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Planned Parenthood Sues Texas Over Medicaid Funding

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Planned Parenthood and 10 of its patients sued the state of Texas on Monday to block officials from cutting off Medicaid funds, calling the state’s actions “political” and part of a long-term pattern of denying reproductive health care to women.

“Women in Texas today have fewer rights than they did when I was growing up, and less access to health care,” Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards told reporters when announcing the lawsuit. “This time, they’re targeting some of the most vulnerable Texans — women who already have the least access to health care in the country.”

Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott announced in October that state health officials were kicking Planned Parenthood and its affiliates out of the Medicaid program, which pays for procedures such as cancer screenings, birth control and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

In a statement at the time, Abbott said the state was acting in response to a series of anti-abortion videos, which accused Planned Parenthood of profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood denies the allegations, and more than half a dozen state investigations have cleared the organization of wrongdoing.

“The gruesome harvesting of baby body parts by Planned Parenthood will not be allowed in Texas, and the barbaric practice must be brought to an end,” Abbott said at the time. “As such, ending the Medicaid participation of Planned Parenthood affiliates in the state of Texas is another step in providing greater access to safe health care for women while protecting our most vulnerable — the unborn.”

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office declined to comment Monday, saying officials have yet to be served with the lawsuit.

Planned Parenthood has been fighting attempts to defund it in statehouses across the country since the Center for Medical Progress released a series of heavily edited, much-disputed videos over the summer attacking the women’s health care provider.

Texas is the fourth state — after Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana — to try to stop federal Medicaid money from being used to reimburse Planned Parenthood. The money does not pay for abortions but rather preventive measures and other health care services. Federal law prohibits using federal funds for most abortions, with narrow exceptions such as to save a mother’s life.

Federal courts have issued temporary injunctions stopping Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana from cutting off Medicaid funding while litigation advances. Planned Parenthood is asking for the same protection in Texas. Otherwise, funding cuts in the Lone Star State could go into effect as soon as Dec. 8.

Jennifer Sandman, Planned Parenthood’s deputy director of litigation, said Monday that “federal law is very clear that there is a statutory right as part of the federal Medicaid program for patients to choose their own provider, so long as it is a qualified provider.”

Texas’ efforts — and actions by the other three states — violate a patient’s right to choose, Sandman said.

Elected officials in other states, including Utah, New Hampshire and Ohio, have launched efforts to block state funds and non-Medicaid funds from going to Planned Parenthood.

The 2015 wave of defunding efforts comes on top of ongoing state measures that aim to restrict abortion providers, including regulations that would require doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. On Monday, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Wisconsin law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals is unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court already has accepted a similar case and is expected to rule on that requirement next year.

Other state measures would force clinics to have the same equipment as outpatient surgery centers even if they only prescribe abortion drugs for so-called medical abortions, and would require doctors to tell patients that such medical abortions can be reversed, even though medical authorities dispute that assertion.

Photo: Activists hold signs as they rally in support of Planned Parenthood on “National Pink Out Day” on the steps of City Hall in Los Angeles, California September 29, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Online Abortion Rights Movement Comes At A Cost

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SEATTLE — Amelia Bonow is in hiding.

She left her apartment here after her address was published online and the death threats began. Her crime? She had an abortion. And after the U.S. House of Representatives voted on Sept. 18 to defund Planned Parenthood, she updated her Facebook status with a proud declaration.

“Hi guys!” it began. “Like a year ago I had an abortion at the Planned Parenthood on Madison Ave., and I remember this experience with a nearly inexpressible level of gratitude.”

She wrote about how “the narrative of those working to defund Planned Parenthood relies on the assumption that abortion is still something to be whispered about.” And how many people still believe that — “if you are a good woman” — you should feel awful if you have one.

But you shouldn’t, the 30-year-old wrote. And she doesn’t.

She signed off, “#ShoutYourAbortion.” And a movement was born.

Breast cancer had Betty Ford. So did rehab, and suddenly it was socially acceptable to get treatment for alcoholism. Katie Couric had a colonoscopy on national television 15 years ago, and screenings for colon cancer jumped 20 percent. But since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 with the Roe v. Wade decision, the controversial medical procedure has been without a recognizable champion, a nationally known figure willing to publicly defend and explain an otherwise private issue.

These days, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America finds itself in need of such a defender. A video campaign surfaced this summer accusing the healthcare provider of selling aborted fetal tissue for research, which the organization roundly denies. Since then, conservative lawmakers have launched investigations, threatened to defund Planned Parenthood and, on Tuesday, grilled its president during a testy five-hour hearing.

The stigma surrounding abortion has kept most women quiet about their need for and use of the procedure. Few celebrities have jumped into the fray to publicly advocate for abortion rights by telling their own stories. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., is the rare politician who has told the world that she once had the procedure; she did so in 2011, during an earlier fight to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.

Republican Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey had just detailed on the floor of Congress how a second-trimester abortion looks on an ultrasound. Speier got up and declared that “the gentleman from New Jersey has just put my stomach in knots.”

“I’m one of ‘those women’ he spoke about just now,” she said. “I had a procedure at 17 weeks. Pregnant with a child that had moved from the vagina into the cervix. And that procedure you just talk about was a procedure that I endured. I lost a baby. But for you to stand on this floor and suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly without any thought is preposterous.”

Speier became a brief political sensation, largely because her remarks were so rare. That 2011 battle gave birth to a Planned Parenthood campaign with the hashtag #StandWithPP, which has been resurrected this year as the health care provider remains under attack. The group launched another effort this week — #PinkOut — which coincided with Cecile Richards, the group’s president, going before Congress. In addition to efforts on Facebook and Twitter, the organization held rallies in 285 cities.

But none of these efforts has garnered the attention — both good and bad — that followed Bonow’s Facebook revelations, an ensuing Salon article and the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign she created with another Seattle resident, columnist Lindy West, whose upcoming memoir has the working title “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman.”

Bonow calls herself a “liberal, pro-choice, loud, political woman” who is surrounded by a community of like-minded people, West among them. As the assaults on Planned Parenthood continued this year, she said, she and her friends realized that the abortion provider was still being threatened with losing its funding four years after the original campaign, and many women who’d had abortions hadn’t even talked about it to one another.

“We’re all women who think that stigmatizing abortion is wrong,” she said in a telephone interview from the city to which she decamped from Seattle after the threats began last week. (She requested it not be named.) “We don’t ascribe to it, and yet, in some way we have colluded with our silence.”

On the day the House voted, Bonow went to bed in tears. The next morning she woke up, called up her Facebook page and began to write the post to her 1,500 friends. West, who has more than 60,000 Twitter followers, tweeted the link to Bonow’s declaration.

Responses began to flood in, and Bonow followed her initial post with another: “In the last 24 hours, more women have shared their stories in comment threads, on the ShoutYourAbortion page, or on their own statuses than I have the ability to count,” she wrote. “This is what it looks like when people decide to challenge an oppressive narrative by raising their own voices and choosing to accept a new level of personal vulnerability as a sacrifice.”

And Bonow knows whereof she speaks when it comes to sacrifice. Not long after #ShoutYourAbortion began, the threats started flowing.

One reader retweeted her post from her Salon article that said, “My abortion made me happy: @ameliabonow shares the story that started the #ShoutYourAbortion movement.” He added: “If happiness is the standard, then it might make many people happy if @ameliabonow had her head crushed, too.”

There were others also in a hostile vein.

