Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Jonnie Williams' trial testimony about a critical meeting with the former governor was contradictory, implausible and sometimes incoherent. But the jury bought it anyway

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Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

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Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Putting the Garden in Rain Garden

Soon Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough storm-water regs. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to show how we can save the bay – and look really good doing it.

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Another Russian Reformer Murdered

nemtsov killedBy Peter Galuszka

It was a personal shocker to read of the murder in Moscow of Russian reformer Boris Nemtsov, the latest in a long string of killings related to the tragic fight for change in that country.

Nemtsov was gunned down Friday in a drive-by shooting as he walked across Moskvoretsky Bridge a short distance from the Kremlin and Red Square.

The outspoken 55-year-old former nuclear physicist turned government official was a key figure in the far more hopeful years of the early 1990s when bright young people tried (in vain) to move Russia beyond the kleptocracy of the Communist era.

Nemtsov pushed capitalist reforms by trying to root out corruption. He simplified establishing businesses by taking the registration process out of the hands of crooked bureaucrats. He advocated transparency in bidding contracts. More recently, he revealed billions of dollars in payoffs at the Russian Winter Olympics last year at Sochi.

Naturally, Nemtsov ran afoul of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who beat out Nemtsov as Boris Yeltsin’s successor. Putin is the spearhead of the old power elite that has seized control over the past 15 years, rolled back democratic reforms, unleashed a torrent of inside business deals, and pushed the worst military conflict in the region (Crimea and Ukraine) since the Cold War.

Nemtsov was due to lead a Moscow protest rally against Putin’s bloody Ukrainian adventurism that has killed 5,800 people. He was to stand in for Alexei Navalny another reformer who has been imprisoned for handing out leaflets at a subway station.

As he was taking a walk on an unusually warm winter evening, a car drove up. Six shots were fired. Nemtsov was killed by four bullets.

He is the fifth person – either Russian or foreign – that I have dealt with personally who has been murdered. I reported from Moscow for BusinessWeek in the 1980s and 1990s.

Here are a few examples: American businessman Paul Tatum involved in a dispute with a Chechen partner was slain by 11 bullets to the head and neck at a subway station that I used to frequent. Paul Klebnikov, an American editor of Russian-language Forbes magazine, was shot near his apartment. Russian investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikin, a friend who got me an assignment to write for Literaturnaya Gazetta, died in an apparent poisoning.

I had interviewed Nemtsov back when he was pushing far-reaching and radical change in the the city of Nizhniy Novgorod, formerly known as Gorky, east of Moscow.

He is the highest-profile reformer to be killed during the regime of Putin who says it was a contract killing and that he will oversee the investigation “personally.”

Big Data and Power to the People

school_gradesby James A. Bacon

In the previous post, John Butcher brought to light some incredibly important data long secreted in the Virginia Department of Education — Student Growth Percentile (SGP) scores. There are two aspects to this story. First, the data will bring unprecedented accountability to Virginia schools and school divisions. Second, it is a cautionary tale of how the educational establishment resists transparency that makes that accountability possible.

Brian Davison, who works in business intelligence and software management, had two children in the Loudoun County public school system when he filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2014 to obtain the score. The Loudoun County school superintendent rejected the request, but Davison won in a lawsuit filed against the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond Circuit Court.

The publication of raw SOL scores never resulted in much accountability. SOL numbers are so heavily influenced by the socio-economic status of students (accounting for about 55% to 60% of the variability between schools) that school administrators could plausibly argue that they aren’t responsible for low scores — the economic disadvantage of their student body is. SGP scores get around that excuse by comparing the progress of students, regardless of socio-economic status. In effect, it measures education value added.

As Butcher’s post clearly shows, some school systems out-perform the norm by wide margins, while others under-perform. An analysis of individual schools probably would show the same thing, as would an analysis of individual teachers.

There are many idiosyncratic reasons why a particular student might lag or surge ahead in his or her performance in a given year, so one has to be extremely careful drawing conclusions from small numbers. That makes the data somewhat problematic for assessing the performance of teachers, especially young teachers who have taught only a year or two. However, after enough years, a teacher should have taught enough students that statistically valid conclusions can be drawn about his or her effectiveness. Another issue: Data should be anonymized in order to protect the privacy of school students.

