Tag Archives: federal investigation

President signs bill to review civil rights-era cold cases

Racially motivated, civil rights-era killings that are now cold cases will get fresh looks under legislation signed by President Barack Obama.

Obama signed the bill earlier this month. It indefinitely extends a 2007 law that calls for a full accounting of race-based deaths, many of which had been closed for decades. The law was set to expire next year.

The bill is named after Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy killed in 1955 after whistling at a white woman. His killers were acquitted of murder but later admitted their crimes to a reporter and couldn’t be retried.

Many other similar cases were poorly investigated and prosecutions were rare.

The law provides federal resources to local jurisdictions to look into the cases and extends the time span of cases to be considered to Dec. 31, 1979. It will also require the Justice Department and the FBI to consult with civil rights organizations, universities and others who had been gathering evidence on the deaths.

There has so far been one conviction as more than 100 cases from the 1960s and earlier have been reviewed. New racially suspicious deaths have been identified for investigation.

North Carolina GOP Sen. Richard Burr and Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill sponsored the bill in the Senate.

In the House, the bill was negotiated by civil rights icon John Lewis, D-Ga.; John Conyers, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee; and Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

Feds investigating claims WDNR fails to enforce water pollution regs

Federal regulators planned to visit Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources headquarters this week to investigate claims the agency is failing to enforcing water pollution laws and regulations.

Midwest Environmental Advocates and 16 individuals petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review water regulations in the state to ensure the DNR is complying with the Clean Water Act.

The EPA in 2011 cited 75 deficiencies in how DNR handles water regulation.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports four EPA regulators planned to spend four days this week at DNR headquarters in Madison paging through the agency’s water pollution files beginning Tuesday.

DNR spokesman Jim Dick called the review standard procedure, although the review could result in the EPA stripping the state’s authority to enforce federal regulations.

Kentucky deputy convicted of rights violations

A former deputy with the Bullitt County, Kentucky, Sheriff’s Office was convicted this week by a federal jury of two counts of willfully depriving a Bullitt County resident of his constitutional rights under color of law.

The evidence presented at trial established that Matthew Corder, of Louisville, Kentucky, abused his authority as a sworn law enforcement officer by retaliating against a Bullitt County resident who insulted him.

Corder unlawfully entered the man’s home, tased the man in the back, arrested him without probable cause and charged him with crimes that he did not commit.

The charges against the man — disorderly conduct and fleeing and evading — eventually were dismissed. However, the man sat in jail for works and lost his job.

“This deputy abused his authority, neglected the law and harmed a resident he swore an oath to protect,” said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general. “No insult justifies depriving the victim of his constitutional rights and anytime law enforcement officers act like Corder did here, they do a disservice to the vast majority of their colleagues who safeguard our communities with fidelity, professionalism and distinction.  The Justice Department will work tirelessly to bring to justice any member of law enforcement who breaks the law by using excessive force.”

U.S. Attorney John E. Kuhn Jr. of the Western District of Kentucky said in a statement to the press, “In those rare instances when a police officer violates his foremost duty to obey the law and adhere to the limits imposed by our Constitution, the Department of Justice will vigorously work to hold that officer accountable. Today our efforts culminated in a unanimous jury verdict finding that former Deputy Sheriff Corder victimized an individual by making an unconstitutional arrest and bringing unconstitutional charges.

The four-day trial included testimony from the victim, the victim’s sister and an officer on scene, which corroborated the victim’s account.

The instructors from the police academy who trained Corder also testified, saying he knew what the law permits and knew that his conduct violated the victim’s constitutional rights.

Evidence included Corder’s false arrest report as well as body-camera footage of the arrest.

Corder faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on the first charge and one year of imprisonment on the second charge.

His sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 17, before U.S. District Judge David J. Hale of the Western District of Kentucky.

This case was investigated by the FBI’s Louisville Division and was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Gregory of the Western District of Kentucky and trial attorney Christopher Perras of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section.

Civil rights investigation possible at youth prison

Federal officials looking into abuse allegations at Wisconsin’s youth prison are trying to determine if criminal charges are warranted and also whether another investigation into civil rights violations is in order.

Federal officials looking into abuse allegations at Wisconsin's youth prison are trying to determine if criminal charges are warranted and also whether another investigation into civil rights violations is in order.
Federal officials looking into abuse allegations at Wisconsin’s youth prison are trying to determine if criminal charges are warranted and also whether another investigation into civil rights violations is in order.

U.S. Attorney John Vaudreuil says that in addition to the criminal investigation headed by the FBI, federal agents are also looking into the possibility of a pattern of civil rights violations at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in northern Wisconsin.

Vaudreuil says that after the evidence is reviewed, he and the FBI will forward the findings to U.S. Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta. She heads the federal Department of Justice’s civil rights division and will decide whether to open a civil investigation.

