources like crime reports with more controversial data gathered by surveillance cameras and license plate readers that automatically, and indiscriminately, photographed passing cars.

The LAPD could have used a small portion of its multibillion-dollar annual budget to purchase the software, but that would have meant going through a year-long process requiring public meetings, approval from the City Council, and, in some cases, competitive bidding.

There was a quicker, quieter way to get the software: as a gift from the Los Angeles Police Foundation, a private charity.

In November 2007, at the behest of then Police Chief William Bratton, the foundation approached Target Corp., which contributed $200,000 to buy the software, said the foundation's executive director, Cecilia Glassman, in an interview.

Then the foundation donated it to the police department.

Across the nation, private foundations are increasingly being tapped to provide police with technology and weaponry that -- were it purchased with public money -- would come under far closer scrutiny.

In Los Angeles, foundation money has been used to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of license plate readers, which were the subject of a civil-rights lawsuit filed against the region's law enforcement agencies by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (A judge rejected the groups' claims earlier this year.)

Private funds also have been used to upgrade "Stingray" devices, which have triggered debate in numerous jurisdictions because they vacuum up records of cellphone metadata, calls, text messages and data transfers over a half-mile radius.

New York and Los Angeles have the nation's oldest and most generous police foundations, each providing their city police departments with grants totaling about $3 million a year. But similar groups have sprouted up in dozens of jurisdictions, from Atlanta, Georgia, to Oakland, California. In Atlanta, the police foundation has bankrolled the surveillance cameras that now blanket the city, as well as the center where police officers monitor live video feeds.

Proponents of these private fundraising efforts say they have become indispensable in an era of tightening budgets, helping police to acquire the ever-more sophisticated tools needed to combat modern crime.

"There's very little discretionary money for the department," said Steve Soboroff, a businessman who is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian board that oversees the LAPD's policies and operations. "A grant application to the foundation cuts all the red tape, or almost all of the red tape."

But critics say police foundations operate with little transparency or oversight and can be a way for wealthy donors and corporations to influence law enforcement agencies' priorities.

It's not uncommon for the same companies to be donors to the same police foundations that purchase their products for local police departments. Or for those companies also to be contractors for the same police agencies to which their products are being donated.

"No one really knows what's going on," said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, a good government group in New York. "The public needs to know that these contributions are being made voluntarily and have no bearing on contracting decisions." 

Palantir, the recipient of the Los Angeles Police Foundation's largesse in 2008, donated $10,000 to become a three-star sponsor of the group's annual "Above and Beyond" awards ceremony in 2013 and has made similar-sized gifts to the New York police foundation. The privately held Palo Alto firm, which had estimated revenues of $250 million in 2011 and is preparing to go public, also has won millions of dollars of contracts from the Los Angeles and New York police departments over the last three years.

Palantir officials did not respond to questions about its relationships with police departments and the foundations linked to them. The New York City Police Foundation did not answer questions about Palantir's donations, or its technology gifts to the NYPD.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she saw danger in the growing web of ties between police departments, foundations and private donors.

"We run the risk of policy that is in the service of moneyed interests," she said.

The nation's first police foundation was established in New York City in 1971 by the Association for a Better New York, a private group headed by real estate magnate Lewis Rudin.

In the late 1970s, when violent crime soared and the city's finances were shaky, the foundation paid for bulletproof vests, which were distributed via a raffle. "It changed the administration into believing bulletproof vests are necessary equipment for the job," a former New York cop said.

Altogether, the New York City Police Foundation has distributed more than $120 million in grants since it was set up and has spurred a host of imitators.

One was the Los Angeles Police Foundation, which was founded in 1998 by then Police Chief Bernard Parks.

Its first modest mission was to pay to outfit police units with medical kits to treat gunshot wounds. "There were incidents with officers injured and paramedics were getting there too late," said Parks, who is now a city councilman.

Over its lifespan, the foundation has provided the LAPD with grants totaling more than $20 million, much of it to acquire uncontroversial items such as bicycles and police dogs. 

In New York and Los Angeles, it has long been true that top police officials have exercised considerable control over the use of foundation money.

Glassman said that the chief of police's office deals directly with the Los Angeles foundation, identifying which products and services the department wants and who the vendor should be. At Bratton's direction, private donations paid for a team of consultants to devise a plan to reorganize the LAPD.