Bonow and her boyfriend spent several nights in a Seattle hotel. They headed out of town, returned and left again because she felt so unsafe.

On Tuesday, she got a call from David Hale, vice president of development at Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, expressing concern for her safety.

He put her in touch with Planned Parenthood’s security guru, who connected her with the Seattle Police Department and the FBI. The hope is that they can help her assess the level of threat and that she can soon come home.

“It does take people who are bold enough and brave enough to stand up and say they won’t be intimidated,” Hale said. “The least we can do is arm her with what we’ve learned about how we have kept our patients and staff safe over the years.”

Bonow doesn’t think it’s every woman’s responsibility to raise her hand and tell her story if she has had an abortion. Some women are in abusive relationships or fear being shunned by family or church. She isn’t. She can speak up. And she plans to continue.

“We’re not going to be drowned out by the people who make me not want to be at my apartment now,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “Many women want to live in a world where you can say, ‘I’ve had an abortion, and I’m perfectly fine with that,’ and not have people saying they want to kill you.”

Photo: Jackie Speier, a congresswoman from California, is one of the rare politicians who has publicly said she has had an abortion, in response to another congressman who detailed the same procedure she had undergone in a hearing. Her comments caused a sensation, and whenever Planned Parenthood is under assault — as it is now — related hashtags build on that movement. Jackie Speier/Twitter

Oregon Enacts The Nation’s First Automatic Voter Registration

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SEATTLE — Oregon, which 15 years ago held the first presidential election conducted totally by mail, built on its history as a ballot box innovator when Governor Kate Brown signed a bill this week enacting automatic voter registration for all eligible citizens.

As secretary of State, Brown championed what she called “New Motor Voter,” a first-in-the-nation bill to register all Oregonians to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s license or state identification card. Those provisional voters will be notified by mail and given 21 days to opt out.

“It was my top priority,” she said Monday as she signed the legislation. “And I am thrilled that I am about to sign this into law as governor. … Virtually every eligible Oregonian will be able to have their voice be heard.”

The secretary of State’s office estimates that the new law will add around 300,000 voters to the rolls; currently about 2.2 million voters are registered in the state, according to the Oregonian newspaper.

Brown said that the new law will modernize how the Department of Motor Vehicles and the secretary of state’s office function.

“During testimony on the bill, a legislator said to me, ‘It’s already so easy to register, why would we make it easier?'” recounted Brown, who was sworn in as governor a month ago, after John Kitzhaber resigned in disgrace. “My answer is that we have the tools to make voter registration more cost-effective, more secure and more convenient for Oregonians.

“Why wouldn’t we?”

Oregon’s push to register as many voters as possible goes back to 1981, when the state Assembly approved voting by mail for local elections, at the discretion of each county. In 1998, voters passed Ballot Measure 60, making Oregon the first state in the country to conduct state elections entirely by mail.

The secretary of State’s website explains why, with a photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his view on the matter:

“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”

Photo: Rob Boudon via Flickr

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber Resigns Amid Ethics Investigations

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber announced his resignation Friday, ending weeks of speculation about whether he could lead the state with the cloud of at least two investigations into possible ethical breaches hanging over his head.

The resignation, which is effective Wednesday, was sent in a letter submitted to Secretary of State Kate Brown, who is expected to succeed him.

“I am announcing today that I will resign as governor of the state of Oregon,” he wrote in a statement released just after noon PST.

“It is not in my nature to walk away from a job I have undertaken — it is to stand and fight for the cause. For that reason I apologize to all those people who gave of their faith, time, energy and resources to elect me to a fourth term last year and who have supported me over the past three decades. I promise you that I will continue to pursue our shared goals and our common cause in another venue.”

Kitzhaber had met with his staff in the late morning to tell them his plans.

The embattled governor faces allegations that his fiancee used their relationship to win contracts for her consulting business and failed to report income on her taxes. The state’s two top legislative leaders and the state treasurer — all Democrats, as is the 67-year-old governor — had called on Kitzhaber on Thursday to resign.

Although questions about first lady Cylvia Hayes, a 47-year-old clean energy consultant, have dogged the couple for months, the end of Kitzhaber’s 36-year career in public service came swiftly and agonizingly.

On Monday, state Attorney General Ellen F. Rosenblum announced in a three-sentence letter to Kitzhaber that she had begun a criminal investigation into the troubled first couple. The state Ethics Commission was already investigating whether Hayes had falsified tax forms and been paid consulting fees to influence her future husband and just what Kitzhaber’s involvement had been.

The next day, Kitzhaber sat down with Peter Courtney, president of the state Senate and a longtime friend and colleague, and said he planned to step down, ending his historic fourth term after just a month.

He also called Brown, who was in Washington, D.C., for a conference, and summoned her back to Oregon for an emergency, private meeting.

On Wednesday, Brown hopped on a plane. But when she was escorted into the governor’s office, Kitzhaber asked her why she was there. He later announced, emphatically and for the third time in less than two weeks, that he had no plans to resign.

Thursday came the political bombshells. Courtney and Tina Kotek, speaker of the state House of Representatives, had met late into the evening Wednesday and finally decided that they had no choice but to demand Kitzhaber’s resignation.

This story has been updated.

Kitzhaber’s full statement announcing his resignation can be read here.

Photo: OregonDOT via Flickr

Drama Builds As Oregon Governor Is Urged To Resign

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SALEM, Ore. — Will he or won’t he?

Nobody seemed to know Thursday afternoon whether Gov. John Kitzhaber was planning to serve out his historic fourth term at Oregon’s helm or resign in ignominy, under the cloud of at least two investigations for ethical breaches, a request by top legislative leaders that he step down, and a recall effort.

The normally quiet state capital was churning with speculation as the drama of Kitzhaber’s future in office changed from hour to hour.

The president of the Oregon Senate and the speaker of the state House of Representatives called on the governor to resign during a morning meeting in Kitzhaber’s private office — a ten-minute session that ended with the embattled Democrat’s next step still unclear.

“He was upset. He was defiant. He was struggling,” Peter Courtney, president of the Oregon Senate, said of Kitzhaber’s response during the meeting.

Then, as Courtney was on the Senate floor conducting legislative business an hour later, his chief of staff delivered a message from the governor that included something about “a transition.” By the time Courtney called a news conference after lunch, the state senator still didn’t know what might happen.

“The note said he was initiating a process to start a transition with the secretary of state,” Courtney said, referring to the official who would replace Kitzhaber if he stepped down. “That was the note — ‘Thank you for your honesty or your candor or your straightforwardness.’ ”

But the week’s events have shown that Kitzhaber’s future moves are anything but predictable.

Courtney said that he had met with Kitzhaber on Tuesday morning, and the governor told him then that he was going to resign. That’s the same day that the governor called Secretary of State Kate Brown, who was in Washington, D.C., at a conference, and told her to cut her trip short, hop on a plane and return to Oregon on Wednesday for a private, emergency meeting.

Brown, who succeeds Kitzhaber if he leaves office, did just that. She detailed what happened next in a written statement that dropped like a bombshell Thursday morning.

“I was escorted directly into a meeting with the governor,” Brown said. “He asked me why I came back early from Washington, D.C., which I found strange. I asked him what he wanted to talk about. The governor told me he was not resigning, after which, he began a discussion about transition.

“This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation,” Brown continued. “I informed the governor that I am ready, and my staff will be ready, should he resign. Right now I am focused on doing my job for the people of Oregon.”