In very rough numbers, schools teachers, principals and administrators account for roughly 40% to 45% of the variability in student performance. No one expects them to perform miracles, but there is little doubt that they can do better. A critical step is identifying which teachers are consistently doing well and which ones are doing badly in order to incentivize the good ones to stay and the bad ones to leave. Another step is identifying which principals are doing a good job, like Tina McCay at Goochland Elementary School (mentioned here). Finally, voters need data to judge the performance of senior school division administrators and school board members.

I’m doubt the story will end here. There will be endless haggling over how to interpret the numbers — and that’s how it should be. But be not mistaken: This is a game changer. Citizens and parents now have a tool of unprecedented power to cut through the dodging and weaving, the hedging and prevaricating, to hold educators accountable. Now let’s go out and use it!

SGPs: Bringing Accountability to School Systems

by John Butcher

For much too long, the principal measures of educational quality were inputs: budgets, teacher salaries, class sizes, pupil/teacher ratios, and the like.  Grades did not compare from school to school or even class to class. Specialized tests such as the SAT reached only limited numbers of students and, in the SAT case, measured intelligence rather than achievement.

This situation was disrupted in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act, which conditioned Title I federal support on statewide testing.  Whatever their other strengths and weaknesses — see, e.g., the Wikipedia discussion — the resulting testing schemes gave us measures of outputs.

The scores, however, were strongly dependent on the economic status of the students being tested.  For example, on Virginia’s 2014 English Reading SOL tests, a 10% increase in the division count of economically disadvantaged students was associated with a 3.4% decrease in the division average pass rate.

butcher1

(Click for more legible image.)

The Federales figured this out and, beginning in 2011, required states to develop a growth measure with data for reading/language arts and mathematics in the tested grades. Virginia settled on the Student Growth Percentile, the “SGP.”

Stated briefly, the SGP compares the progress (year-to-year score change) of each student with the other students in the state who had similar prior scores.  That progress then is expressed as a percentile ranking.  Thus, a student with a 60 SGP had a score increase better than 60% of the students with the same “prior achievement.”

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has a page of discussion with further links here.  A 2011 PowerPoint from VDOE’s Director of Research and Strategic Planning has a very clear discussion.

butcher2

(Click for more legible image.)

The advantage of the SGP is that it compares students with peers as to achievement.  Thus, students with low SOL’s (and, likely, low family wealth) are compared with students in similar circumstances.  The Virginia reading data demonstrate how this produces data that are largely independent of economic disadvantage.

Note here the weak correlation (11% R2, vs. 57% for the SOL chart above) and the weaker effect of economic disadvantage (14% SGP decrease compared to a 38% decrease in the SOL).

Data elsewhere show an even weaker relationship between SGP and economic disadvantage: Continue reading

The Center-City Job Resurgence

job_shift

by James A. Bacon

After decades of losing jobs to the metropolitan periphery, the nation’s downtown employment centers have been recording faster job growth since the recession than areas located further from the city center, according to a new report, “Surging Center Job Growth,” by Joe Cortright, president and principal economist of Impresa, a consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis.

Cortright compared job growth between city centers (defined as within three miles of the center of a metropolitan region’s central business district) and outlying areas. During the go-go years of the 2000s-era real estate boom (2002-2007), the periphery enjoyed rapid job growth while city centers stagnated. Since the recession (2007-2011), city centers have gained jobs while the periphery has lost them.

Those  numbers represent a composite of 41 of the nation’s largest metropolitan regions for which Cortright could find comparable data. The national trend does not apply to all metropolitan regions. Indeed in two of Virginia’s largest metro areas — Hampton Roads and Richmond — the periphery continued to out-perform the city centers.

richmond_hr

What’s going on? The big-picture story is that the industry mix of the national economy is changing, and that shift increasingly favors central business districts.