According to press reports, Ray Kelly, New York's police commissioner for a brief stint in the early '90s and from 2002 to 2013, held similar sway with the New York City foundation. At his behest, foundation funds even paid for Kelly's membership at the Harvard Club, an NYPD spokesman confirmed

More recently, though, the New York and Los Angeles foundations have turned to funding technology initiatives, many of them involving surveillance systems.

An audit included with the New York foundation's 2013 annual tax filing said almost half of the $6.5 million distributed by the group that year went to what it called the police department's "technology campaign."

The foundation was given $4.6 million by JPMorgan Chase to buy 1,000 laptops and security monitoring software for the police department's main data center, according to the foundation's tax documentation and press releases from JP Morgan.

Records for the Los Angeles foundation are more specific, showing outlays of almost $250,000 in 2010 for tracking equipment for the police department's counter-terrorism investigators and $460,000 in 2011 on surveillance cameras and license plate readers.

According to its 2012 tax filing, the foundation gave almost $25,000 to upgrade "Stingray" devices placed in skid row to monitor drug transactions.

Police boosters say there's no need for public debate over these types of acquisitions.

"I think we all see ourselves as part of a larger puzzle, which is making sure that Los Angeles has a world class police department, and we're just the private funding source," said Glassman of the Police Foundation. "The commission is an oversight board and the department is here to protect and serve."

But Peter Bibring of the ACLU of Southern California said that when police acquire new surveillance tools it can reshape their approach to policing 2013 shifts that, when enabled by private money, are occurring outside public view.

"These technologies are adopted without any kind of public discussion, without clear policies on how they should be used," he said.

As private charities, police foundations are subject to reporting rules set by the tax code rather than the public information laws that apply to law enforcement agencies. In many cases, foundations give few details about where their money comes from and even fewer about what it's used to buy.

The New York City Police Foundation lists contributors who give $1,000 or more on its website, separating them into donors ($1,000-$5,000), benefactors ($5,000-$10,000), bronze ($10,000-$25,000), silver ($25,000-$50,000), gold ($50,000-$100,000) and platinum ($100,000 or more).

The group offers no specifics at all on what its grants are used for, however. The police department's annual budget lumps them all into a single line item labeled "non-city funds."

Despite the minimal amount of disclosure, it's clear that several companies are both vendors and donors to the New York foundation. Some also hold large contracts to supply goods and services to the police department.

The NYPD's citywide surveillance hub uses software from IBM, which gave between $10,000 and 25,000 to the foundation. According to its website and tax documents, the foundation helped fund creation of the hub. IBM did not respond when asked about its relationships with New York's police foundation and police department.

DynTek Inc. made a contribution of similar size to the foundation and has won more than $47 million in technology contracts with New York City since 2008. It lobbied the police department for more business as recently as this January, according to disclosure records. DynTek officials also did not respond to questions.

The New York Police Foundation's bylaws say it reviews potential conflicts of interest involving donors, but foundation officials did not respond to questions about this process.

It appears that no one else is watching out for these overlapping relationships: New York's Comptroller and Conflict of Interest Board, which oversee procurement and conflicts of interest for the city, said they don't track the police foundation's donations to the police department.

Los Angeles has put more protections in place 2013- at least on paper. According to the city's Administrative Code, the Police Commission must approve all foundation gifts to the police department. Donations with a value of more than $10,000 also must be approved by the City Council and its Public Safety Committee.

Accompanying each donation is a signed assurance from LAPD staff that states, "all possible conflicts of interest have been researched, and this donation does not reflect negatively on the Department or City in general."

In practice, though, the police commission puts donations from the foundation on its consent agenda, which typically passes with no discussion. In December 2013, for example, the commission approved a gift of 50 stun guns from TASER International Inc., valued at more than $48,000, in less than five seconds, video archives show. The donated models are an experimental product that LAPD officers are field testing for the company, according to city records. The City Council's Public Safety Committee and, later, the full council, also approved the donation with no debate.

In some cases, foundations gifts may not be getting even this level of scrutiny. There's no indication in records that the City Council ever voted on or approved the 2007 donation of the Palantir software. 