Brown’s early return from a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State — of which she is president — started a raft of speculation about Kitzhaber’s next move. It also prompted Kitzhaber to send out an official statement Wednesday afternoon that he was staying in office for the long haul.

It was his third such public declaration in less than two weeks, and it was insistent: “Let me be as clear as I was last week, that I have no intention of resigning as governor of the state of Oregon,” he said. “I was elected to do a job for the people of this great state and I intend to continue to do so.”

On Thursday, his office did not return calls for comment. But the fusillade against him continued, with state Treasurer Ted Wheeler adding his name to the list of those asking Kitzhaber to resign.

The state Ethics Commission and the Oregon attorney general are investigating whether Kitzhaber’s fiancee, environmental consultant Cylvia Hayes, had falsified tax forms and been paid consulting fees to influence her future husband, among other allegations, and whether Kitzhaber was guilty of any wrongdoing.

Kitzhaber, who has been in public service for 36 years, has come under fire for his handling of the intersection of their private and public lives.

In a tense news conference on Jan. 30, Kitzhaber acknowledged “the legitimacy of some of these questions” while maintaining that he and Hayes had done nothing illegal.

“We knew there was a gray area, and we took intentional steps to try to clearly separate her volunteer activities as first lady from her paid professional work,” Kitzhaber told reporters at the time.

“Questions concerning whether or not her activities and contracts or my activities as governor have violated Oregon’s ethics laws are currently before the Ethics Commission and we are cooperating fully with the commission to allow them to arrive at a conclusion.”

The boggling mess left even friends of Kitzhaber bewildered.

“I don’t know what to expect in view of my conversations with him,” an emotional Courtney said Thursday.

Photo: OregonDOT via Flickr

Oregon Secretary Of State: Governor’s Actions ‘Bizarre, Unprecedented’

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SALEM, Ore. — The saga of embattled Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, who is under investigation for alleged ethical lapses, took yet another strange twist Thursday.

Less than 24 hours after Kitzhaber said he would not resign over allegations of wrongdoing by him and his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown released a statement calling the situation “bizarre and unprecedented.”

Here’s the statement:

“Late Tuesday afternoon, I received a call from the Governor while I was in Washington DC at a Secretaries of State conference. He asked me to come back to Oregon as soon as possible to speak with him in person and alone.

“I got on a plane yesterday morning and arrived at 3:40 in the afternoon. I was escorted directly into a meeting with the Governor. It was a brief meeting. He asked me why I came back early from Washington, DC, which I found strange. I asked him what he wanted to talk about. The governor told me he was not resigning, after which, he began a discussion about transition.

“This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation.

“I informed the Governor that I am ready, and my staff will be ready, should he resign. Right now I am focused on doing my job for the people of Oregon.”

Kitzhaber had issued a statement Wednesday saying, “Let me be as clear as I was last week, that I have no intention of resigning as governor of the state of Oregon.

“I was elected to do a job for the people of this great state and I intend to continue to do so.”

The Democratic governor’s 36-year political career has been threatened for months by allegations involving Hayes. She has been accused of falsifying tax forms and accepting consulting fees to influence her future husband. The state Ethics Commission and the state attorney general have launched investigations.

Kitzhaber has insisted all along that he had no plans to put a premature end to his fourth term at Oregon’s helm, but Brown’s return Wednesday resurrected talk of his departure.

Earlier Wednesday, Brown spokesman Tony Green confirmed that Brown, the state’s second-ranking official, had left a National Association of Secretaries of State conference two days early. He said he did not know why Brown changed plans.

Kitzhaber was re-elected in November after eleventh-hour revelations that Hayes had entered a fraudulent green-card marriage in 1997, receiving $5,000 to wed an Ethiopian national so that he could stay in the country.

A week ago, the Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, called for Kitzhaber to step down.

“More ugliness may surface,” it declared on Feb. 4, “but it should be clear by now to Kitzhaber that his credibility has evaporated to such a degree that he can no longer serve effectively as governor.”

Photo: OregonDOT via Flickr

Keystone XL Owner Files Eminent Domain Proceedings For Nebraska Land

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SEATTLE — TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, filed eminent domain proceedings against 90 Nebraska landowners Tuesday to gain access to the final acreage needed to build the controversial project.

“Eminent domain is a last resort and our first priority is always to negotiate voluntary agreements with landowners,” TransCanada’s Keystone projects land manager Andrew Craig said in a written statement.

“We have made numerous offers to negotiate generous agreements with landowners,” he said. “We have waited as long as we could under state law before beginning the process — as we said we would.”

TransCanada’s eminent domain filings are the latest step in a years-long war over the pipeline, which can’t go forward without President Barack Obama’s go-ahead.

Nebraska is currently the project’s most contentious battlefield. A 2012 law allowed the Nebraska governor to bypass the state Public Service Commission and give the $5.3 billion TransCanada project the go-ahead. Approval for the current route was granted in 2013.

In February of last year, a lower court declared the law unconstitutional and left the troubled pipeline with no approved route through Nebraska. Less than two weeks ago, on Jan. 9, the Nebraska Supreme Court struck down the lower court’s ruling and cleared the way for Obama to act.

The Republican-majority Congress has made Keystone XL one of its first priorities for 2015.

Jane Kleeb, director of anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, said in a written statement Tuesday that landowners “are prepared to battle TransCanada in court to stop them from using eminent domain for private gain. …”

“Landowners will match TransCanada’s lawsuits in local courts,” she said, “and continue to take our fight to the one person who can put an end to all of this: President Obama.”

AFP Photo/Don Emmert

Nebraska Supreme Court Rules On Keystone XL Pipeline

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday removed a serious hurdle to construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, ruling that Republican Gov. Dave Heineman has the authority to approve the project’s route without review by a state agency.

A 2012 law allows Heineman to bypass the state Public Service Commission and give the $5.3-billion project the go-ahead. In February, a lower court declared that law unconstitutional and left the troubled pipeline with no approved route through Nebraska.

The action Friday struck down the lower court’s ruling and cleared the way for the Obama administration to decide whether to grant final approval for the project.

The proposed pipeline would transport oil from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Neb. From there, it would tie into a southern leg, already in operation, which would transport the oil to the Gulf Coast.

“In a split decision, Supreme Court is allowing LB1161 to stand,” Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, an anti-pipeline group, tweeted early Friday. “4 of the justices ruled w/ landowners, but we needed 5. Its up to Obama.”

“Because there are not five judges of this court ruling on the constitutionality of L.B. 1161, the legislation must stand by default,” the decision said. “Accordingly, we vacate the district court’s judgment.”

Environmentalists argue that the extraction and production of tar sands — also known as oil sands — are significantly more damaging to the climate than conventional oil deposits, and they contend that blocking the pipeline would impede development of the fossil fuel.

Anthony Swift, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, describes tar sands as a very thick, heavy crude oil with the consistency of “peanut butter at room temperature, somewhere between coal and oil.”

The material, he said, is “very energy-intensive to get out of the ground.” Mining consists of “stripping the oldest boreal forests in the world and strip-mining, using large amounts of water.”

Or, he said, “it’s done through drilling and pumping steam into the ground to melt it out of the ground. It’s incredibly destructive at the upstream, very carbon-intensive and has substantial impact on the indigenous populations in the area.”

The pipeline, which TransCanada calls “the largest infrastructure project currently proposed in the United States,” would carry 830,000 barrels a day, and construction of the pipeline alone would create 9,000 jobs for skilled American workers.