In general, knowledge-oriented industries that require considerable face-to-face interaction are clustered in city centers, while goods producing and moving industries are more decentralized. Knowledge-oriented industries tend to use land much more intensively than goods producing and distribution centers.

The biggest construction declines occurred in the construction and manufacturing sectors, which tend to be located on the periphery. Those sectors have been slow to rebound during the recession, but if and when they do, Cortright said, the compositional disadvantage of the periphery might diminish. (By “compositional,” he means the advantage of disadvantage conferred by industry mix.) However, he argues that center cities will continue to enjoy generalized “competitive” advantage.

These factors — the growing preference of well-educated  young adults for urban living, the shift of companies to city centers to tap this labor pool, the growing pull of the “consumer city,” the growth of “eds and meds,” the continuing relative decline of manufacturing and distribution, and the waning of major investments in new highway infrastructure — all give us reason to believe that the shift toward city center growth is not a temporary anomaly.

A closer look at Virginia metros. How do we explain the departure of Hampton Roads and Richmond from the larger, national trend? Remember that the “national” trend is derived from composite numbers that include a lot of variability. The trend does not apply equally everywhere.

Hampton Roads is a special case because its economy is so dominated by military spending, and military employment is concentrated in military bases. The military makes its decisions where to grow and contract based on different factors than the civilian economy.

As for Richmond, my sense is that downtown living and employment has surged since 2011, the most recent years cited by Cortright. The competitive advantages of central business districts apply to the Richmond region as well, and we’ll see the proof in more recent numbers. Another possibility is that the three-mile definition of “center city” does not fit Richmond, one of the smaller metros surveyed. The economic vitality of central districts like Shockoe Bottom and Manchester may be offset by declining employment in the 2- to 3-mile band, which are really aging suburbs.

You Must Be Joking

The RTD reports today that the city of Richmond will PAY the Redskins about $250,000 for having summer camp in the city. Is this true or did the newspaper publish the April Fools edition a month early?

– Les Schreiber

Using Big Data to Bolster Student Performance

Principal Tina McCay with students at Goochland Elementary.

Principal Tina McCay with students at Goochland Elementary.

At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, 4th grade teachers at Goochland Elementary School were setting academic goals for their students, with an eye to their performance in the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. With support from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and an innovative data system implemented in Goochland, the school had been provided historical data and predictive analysis of their new students’ standing. Teachers were alarmed to find that nine students were on a predicted trajectory to fail their reading SOLs.

In a 4th-grade class of 55 children, failure by nine students constituted an unacceptably high percentage.  “We refused to accept the outcome as inevitable,” said Principal Tina McCay. “The data gave us a peek into one possible future, but it also gave our team time to develop a strategy to reverse the trend and set our students on a solid path to achievement and success.”

Teachers decided that the targeted students would benefit most by the participation in small instructional groups. “As a result of the small groups, students who previously were crying from frustration suddenly became engaged and confident,” said teacher Krystle Demas. “It was exciting to witness. Just to see that spark in their eyes and a return of the excitement and passion for learning was so rewarding!”

The result: All nine students passed the SOL at the end of the school year. Said McCay, “This extraordinary success might never have happened without real time access to data at each step of the process.”

Over the past decade, the education data industry has churned out new tools for schools and teachers to analyze data and see trends that would have been overlooked in the past.  “Data can be used to help educators tailor curricula, identify at-risk students, customize classroom learning and improve their students’ college readiness,” said Bethann Canada, director of the Office of Educational Information Management at VDOE.

Building on Goochland’s success, VDOE is partnering with the state’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) with the goal of transforming itself from a static, one-way collector of data into a provider of support and service for data-driven decision making across the state.

In an elaborate consultation process, the data implementation team engaged more than 400 individuals across Virginia in focus group activities. Ninety-seven percent of Virginia’s school divisions took part. The end product was a strategy with two components: (1) Technology and Integration and (2) Professional Development and Division Support. Providing the data would not be enough. Educators needed to know what to do with it.

“It’s more than just having access to the data that’s important, it’s knowing what to do with it,” said Paul McGowan, vice president of consulting services at CIT. “Or, as some focus group participants explained, “Even if we’re able to run reports, a lot of teachers say, ‘now what?’ Many of us don’t know what to do with the data once we have it.”