If that happens, the state could face a lawsuit or consent decree ordering it to make changes.

Petco drops small-animal supplier amid federal probe

Petco, one of the biggest pet retailers in the country, severed its relationship with a Pennsylvania small-animal dealer amid a federal investigation into conditions at the facility where it keeps thousands of hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits and other species.

Petco said in a statement this week that Holmes Chinchilla Ranch and Other Small Animals Inc. is no longer a supplier after the retailer concluded “they did not meet our animal care standards.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture spent several days at Holmes this month after an animal-rights group shot video purporting to show substandard conditions at the dealer’s facility in Barto, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

“You have roughly 20,000 animals in severely crowded bins, competing for food, competing for water,” said Dan Paden, associate director of evidence analysis at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

He said a PETA employee got a job at Holmes and worked there, undercover, for three months, collecting evidence that PETA presented to the USDA. The agriculture department’s investigative unit recently spent five days at Holmes, according to Paden.

Tanya Espinosa, spokeswoman for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, confirmed the agency has an open investigation into Holmes but declined further comment.

The video, which PETA shared with The Associated Press, includes scenes of bins with dead guinea pigs; dishes filled with what appears to be fouled water; loose cats that PETA said preyed on hamsters, mice and rats; live rats stuffed in a plastic bag and placed in a freezer; and a “waste-filled cooler” where dozens of small animals of varying species were dumped and gassed, “sometimes ineffectively,” PETA said.

Holmes declined to answer questions about its operations.

The dealer said in a statement that it is cooperating with USDA, “and anticipate that we will satisfactorily resolve any concerns that they have now or arise in the future, as we have since the beginning of their inspections of our facility.”

Holmes passed its last several federal inspections, according to online records that go back three years. PETA, in a letter to the USDA, requested the inspector who gave Holmes a clean bill of health as recently as January 2015 not take part in the current probe, citing evidence the staffer warns facilities ahead of time of impending inspections.

Holmes’ 2015 federal inspection report said the facility housed 16,787 animals — ferrets, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs.

Holmes also supplies PetSmart, another huge retail chain.

“We have reached out to the USDA to learn about its findings. If we find our standards have not been met by this supplier, we will take swift and appropriate action,” PetSmart spokeswoman Erin Gray said.

Petco spokeswoman Lisa Start said the retailer ended its relationship with the supplier “as a result of our own recent inspections at Holmes Chinchilla Ranch, which are a regular part of our strict vendor oversight protocol.”

Paden, with PETA, said the PETA employee working undercover was there when a Petco representative showed up to inspect the facility on Dec. 2. He said the employee was packing animals destined for Petco as recently as Jan. 5, her last day at Holmes and the day that USDA officials began their probe.

After ignoring situation, Michigan governor declares state of emergency in Flint over lead in drinking water

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 5 over problems with lead in the city’s drinking water.

Also on yesterday, federal officials said they’re investigating the local public health emergency.

Snyder’s action follows emergency declarations by the city and Genesee County, which requested help from the state. Michigan’s declaration makes available state resources in cooperation with local response and recovery operations.

U.S. attorney’s spokeswoman Gina Balaya said in an email that the federal investigation is “an effort to address the concerns of Flint residents,” but she couldn’t say whether it is a criminal or civil investigation.

The city switched from Detroit’s water system to Flint River water in a cost-cutting move in 2014, while under state financial management. The move was intended to be a temporary step while a pipeline was built from Lake Huron.

Residents complained about the water’s taste, smell and appearance, and children were found to have elevated levels of lead due to the water supply. Exposure to lead can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in children.

The city returned to Detroit water in October.

Officials say the state will use its own resources during the emergency, but Snyder could request federal help if Michigan is unable to handle demands.

Last week, Snyder apologized and Michigan’s top environmental regulator resigned after a task force blamed problems on his agency. Administration officials have pledged to cooperate fully with any federal requests.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver welcomed the governor’s declaration, saying it’s what “Flint deserves.”

The state initially downplayed lead concerns, prompting a lawsuit by Flint residents accusing city and state officials of knowing about the problem but doing nothing about it. Ultimately the state had to commit $10.6 million to reconnect Flint to Detroit and to respond with filters, testing and other services.

The city’s request for a disaster declaration includes roughly $50 million in aid, most of which is taken up by $45 million to replace 15,000 lead service lines — “one of the most cost-intensive endeavors related to ameliorating water contaminants” in its system, according to the application. It also seeks $2 million in reimbursement costs for reconnecting to Detroit’s system.

Feds close investigation of Milwaukee school voucher program

Federal officials have closed a long-running investigation into whether Milwaukee’s school voucher program discriminates against disabled student.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department in 2011 alleging that disabled students are deterred from participating in the Milwaukee voucher program, denied admission when they do apply and expelled or forced to leave as a result of policies that don’t accommodate them.