In addition, manufacturing the steel pipe, fittings, valves, pumps and control devices required for the project would create an estimated 7,000 jobs, the company says.

“The Canadian Energy Research Institute predicts that Keystone XL will add $172 billion to America’s gross domestic product by 2035,” the company said on its website, “and will create an additional 1.8 million person-years of employment in the United States over the next 22 years.”

But with the rising costs of production and the steep drop in oil prices, industry analysts are questioning whether the plan still makes economic sense.

Because the proposed pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canadian border, the State Department must rule that the project is in the United States’ national interest and grant a permit. TransCanada applied to the State Department in 2008.

Faced with delays and objections to the original route, the Nebraska Legislature enacted a law in 2012 designed to expedite approval and routing of major pipelines. That law allowed the governor to approve projects instead of the state’s Public Service Committee.

In January 2013, Heineman approved a route that would run for 250 miles underground through the state and forwarded that approval to the Obama administration.

But ten months ago, Lancaster County District Judge Stephanie F. Stacy struck down the law, declaring that it was unconstitutional. Her decision came in a lawsuit filed by three property owners whose land was in the pipeline’s path.

The state attorney general appealed the decision, and on Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled.

Jane Kleeb, director of an anti-Keystone XL group called Bold Nebraska, said the decision was “a big deal for precedents for states’ rights and what states can legally do for pipeline routing. It’s a big deal for eminent domain, determining when an oil pipeline company can use eminent domain on landowners.”

Bold Nebraska wants the pipeline stopped at all costs, but a final determination could be months away.

“We think the best route for landowners is no route,” Kleeb said. “Everyone wants this pipeline to be rejected so they can have their lives back. If you’re a landowner, you’re waking up and going to sleep thinking about this.”

AFP Photo/Don Emmert

Alaska’s Record-Warm Year In 2014 Worries Observers

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The biggest state in America, home to more ocean coastline than all others combined, has just set another record. This one, however, is nothing to cheer.

For the first time in recorded history, temperatures in Anchorage did not drop below zero once in an entire calendar year. In comparison, Alaska’s largest city had 14 days below zero in the 2013 calendar year and 32 days in 2012. The average is 29 days.

At midnight Dec. 31, Anchorage closed the book on its warmest year since 1926, according to the National Weather Service. The lowest temperature recorded in 2014 was zero degrees Fahrenheit on Feb. 11.

Sea ice has been disappearing. Polar bear populations have dropped. The state’s storied dog race was a musher’s mess, spurring headlines that fretted: “Warm weather, treacherous conditions — is the Iditarod in trouble?” The Bering Sea saw its warmest summer on record.

“I didn’t put my downhill skis on at all last winter, and at the moment I’m still hoping for this winter, but the prospects are not good so far,” said Henry Huntington, who lives in an Anchorage suburb and serves as senior officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ international Arctic program.

The Last Frontier didn’t exactly sweat through Death Valley-style temperatures. Anchorage’s 2014 annual average was a chilly 40.6 degrees or so Fahrenheit, said Richard Thoman, climate science and services manager with the weather service in Fairbanks. Still, that was well above last year’s annual average temperature of 37 degrees.

Environmentalists, policymakers and weather watchers are viewing the thermometer with concern.

“To me, the fact that Anchorage won’t dip below zero degrees in calendar year 2014 is just one more signal — as if we needed another one — of a rapidly changing climate,” said Andrew Hartsig, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic program.

Hartsig said Anchorage’s comparatively balmy weather is consistent with other long-term trends, including diminishing summer sea ice and increasing sea surface temperatures.

“These are definitely red flags that are very consistent with climate change,” said Chris Krenz, senior scientist at Oceana, an international conservation group. “These are anomalies … that show our climate system is off-kilter.”

James E. Overland, a research oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would agree with the off-kilter part. But he would add mysterious to the mix, too.

Overland argues that Alaska’s very cool heat wave is not evidence of climate change but rather the next stage in a long-term weather pattern that began with six years of warming in the Bering Sea and southern Alaska, followed by six cold years.

“This year, then, was the breakdown of the string of cold years,” Overland said. “What all the scientists are wondering now (is): Is this just one warm year? Could we flip back to a cold sequence again, or is this the start of a warm sequence? … We don’t know, and it makes a big difference.”

Especially to the Alaska pollock, which NOAA’s FishWatch website describes as “one of the largest, most valuable fisheries in the world.” Pollock don’t like really warm or really cold temperature extremes, and their food source, small shrimp, do not fare well in heat.

“We really don’t understand how these sequences occur, but they appear to be random and part of the chaotic climate system, rather than part of the global warming signal,” said Overland, co-author of NOAA’s 2014 Arctic Report Card. “We’ve had one warm year here. Is this a sucker punch or not?”

Climate change or chaos aside, the warm temperatures are both real and worrisome.

The weather service’s Thoman notes that a calendar year in the Northern Hemisphere contains chunks of two separate winter seasons: January, February and March, and November and December.

In the last few months, the lowest temperature in Anchorage was 13 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded on Dec. 13, Thoman said.

One record Anchorage has yet to break is the longest stretch of consecutive days above zero. That record was set over 683 days in 2000 and 2001.

Still, Thoman said, “Anchorage has never had a winter when the temperature remained warm through the end of December.”

Until now.

Just before Thanksgiving, Ned Rozell, a science writer for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, penned an online column with the headline “Snow-starved Alaska not the normal state.”

Rozell worried that large swaths of Alaska remained “frozen, dusty and brown” through the first three weeks of November, threatening dozens of species that depend on snow cover.

“Each lovely flake joins spiked arms with others to create an air-trapping matrix above the ground surface,” he wrote.

“The ground beneath the white blanket remains a consistent 27 degrees Fahrenheit no matter the temperature above,” he continued.

“That relative warmth, the remnants of summer’s heat released as the ground freezes, allows billions of small bodies to survive winter.”

Among the species partial to snow are the bearberry shrub, yellow jackets and voles. Oil companies like it, too, said Larry Hinzman, director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The massive 49th state has remarkably few roads, and most of the land is accessible only by air or water. When there is frozen ground and good snow cover, he said, parts of the state “are suddenly open for travel,” for hauling supplies and exploration.

“A good snow cover,” Hinzman said, “is very important to us.”

Photo: Todd Radenbaugh via Flickr

Obama Protects Alaska’s ‘Precious’ Bristol Bay From Oil, Gas Development

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

In a boon to commercial fishermen, conservationists and Alaska Natives, President Barack Obama on Tuesday withdrew the waters off Alaska’s Bristol Bay from oil and gas development, vowing to protect the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery.

Calling the region “one of America’s greatest natural resources and a massive economic engine, not only for Alaska but for America,” Obama said he was taking it “off the bidder’s block” and would “make sure that it is preserved into the future.”

“Bristol Bay has supported Native Americans in the Alaska region for centuries,” Obama said. “It supports $2 billion in the commercial fishing industry. It supplies America with 40 percent of its wild-caught seafood. It is a natural wonder, and it’s something that’s just too precious to be putting out to the highest bidder.”

In 2010, Obama temporarily withdrew the area from oil and gas leasing, a protection that was set to expire in 2017. Tuesday’s action protects the important habitat area indefinitely.

Conservation and Alaska Native groups hailed the decision.