A recent kerfuffle involving LAPD Officer Brandi Pearson, the daughter of Police Chief Charlie Beck, demonstrated the holes in vetting process for police foundation gifts. In March, the foundation paid $6,000 to buy a horse from Pearson, then donated it to the police department's mounted unit. Beck himself signed off on the foundation's purchase, but neither he nor foundation officials informed the Police Commission about the arrangement. Details of the horse's purchase only emerged this August when the Los Angeles Times got hold of the story.   

Ana Muniz, a former researcher with the Inglewood-based Youth Justice Coalition who has studied the LAPD's gang policing efforts, called the porous system for monitoring foundation donations unsettling.

"At least with public contracts and spending, there's a facade of transparency and accountability," Muniz said. "With private partnerships, with private technology, there's nothing."

Parks said that the Los Angeles foundation was supposed to avoid taking donations from companies if they were bidding on contracts for the police department, but acknowledged there are no rules barring this.

As Motorola and Raytheon vied for a $600 million contract to provide the regional emergency communications system used by the LAPD, each company made generous donations to the police foundation.

Motorola gave more than $164,000 through a foundation controlled by company executives in 2010 and 2011. It also appointed Bratton, who left the LAPD in October 2009, to its board of directors in December 2010, a post that paid $240,000 a year.

"As part of our commitment to public safety, the Motorola Solutions Foundation, Motorola Solutions' philanthropic arm, supports public safety nonprofits that provide training for officers and safety education for the general public, as well as memorials to honor the service and sacrifice of fallen officers, and to help fund scholarships for their families," said Tama McWinney, a Motorola spokesperson, in a written response to questions about why the company had donated to the police foundation.

Raytheon countered by donating $311,000 in equipment to the police foundation to upgrade the LAPD's existing radio system. "Our community engagement includes strategic partnerships, individual empowerment programs, employee volunteer efforts and regional projects that are aligned with support of first responders, education initiatives and our warfighters," Michael Doble, Raytheon's director of public relations, said in a statement.

Motorola ended up winning the contract.

Soboroff said he had no concerns that companies were donating to the foundation to improve their chances to do business with the city -- donors were typically driven by "an insatiable appetite to help," he said, not self-interest.

At a recent fundraiser hosted by a wealthy family, members of the police department's canine, equestrian and SWAT units helped raise $180,000 to buy dogs, horses and equipment.

"All they need to do is see a menu of what we need and they're willing to play," Soboroff said.

Parks, however, said corporate donors should be seen with a more skeptical eye and that, in his view, it taints the contracting process when companies are allowed to make gifts to the same police agencies from which they are seeking work.

"If you are taking money from Motorola and all of a sudden Motorola is providing you with your radios, those are major concerns," he said. "You should shy away from those relationships."

Ultimately, Parks remains a supporter of police foundations and said Los Angeles' group has provided critical support to the city's police. But he has come to believe these groups need more substantial oversight than they are getting.

"You have to be diligent to look at what people are purchasing," he said. "You don't want to say, when did we buy 50 drones?"


 

This article syndicated through a CC license via ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter here. (Featured Photo via Elvert Barnes/CC/flickr)

Record Homelessness in Billionaire-Heavy NYC

the uss inequality sinking-ship-inequality-cartoon

the uss inequality sinking-ship-inequality-cartoon

In terms of extreme poverty and wealth, New York City is having a banner year.

Hyperbole has become reality in the city that is now the sixth most economically unequal metropolitan area out of America's 50 biggest cities (and the most unequal of any city with more than one million residents).

Every day in The Big Apple, billionaires and the millions of lives they impoverished intermingle on the city's overpoliced sidewalks -- and the chasm between their economic worlds is only growing wider.

In the wake of the Great Recession and nearly two decades of Bloomberg-Giuliani-Pataki policies (that decimated the local "real" economy in favor of the FIRE industries), most New Yorkers' wages are either stagnating or dropping.

Whatever "economic recovery" has happened has mostly benefited the already-wealthy, leaving average New Yorkers further behind (EPI study-pdf) than ever.

But the news is even worse. According to a recent report, New York City now houses 56,000 people in its homeless shelters, the highest number in the city's history.

At the same time, the UBS billionaire survey found 108 billionaires living in New York City -- more than any other city in the world.

Meanwhile, in the city's wealthiest borough, Manhattan, homeless rate spiked 14% in the last year alone as cost of living increased steadily while wages continue stagnating or declining in real value.