Justice Department trial attorney Colleen Phillips sent state education officials a letter on Dec. 23 saying the agency had closed the investigation.

Phillips noted that the agency sent a letter to the state Department of Public Instruction in April 2013 outlining changes or additions that were made to DPI policies to ensure its administration of the Milwaukee voucher program adhered to the Americans with Disabilities Act. She also noted that the Justice Department had been monitoring the DPI’s subsequent actions, but she didn’t elaborate.

Phillips wrote that legislators passed a law in May that created a new disability voucher program. Under the program, disabled students who have been denied enrollment in a public school outside of their home district through open enrollment can attend a private school with state vouchers beginning in the fall of 2016. She said DPI officials agreed to provide the federal agency with any complaints it receives about the program. 

Neither Disability Rights Wisconsin’s attorney, Monica Murphy, nor the ACLU’s Wisconsin chapter immediately returned phone messages seeking comment.

The voucher program offers poor students state subsidies to attend private schools. The program began in 1990 in Milwaukee, which became the nation’s first city to offer such subsidies. Since 2011, Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature have expanded the program statewide, eliminated enrollment caps in Milwaukee and Racine, and raised income limits to allow middle-class students to participate.

PETA exposes abuse at monkey breeding facility in Florida

An undercover investigation by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at a monkey breeding facility has led to a federal review at the southwest Florida business.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating a Primate Products Inc. in Hendry County, where an undercover worker found sick and injured monkeys living in inhumane and unsanitary conditions.

PETA released a video on June 1 showing conditions at the facility. PETA spokesman Dan Paden said the video was taken by a PETA employee who was hired to work undercover at the facility. PETA first gave the video exclusively to The Associated Press.

After meeting with PETA, inspectors from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service went to Primate Products Inc.

Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA, said in an email to the AP that Primate Products Inc. has three weeks to appeal the USDA inspectors’ report, which won’t be made public until that process is complete.

Espinosa said that the USDA does “currently have an open investigation into this facility.”

The seven-minute video showed workers holding rhesus macaque monkeys with protruding rectal tissue by the tails. The video also purports to show monkeys in feces-covered cages, monkeys without working water dispensers, and primates with broken bones and exposed wounds. A monkey also allegedly died from hypothermia because of cold temperatures and another was injured by a bear. The monkeys are kept in outdoor cages.

“Primate Products has been awarded federal contracts worth more than $13 million of taxpayers’ money and ships monkeys to massive testing laboratories and universities,” said Dan Paden, a PETA spokesman. “Its customers, like our own National Institutes of Health, need to watch this footage and decide whether they want to continue to bankroll this cruelty and these animals’ violent capturing, pain, terror and deaths.”

Hendry County, in the southwestern part of the state near Naples and Fort Myers, is something of a mecca for primate breeding facilities. Three monkey breeding farms containing thousands of primates operate in the small, rural county and a fourth is in the works.

The companies say they’re doing nothing wrong, they’re properly permitted agricultural facilities and they’re in the area with the blessing of authorities.

In November, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against Hendry County officials who approved that Primate Products Inc. could hold as many as 3,200 long-tailed macaques, a species linked to outbreaks of infectious disease. The lawsuit said Hendry County approved the controversial project behind closed doors with only the facility’s supporters present and failed to hold the public hearing required by the state’s Sunshine Law. Last week, the lawsuit was expanded to include a second farm that rents space on the property.

Thomas J. Rowell, a veterinarian and president of Primate Products Inc., told The Associated Press that “the inspection was thorough.”

“This is part of the process in which we fully cooperated,” Rowell wrote in an email. “I’m not aware of who provided the video. We welcomed the USDA’s visit. It’s good when you get the opportunity to review your operation through the eyes of others. We are always looking for opportunities to improve upon our program and appreciate the corrective actions and timelines provided by the USDA. Staff looks forward to working together with the aim of improving upon our animal welfare program.”

Primate Products uses two species of macaques from China, Cambodia, Mauritius or Vietnam. The animals are quarantined upon arriving in the United States.

Primate Products then breeds the monkeys for resale and distribution to research institutions, pharmaceutical companies and the federal government, according to a company spokesman. The monkeys sell for about $3,200 each.

Activists and residents say that the facilities shouldn’t be covered under the county’s agricultural zoning regulations. Monkeys, they say, are very different from cows or horses.

“As seen in the video, the company takes spinal fluid and blood from these wild animals, which can in no way be considered the ‘agriculture’ use that the company’s land is zoned for,” Paden said. “Hendry County can and should put an end to this cruelty and shut Primate Products down immediately.”

PETA filed a formal complaint with the USDA, asking the agency to look into alleged violations of animal welfare and protection laws.