“We have the largest wild salmon migrations in the world coming through Bristol Bay and heading to spawning grounds in river systems along the Bering Sea,” said Ralph Andersen, president of the Bristol Bay Native Association.

“That’s why 50 tribes and regional Native organizations from Bristol Bay to the interior and the Bering Strait region support the Department of the Interior in putting Bristol Bay permanently off-limits to offshore drilling,” he said.

Photo: Todd Radenbaugh via Flickr

Darren Wilson, Recalling Shooting, Said Michael Brown Looked Like A ‘Demon’

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

It started with a simple request — “will you just walk on the sidewalk?” Forty-five seconds later, Michael Brown lay sprawled on the street, shot dead by a police officer who had never before fired his gun in the line of duty.

And as he drove away from the 18-year-old’s body, heading to the Ferguson police station to wash Brown’s blood from his hands and surrender his gun, all Officer Darren Wilson could think was, “I’m just kind of in shock of what just happened. I really didn’t believe it.”

Those were the words he shared with a grand jury. And late Monday, Wilson’s explanation of that deadly day in early August became public for the first time, in a small part of an enormous trove of documents released by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch.

Thousands of pages of police interviews, autopsy reports, and secret testimony — including Wilson’s — were made public after McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson in Brown’s death.

Until late Monday, Wilson’s voice had remained silent, and the general story line went largely unchallenged: White police officer shoots unarmed young black man trying to surrender on a summer day in a St. Louis suburb.

But on Monday, Wilson’s terror and panic were plain to see in 90 pages of his testimony before the grand jury on Sept. 16 and an 18-page interview with detectives that was recorded Aug. 10, the day after Brown’s death.

Wilson was leaving an earlier call, having assisted the mother of a sick infant, when he saw Brown and another young man walking down the middle of the street, forcing traffic to slow and swerve around them. The police officer told the grand jury that he drove up, stopped his car, and asked, “What’s wrong with the sidewalk?”

In Wilson’s account, it was all downhill from there. Brown swore at the officer, and the two men walked away. So Wilson called for backup, threw his police-issued Chevy Tahoe into reverse and cut the young men off.

As he opened the door, he testified, Brown slammed it shut on Wilson’s leg. The officer told Brown to get back and opened the door again.

“He then grabs my door again and shuts my door,” Wilson told the grand jury. “At that time is when I saw him coming into my vehicle…. I was hit right here in the side of the face with a fist.”

The two men scuffled, Wilson said, and when he struggled to gain some control over the situation “and not be trapped in my car anymore,” he grabbed Brown’s arm. “The only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan.”

Brown, he said, looked like a “demon.”

When Wilson drew his gun from inside his car and told Brown to get back or he would shoot, the officer said, “he immediately grabs my gun and says, ‘You are too much of a [coward] to shoot me.'”

Wilson said he pulled his gun because “I felt that another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse.” Brown was bigger than the 6-foot-4 officer, and stronger, too. “I’d already taken two to the face, and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.”

Wilson ultimately got out of the car, and Brown began to run away. Then he stopped. And turned. And began to run back toward the officer. He made a fist with his left hand and reached under his shirt with his right. Wilson testified that he kept telling him to get on the ground. Brown didn’t.

“I shoot a series of shots,” Wilson said. “I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it.”

Later, in front of the grand jury, Wilson was asked whether he had ever had to use excessive force in the line of duty before Aug. 9.

“I’ve never used my weapon before,” he replied.

TNS Photo/Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times

High-Tech Effort Calls Up Smartphones For Ebola Battle

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SEATTLE — The tutued young woman, the court interpreter, and the middle-aged dad wearing a jester’s cap in Seattle Seahawks colors traipsed down to the Living Computer Museum here Saturday morning with a single goal in mind.

They wanted to help stamp out Ebola. Using 10,000 or so smartphones.

Aid groups point to a gaping hole in the effort to battle the terrifying disease in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea: the lack of real-time data. How many new cases are cropping up and where? How many deaths have occurred? Where are the empty hospital beds? What supplies are needed and where?

The phones — programmed Saturday by volunteers here — will allow relief workers to collect data in the field and transmit it back to the United Nations via a specially constructed WiFi network so that aid can be sent where it is needed most. Information will be shared with scientists and humanitarian workers.

This high-tech effort, announced Monday, is part of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation’s $100 million pledge to help eradicate the disease, whose toll last week crested 5,000 in West Africa. On Monday, a Sierra Leone surgeon who had been airlifted to the United States for treatment died in a Nebraska hospital after contracting the disease.

“If we can provide an aid worker with a cellphone, they can communicate back to headquarters about what’s going on in the countryside in real time,” said Andy Hickl, senior director for innovation at Vulcan Inc., Allen’s technology firm.

“We’re taking it from six people (collecting data) in the field to 10,000 reporters from the field,” Hickl said Saturday, as volunteers in the cavernous museum building scrambled to unpack phones and download software. “If we have the data in the right hands, we can make decisions about where the next supply plane or truck should go.”

Hickl traveled to Accra, Ghana, in October to visit the headquarters of the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response. He had been invited by UNMEER’s chief of mission to help the organization’s information management team.

“We said, ‘What do you know about what’s going on in the three countries?'” Hickl recounted. “The answer was, ‘Not enough.'”

Right now, he said, the “state of the art” for information gathering in the affected nations is the clipboard, and once data is compiled, “someone has to type the information into an Excel spreadsheet and it gets sent via email at some point.”

The hope is that the smartphones and WiFi network being installed to transmit the data will help speed the response to the spreading crisis.

The kind of data that will be logged into forms installed in the smartphones falls into three categories: How good is connectivity? For example, is it even possible for sick people to make a phone call and have someone take them to an Ebola treatment center?

Where and under what circumstances are humanitarian groups operating? And finally, what is life like in the far corners of the countries plagued by the disease? Are families holding up? Who has died? Is there food?

The first phone shipments were scheduled for Monday: 600 were sent to the U.N. mission in Accra, 2,500 went to aid workers in Guinea, and 1,000 were dispatched to an aid group called Mercy Corps.

The WiFi network in the affected countries will be built by NetHope, a consortium of international humanitarian groups that specializes in bringing technology to developing regions.

“We have seen a huge drop in reporting in the last few weeks,” said Lauren Woodman, NetHope chief executive. “We believe it’s because of a lack of connectivity. Our member organizations tell us it takes three to four hours to make a phone call. … The system is just broken.”

At the Living Computer Museum on Saturday morning, Adriana Franco-Erickson, a court interpreter who lives in Kent, Wash., unpacked a steady stream of boxed phones. Her husband and daughter installed software.

They came out, she said, because they were “desperate to find a way to help fight the Ebola.”

“We are citizens of the world,” she said as she worked. “Helping control the disease in Africa will also help us all to be better.”

AFP Photo/Zoom Dosso

Shell Lawsuit Against Environmental Groups Ruled Unconstitutional

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

SEATTLE — Two years ago, in a preemptive move, Shell sued a host of environmental and advocacy groups to prevent them from suing Shell over its plans to drill for oil in the Arctic.

On Wednesday, a federal appeals court called Shell’s legal strategy “novel” and ruled it unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Shell could not sue environmental and Alaska Native advocacy groups on the chance that those organizations might challenge offshore drilling permits granted to the oil giant by the U.S. government.

“Shell may not file suit solely to determine who would prevail in a hypothetical suit between the environmental groups” and the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, one of several agencies overseeing offshore drilling, the panel wrote in its 12-page ruling.