Earlier this week, on WNYC, Commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services Gilbert Taylor discussed some of the challenges homeless individuals face and the services the city is trying to provide them.

According to the National Employment Law Project, the average family needs to earn more than $68,000 year to be economically self-sufficient in NYC.

New York State as a whole has seen an uneven recovery rewarding the already-wealthy with even more wealth.

This follows a national pattern of uneven economic recovery, which itself comes on top of a lost generation of stagnant or, worse, declining value in real wages.

According to IRS records, 90% of Americans haven't seen real growth in their wages in more than 30 years.

At the same time, whether anti-worker policies were shaped as Reagonomics, Triangulation, Neo-Conservatism or Neo-Liberalism, the "new" economy that arose as the real economy was gutted, ultimately lined the pockets of the nation's uber-wealthy overclass, giving 1% of the nation's population around a 50% share of its economy.

Did Cuomo’s Office Edit ‘Politically Inconvenient’ Findings of Fracking Study?

Anti-fracking protesters outside Governor Andrew Cuomo's policy summit in 2012. (Photo: Credo Action/cc/flickr)
The administration of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo altered and delayed the findings of a key federal fracking study commissioned by the state, according to a review of internal government documents published on Monday.
An original draft of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) study, obtained and reported on by the Albany newspaper Capital, reportedly contained descriptions of environmental and health risks posed by the shale gas drilling technique. However, following "extensive" email communication between the USGS representatives, study authors and state officials—also obtained in "heavily redacted form" through a Freedom of Information Act request—those details were either "played down or removed" from the final published report.
"The messages reveal an active role by Cuomo's Department of Environmental Conservation in shaping the text, and determining the timing of the report's release," writes Capital reporter Scott Waldman.
The study was commissioned in 2011 by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Capital notes, as a potential stepping stone to implementing a controversial plan to begin fracking on a "limited scale" in a number of Southern Tier counties, generally found west of the Catskill Mountains along Pennsylvania's northern border. According to the state's contract with USGS, "the objective of the proposed study is to define a pre-shale-gas-development baseline."
Fierce community resistance has thus far delayed those plans as local groups have repeatedly called for a permanent state-wide fracking ban to replace the temporary moratorium currently in place. The controversial drilling technique has been linked to the pollution of air and groundwater, as well the increased emission of methane, found to be a major contributor to climate change.
Anti-fracking advocates across the world are mobilizing for the 2014 Global Frackdown on October 11, during which over 200 organizations will band together for an international day of protests to call for an end to fracking and a shift to a renewable energy system.
In light of his upcoming reelection bid, Cuomo has continually maintained an official "non-position" over fracking, while simultaneously cobbling together plans to build more gas infrastructure including a gas storage facility in the Finger Lakes region.
"The administration’s involvement in shaping the report seems designed, above all, to mitigate any political complication it might have caused the governor as he formulated his plan for fracking," Waldman reports.
According to documents obtained by Capital, the draft report included a note that gas "drilling, extraction, transport via pipelines, and underground storage" could inadvertently introduce methane into drinking water supplies.
"But the version published after the copy was reviewed and edited by staff members from the state D.E.C. and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority omits the reference to pipelines and underground storage," Waldman continues. "The later, administration-vetted version also includes a line that wasn't in the earlier draft, saying that methane pollution risks in fracking are mitigated by well designed gas wells: 'This risk can be reduced if the casing and cementing of wells is properly designed and constructed.'"
Further, according to Waldman's investigation, the redacted emails also reveal that, following the study's publication, NYSERDA officials tracked people who read the report online and then grouped them "into a few categories including Syracuse and Penn State universities, the U.S. Department of Energy, Chesapeake Energy, state government addresses and a 'known state landowner/lease group cooperative,' which is likely the Joint Landowners Coalition,"—a pro-drilling group.

(This article is reprinted with permission
from Common Dreams, through a CC 3.0 license)

Justice in Wrongful Conviction Settlements, But What About “Problem Prosecutors?”

Prison Bars by Michael Coghlan /flickr /cc

Paying Jabbar Collins $10 Million Doesn't Address Problems With Prosecutors

by Joe Sexton - ProPublica

This story was co-published with the New York Daily News.

The dollar figure was so large and the public statements of vindication and concession so harmonious, one might have been tempted to think the system had actually worked.

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