Shell has spent more than $6 billion purchasing oil leases and pursuing exploration in Alaska’s environmentally sensitive Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

As part of the offshore drilling efforts, Shell was required to submit plans to the bureau detailing what the company would do in the event of an oil spill. The bureau approved Shell’s oil spill response plans in late 2011 and early 2012.

Arguing that 13 environmental and advocacy groups were certain to challenge those approvals, Shell filed three separate suits against them in federal court in Anchorage in 2012. Using the Declaratory Judgment Act, Shell wanted the court to rule that the government’s approvals of its spill response plans were legal.

On Wednesday, the three-judge panel ruled against the oil company in one of those three suits. A second suit was dismissed earlier. The third suit also was dismissed earlier, but that dismissal is under appeal.

“We believe this was a legitimate use of the Declaratory Judgment Act,” said Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell. “However, we respect the court’s ruling.”

Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for Oceana, one of the groups sued by Shell, called the decision “good news for the oceans and for those of us who believe in the rule of law and our ability to speak out for what we believe in.”

“Shell’s waste of time, energy and money on these lawsuits further reinforces the problem with its Arctic Ocean exploration program,” he said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council was another of the organizations sued by Shell. Chuck Clusen, the group’s director of national parks and Alaska projects, said in a statement that the oil company was “attempting to quash dissent and circumvent due process” but failed.

“As multiple accidents have already shown, Shell’s drilling plans in the Arctic are severely flawed,” Clusen said. “Shell is not equipped to handle offshore drilling in some of the world’s most treacherous waters, and we’ll continue to do all we can to stop them from endangering the precious wildlife and local fishing economies that they’re putting at risk.”

Said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, another defendant in the case: “Today David beat Goliath.”

Soon after its drilling rig ran aground on New Year’s Eve in 2012, Shell halted exploration plans for the following year. It withdrew drilling plans for 2014 after a federal court ruled that the government violated the law when it held Chukchi lease sale 193 in 2008. The company bought all of its leases in that sale.

Shell has submitted an expanded, multi-year drilling plan that it hopes to kick off in 2015. But the government cannot approve that plan until it completes the 193 lease sale process, which is expected in April.

Photo: Shell via Flickr

Alaska Senate Race Becomes Most Expensive Campaign In State’s History

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The local official introducing the candidate eventually got around to the point — Sen. Mark Begich, standing up for Alaskans, get out the vote — but first he lit into the Koch brothers and what he described as money’s power to warp politics.

“They’re literally spending hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Sen. Begich,” fumed Bill Wielechowski, a state senator who represents a swath of Alaska’s biggest city. “Why do these billionaires want to defeat Sen. Begich? They want to fundamentally change our government. … Don’t be mistaken. The fate of the U.S. Senate is in your hands.”

When Begich took the microphone, he could only shake his head and smile. “That was my speech you just did,” said the Democrat, who is trying to keep his job in a tight and closely watched race against Republican Dan Sullivan.

Wielechowski only got it partly right about what has emerged as the most expensive political campaign in Alaska history. Tens of millions of dollars in outside money from across the country have flowed into the Last Frontier to unseat Begich. But even more has been spent to help the Democrat fend off his opponent.

As of early Thursday morning, $22.5 million in outside money — from groups or individuals not affiliated with the official campaign — has been spent on Begich’s behalf, while $16.7 million has been spent to help get Sullivan elected, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The totals rise from hour to hour.

In pure dollars of outside spending, that makes the Alaska Senate race the fourth most expensive in the country, after North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa. But the $39 million has been used to sway a mere 500,000 or so voters, making the battle between Begich and Sullivan the priciest per capita this election season.

Money from “super PACs,” such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Harry Reid’s Senate Majority PAC, has a double taint in America’s vast and sparsely populated 49th state.

It is outside money in the traditional sense, which is railed against by Begich and Sullivan alike. In addition, it is largely Outside money with a capital “O” — Alaskans’ favorite term of derision for all things Lower 48.

“It’s like these people aren’t from this state,” rued Jerry Barth, who isn’t from this state either but has lived here for 50 of his 67 years and occupied a folding chair at the Begich town hall meeting.

“What’s going to happen to our democracy in this country, the way that big money runs it already?” asked Barth, who drives a water truck on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope. “I think it’s a sad part that we have to have an election run this way, other people controlling the destiny of our state because they have the money and don’t even live here.”

Super PAC money has been such an issue here that at different times in their long campaigns Sullivan and Begich each challenged the other to sign a pledge to get rid of the outside largesse. Each disparaged the other’s effort as little more than a political stunt. Each, in recent interviews, said his opponent quickly refused to sign on.

How quickly?

“In one hour, bam!” Begich said of Sullivan.

“Within two hours!” Sullivan said of Begich.

Not surprisingly, each effort failed.

And the money keeps flowing. In a 24-hour period, from 5:45 a.m. Wednesday to 5:45 a.m. Thursday, outside groups spent about $850,000 on the Begich-Sullivan race, according to opensecrets.org, the Center for Responsive Politics’ campaign money website.

Spending by Charles and David Koch — who are worth $42 billion each and tie for No. 6 on the Forbes list of wealthiest people in the world — is hard to track, because much of it is so-called dark money, meaning that donations and donors do not have to be disclosed.

Americans for Prosperity is financed in part by the Kochs, who back a host of conservative causes. It has spent about $192,000 fighting Begich and set up an office in downtown Anchorage.

The Kochs are the focus of ire in Alaska, and rampant rhetoric in the Begich-Sullivan race, because Koch Industries owns a company called Flint Hills Resources, which announced in February that it was closing its North Pole refinery. The move cost the state 80 jobs.

Easier to track is spending by Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit founded by Republican operative Rove, and American Crossroads, its related SuperPAC. As of Thursday, the groups have spent nearly $7.2 million to unseat Begich, making the Alaska Senate race their No. 2 target after the Senate race in Colorado.

On the other side is the Senate Majority PAC, which is closely allied with Senate Majority Leader Reid, the Democrat from Nevada. It has spent $8.8 million on the race, giving it to Put Alaska First PAC, a single-candidate super PAC in support of Begich. The Begich-Sullivan contest is Senate Majority PAC’s No. 2 target, after the Senate race in North Carolina.

The big bucks spent to sway Alaska’s small population show that “neither campaign has been perfect” when it comes to benefiting from outside money, said Jessie Peterson, director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group. “They’ve both taken a lot of money.”

“It’s the voices of the individuals who lose out,” Peterson said. “When you donate $1 versus someone donating $1 million, it can’t help. The whole system needs to be re-examined.”

Photo: SenateDemocrats via Flickr

Alaska Democrat Begich Avoids Even Saying ‘Obama’

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The simple question is top of mind this grumpy election season, even for the 1,000 or so high school students gathered for a televised debate: “How will you work to reach across partisan lines to accomplish real goals?”

Incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat in a tight race, started his answer by shoving his party’s president gently under the campaign bus, talking about the need to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, anathema to the Obama administration.

Only then did he get around to his record of working with anyone, “no matter who they are.” Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian and Tea Party favorite. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent and self-described socialist. And, always, the senior senator from the Last Frontier.

“Lisa Murkowski and I, Republican and Democrat, this last year voted 80 percent together,” Begich boasted, a claim he makes at campaign stops from Barrow to Ketchikan. “No other senators in a split delegation in the country have that kind of voting record.”

Begich invokes his Republican counterpart so often that Murkowski sent him a cease-and-desist letter when he ran an ad calling them a “great team.” But the name “Obama” rarely escapes his lips — and only then when a prospective voter mentions the president first.

Like many Democrats locked in tight races, Begich is betting that his odds of victory go up the more distant he seems from President Barack Obama. But few Democrats this election season face the kind of hurdles that stand between Begich and a second term.

Well more than half of the electorate here does not align itself with either major party — although if pressed that group tends to lean Republican — compared with around 40 percent nationwide. The last time Alaskans sided with a Democrat seeking the White House, the Beatles had just premiered on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Only a third of Alaskans approve of the job Obama is doing, among the lowest rates in the country and almost 10 percentage points below the nation as a whole. And then there is the simple fact that politics in this vast, sparsely populated state bears scant resemblance to that practiced in what people here describe as “Outside” — or the Lower 48 when they’re feeling generous.

“Mark Begich is pro-gun, pro-choice, pro-oil and -gas development, pro-gay marriage,” said campaign spokesman Max Croes. “Those are four things that perhaps don’t make sense in deep blue California or deep red Wyoming. But here in Alaska, that’s where the majority of the people are. … (Begich) is running for Alaska.”

The race between Begich and Republican rival Dan Sullivan, a former state attorney general who has served 20 years in the Marine Corps and Reserves, appears to be a tossup. Polls show Sullivan, who has been endorsed by Murkowski, slightly ahead, with one big caveat: Polling is notoriously difficult here because so many Alaskans live off the grid, off the road system, and away from dependable cellphone service.

The 2008 Senate race was so tight that Begich was behind on Election Day proper, and was only able to claim victory once outlying votes were counted. The victory margin was about 3,800 votes, despite the fact that incumbent Ted Stevens, a powerful Republican, had been found guilty of corruption just days earlier. (The conviction was later thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct.)

So it’s little wonder that Begich rarely misses a chance to say how much he disagrees with the president, who won only 37.9 percent of the vote in Alaska that year.

At a town hall meeting on the east side of Alaska’s biggest city, not that far from where the candidate grew up, Begich took a swipe at the Affordable Care Act, which he takes pains not to call Obamacare: “We’ve got work to do. We’ve got to fix it. We’ve got to make it better.”

Facing a packed house at the Muldoon Boys & Girls Club, he allied himself with Murkowski against the president on a key foreign policy issue. “Sometimes she and I conflict with Obama, like the latest thing on Syria funding,” he said. “I couldn’t support him on funding the rebels in Syria — couldn’t do it.”

Even when a supporter took Sullivan’s mantra and turned it into a compliment — “They use it negatively against you that you have voted with President Obama 97 percent of the time. … I think that’s a great thing” — Begich pushed the president away.

“There are people who like the president, and people who don’t,” Begich said. “This race is not about the president. He’ll be gone in two years. This is about Alaska. It’s about a Senate seat for the next six years. What that other guy wants to do is only make it about the president.”

What was left unsaid in that exchange was just as important as the words the candidate uttered. He didn’t mention the president’s name or just who “that other guy” is. If there is a name that’s more absent from a Begich campaign than Obama, it would have to be Sullivan.

Sullivan argued in a recent interview that Begich was running away from six years of votes in Washington, D.C., and that his opponent’s performance was fair game.

“I’m hitting (Begich) on his record,” Sullivan said. “I’m hitting him on his votes. I’m hitting him on his lack of pushing back against the Obama administration’s overreach in Alaska. And that’s what an election should be about.”

Asked why his tactics sound an awful lot like those used against other vulnerable Democrats — Minnesota’s Al Franken, for example — Sullivan said it’s because Franken’s record is the same as Begich’s.

The Democrat does not believe Sullivan’s explanation for a second. His opponent, Begich said in an interview, “has taken on the national talking points” churned out by the Republican Party: The deciding vote for Obamacare was cast by (fill-in-the-blank Democrat), who also voted for the president’s priorities “97 percent of the time.”

“It’s all the same in every state,” Begich said, adding that he doesn’t have to bring up the president when he’s on the stump because his opponent was “already invoking Obama a lot.”

What’s not the same are the high stakes of the Senate race here. Like a small handful of other states, Alaska could have an impact that goes far beyond its chilly borders. And that’s something Begich reminds voters every chance he gets.

“All eyes are on Alaska,” he told the crowd at the Boys & Girls Club in urgent tones, microphone in hand. “You and this room and others like you will determine this race and who controls the United States Senate. There has never been a time, other than statehood, that Alaska is in the forefront.”

Remember all those other races, he asked the men and women in the room, when we’d be the last ones to turn in our votes? Alaska’s at a time zone disadvantage, an hour earlier than the West Coast, four hours earlier than the East.

“No one cared,” Begich reminded them. “They’d have the lights off already, the national news, because no one cared. This time, all eyes are on Alaska. What we do here will make a difference.”

Photo: SenateDemocrats via Flickr

Billionaire Paul Allen Pledges At Least $100 Million To Fight Ebola

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

SEATTLE — Paul Allen, billionaire owner of sports teams and mega yachts, on Thursday pledged at least $100 million to fight Ebola in what is believed to be the largest private foundation gift to combat the deadly disease and support health care workers in West Africa.

The co-founder of Microsoft — who regularly inhabits lists of the richest and most generous Americans == has already donated an estimated $26.5 million toward his pledge, including $12.9 million to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, $3.6 million to UNICEF, $2.8 million to the International Red Cross and $1.3 million to Doctors Without Borders.

“The Ebola virus is unlike any health crisis we have ever experienced and needs a response unlike anything we have ever seen,” Allen said in a statement. “I am committed to tackling Ebola until it is stopped.”

The disease, which has spurred worldwide panic, travel restrictions and a scramble by hospitals and health agencies to contain it and prepare for its possible spread, is generally transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person.

The deadliest Ebola outbreak in history is believed to have infected nearly 10,000 people and claimed more than 4,800 lives, with the highest death toll in Liberia, according to the World Health Organization. It pegs the cost of fighting the disease at $975 million.

WHO spokesman Daniel Epstein said his organization “welcomes all financial and technical support in our efforts to save the lives of those infected with Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and to halt the spread of the epidemic as soon as possible. We need funds, and we need foreign medical teams most of all, to staff the 50 Ebola treatment centers now operating or under construction.”

The news of Allen’s gift came on the same day that a patient with Ebola was isolated at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, and health officials there said they had begun tracing the person’s contacts.

With so many people possibly affected by this particularly deadly disease, funds have been hard to come by, especially from smaller donors who often step up to help in times of crisis.

“The small American donors are simply not there,” said Jack Shakely, president emeritus of the California Community Foundation. “It takes a wealthy donor to step up to the plate.”

Shakely is also a board member of Operation USA, a global relief organization that has sent medical supplies to Liberia, and he describes Ebola as “one of those horrible, horrible problems that can be fixed. (Allen) tends to be one of a group of social entrepreneurs who like to see results. This $100 million could, in fact, effect amazing results.”

The $100 million pledge by the owner of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers is the latest in a stream of donations by wealthy individuals and foundations, many with ties to technology.

Last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $25 million to the CDC Foundation, noting on his Facebook page that the deadly disease “could infect 1 million people or more over the next several months if not addressed.”

In September, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $50 million to support the emergency response to the disease, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation committed $5 million. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave $1 million in August.

Allen plans to partner with the University of Massachusetts Medical School to provide medical workers and laboratory equipment in Liberia, with a particular focus on making sure that local hospitals are outfitted with decontamination equipment.

He also will fund the development and manufacture of two medevac containment units to evacuate medical workers from West Africa, what Dune Ives, senior director of Allen’s Vulcan Philanthropy, calls “safety cocoons.”

“As we started looking early on at what it is going to take, we recognized we need more trained health care workers to go to West Africa,” Ives said. “Personally, unless I knew I had safety and support to get back home if I got infected, I would think twice.”

The medevac units fit into airplanes and carry the kind of equipment and staff seen in hospital rooms, Ives said, adding that “right now, there is one plane that can safely medevac infected health care workers back to their country of origin. We wanted to provide the assurance of safe transport.”

One goal of Allen’s is to urge others to donate — individuals of modest means, corporations, foundations, the super-rich. To that end he has set up an online donation platform at TackleEbola.com to allow individuals to give money to specific areas of need.

“Time is not our ally in this fight,” Allen said in a blog posted Thursday. “The time is now to do the right thing. So let’s do this.”

AFP Photo/Jay Directo

Violence Against Women Emerges As Key Campaign Issue In Alaska

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The woman was terrified her boyfriend would find her. He had beaten her up, torn her phone from the wall. He was after her. He had a gun.

So she pounded on her apartment manager’s door. The 17-year-old who answered let her in and dialed 911.

“I remember what I said to this day,” Democratic Sen. Mark Begich told a rapt audience as he campaigned for re-election last week. “I said, ‘I’m in my apartment. I have a woman who’s being beat. I have a gun. And I will protect her. You should show up.'”

Begich isn’t the only politician talking about violence against women this campaign season in Alaska. A sex abuse scandal in the Alaska National Guard has reverberated throughout the Last Frontier, in particular hanging over the governor’s race.

Incumbent Sean Parnell’s once-sure victory is now in question; the Republican is commander in chief of the military unit, and he has been dogged by questions about how much he knew about the allegations of widespread sexual assault in the Guard.

Violence against women is a regular topic on the campaign trail — a first in the state’s 55-year history. Voters broach the issue at debates, town hall meetings, and luncheons, like the one where Begich told of his brush with battering 35 years ago. Begich’s opponent, Dan Sullivan, also has raised the topic.

Sullivan, a former state attorney general, spent a recent campaign stop at a middle school instructing eighth-grade boys. “You can’t treat your girlfriend abusively,” Sullivan said. “If you ever get married, you can’t do that to your wife. It’s not what men do.”

The statistics paint a dismal picture here: Alaska leads the country in the rate of forcible rape, three times the national average. It has the highest rate of men killing women. It is among the top states for domestic violence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Alaska No. 3 in the nation — after Oklahoma and Nevada — for the percentage of women who have endured “rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner.” In Alaska, 44.2 percent of women have been victimized in their lifetime, compared with 32.9 percent in California and 32.3 percent in New York.

Nearly 60 percent of all women in Alaska have been victims of rape or domestic violence or both in their lifetimes, according to a study by the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, whose researchers say the results could be conservative.

Last week the Alaska chapter of the National Organization for Women cautioned residents to vote online or by absentee ballot if they “live in hostile environments where, for safety, they avoid discussing or engaging in political matters.” Translation: Even democracy can be dangerous for battering victims.

“Our rates of violence are so high up here that anyone who is considering running has to have a stance on the issue or there’s no hope for them,” said Amanda Price, executive director of Standing Together Against Rape, an Anchorage-based advocacy and victim services group. “It has not been this front and center before.”

“The National Guard scandal has drawn some attention and required candidates to have a stance and a plan on how to minimize violence against women,” Price said.

Reports of violence against women are regular fodder for local media. Last week there was the 26-year-old wanted on a felony warrant “for a probation violation stemming from a conviction for attempted assault of a minor” and the arrest of a 22-year-old wanted on multiple charges of sexual assault and sexual assault of a minor.

Details of the National Guard controversy crop up almost daily. Headlines blare: “National Guard documents detail chronic misconduct among recruiting leaders.” “State senator wants hearing on National Guard problems.”
Allegations of widespread sexual assault and official stonewalling in the Guard were first reported in the Anchorage Daily News a year ago, when a group of Guard chaplains disclosed that victims of sexual assault had been coming to them for years.

Many of the women said they had been raped by fellow Guard members. Some said they had been drugged and assaulted. The chaplains said they reported the allegations to Parnell in 2010, but nothing resulted from their conversations.

Melissa Jones came forward with information about being sexually assaulted in 2007. Jones, who was 27 at the time, was out after work with fellow Guard members when someone slipped something into her drink, she said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Monday. She said she was later attacked in her apartment.

After reporting the incident to her commander in confidence, she went on leave.

“When I returned,” she said, “everybody knew. Even high-ranking officials were talking about my situation and knew about it when they had no business knowing. What was worse? What happened to me. But the re-victimization that occurred — the complete disregard for human decency and the betrayal — were more to deal with than I needed to deal with at the time.”

Jones is now with the Illinois National Guard and is in the process of a medical discharge. The diagnosis? “PTSD,” she said, “from the incident.”

A scathing, 229-page report by the National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations released in September found that complaints by some sexual assault victims before 2012 were not properly documented, that victims were not referred to victim advocates, that their confidentiality was breached and that, “in some cases, the victims were ostracized by their leaders, peers and units.”

Parnell has been on the defensive since.

In 2009, then-Lt. Gov. Parnell became governor when Sarah Palin resigned the office, and he was easily elected in his own right in 2010. Today, he is fighting for his seat, and he cannot avoid his state’s reputation for violence against women or the Guard scandal.

At an Oct. 1 debate sponsored by the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce, a voter emailed in a question about the gubernatorial candidates’ “plans to reduce sexual assault, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide in Alaska.”

Concrete plans to attack the state’s long-standing problems were quickly elbowed aside by a particularly nasty exchange between Parnell and Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-independent who leads in the polls.

Walker: “When someone comes to my office as governor to tell me about sexual assault going on in the National Guard, I’ll do an investigation immediately. I will not wait four years.”

Parnell: “I was taught by my parents to address a big lie head-on, and so I’m going to do it head-on right now. Bill Walker just said that I did nothing in the face of sexual assault (allegations) coming to my office or me learning about them. It is an absolute falsehood. … I want to set the record straight.”

The state’s largest media outlets have sued the governor to obtain public records that are expected to reveal what Parnell and his administration knew about the scandal and when.

On Oct. 15, Parnell released a six-minute video to outline his record of combating violence against women.

Asked about the timing and the impetus for the video, campaign spokesman Luke Miller said it came from the governor’s office and was not a part of Parnell’s re-election effort. Sharon Leighow, the governor’s spokeswoman, did not respond to a request for comment.

On the video, a somber Parnell said that “in 2010 some allegations were made.” They were serious, he said, and he followed up on them all.

Parnell acknowledged that, at the time, he turned for answers to Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Katkus, Guard commander and commissioner of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Katkus was forced to resign in September.

Efforts are underway to enact what Parnell called “complete reform” of the Guard. The perpetrators of the “atrocious acts” will be held accountable.

“Alaskans,” the governor said, “you know me and my heart for helping people escape the nightmare of domestic violence and sexual assault. This is my life’s work.”

Photo via Jason Grote via Wikicommons

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