Following up on the successful first phase of the project, the project team expects to roll out a similar capability statewide in the next year. Phase II is focusing on implementing the technology and integration solution and building a new Education Data Professional Development Center.

“We hope to attract, persuade and retain support for data use and to persuade all K-12 stakeholders to include data as an integral component of their work and educational plans and intervention strategies,” said Canada. “Generating a viable solution will take time and hard work, but will bring numerous dividends in the form of customized learning, stronger curricula, identifying and aiding at-risk students, and much more.”

(This is a condensed version of an article released by the Goochland Public Schools, Virginia Department of Education and the Center for Innovative Technology.)

Government Fragmentation and Economic Growth

fragmentation

by James A. Bacon

What are the secrets of successful metropolitan regions? According to conventional economic-development thinking here in Virginia, success hinges upon the ability to maintain a positive business climate, a concept that encompasses everything from tax rates to the tort system, the transportation network to the education level of the workforce. But a new publication by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “The Metropolitan Century,” identifies a critical variable rarely discussed in Virginia: the fragmentation of municipal governance.

Metropolitan regions characterized by higher levels of municipal fragmentation tend to experience lower economic growth rates than metros with less fragmentation, contends the OECD report, as seen in the chart above. Metropolitan regions run the gamut in the degree of fragmentation, from the United Kingdom with an average of 0.4 municipalities per 100,000 residents to the Czech Republic with an average of 2.43 per 100,000. All other things being equal, the report says, “For each doubling in the number of municipalities per 100,000 inhabitants within a metropolitan area, labour productivity in the metropolitan area decreases by 5-6%.”

(I would surmise that the number of municipalities in Virginia falls in the “moderately low” category. For example, the 1.7 million inhabitants of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area are governed by 16 jurisdictions, including two in North Carolina, or slightly less than 1.0 per 100,000 population.)

Fragmented government inhibits economic growth through its impact on transportation and land use, suggests the OECD report. The inability to plan regionally can result in “sub-optimal provision of transportation infrastructure” that falls short of its potential to provide the connectivity required by a productive, growing regional economy.

In the context of large urban agglomerations, land use planning and transport planning are often the fields where the need for co-ordination is greatest. … Housing and commercial developments need to be well connected to other parts of the urban agglomeration, and public transport in turn relies on a minimum population density to operate efficiently.

Integrating transport and land-use planning makes it easier to utilize value-capture tools for financing transportation infrastructure. “Public spending for infrastructure increases the price of adjacent land,” states the report. “Often, this price increase provides a publicly funded windfall profit to land owners or developers. Land-value capture tools aim at recapturing these windfalls from developers in order to (partially) fund the infrastructure investment.”

Echoing arguments that EM Risse made on this blog years ago, the OECD report observes that administrative borders in metropolitan areas have not evolved in concert with economic and social patterns.

While good governance structures are no guarantee for good policies, it is very difficult to design and implement good policies without them. … Administrative borders in metropolitan areas rarely correspond to these functional relations. Often, they are based on historical settlement patterns that no longer reflect human activities.

A few decades ago, there was a move in Virginia to consolidate cities and counties in order to achieve administrative efficiencies and economies of scale. There were some notable successes — Virginia Beach merged with Princess Anne County, Suffolk merged with Nansemond County — but the movement petered out.  The OECD report spelled out reasons for resistance to consolidation that apparently apply across the economically developed world:

Common reasons for the persistence of administrative borders are strong local identities and high costs of reforms, but also vested interests of politicians and residents. Even if policy makers try to reorganize local governments according to functional relations within urban agglomerations, it is often difficult to identify unambiguous boundaries between functionally integrated areas.

There doesn’t seem to be any appetite for consolidating local governments in Virginia, but the OECD report does suggest an alternate strategy: Identifying specific functions that can be transferred to regional authorities.

Would it be worth the effort to invest political capital in such endeavors? Take a look at the chart at the top of this post. The big dividing line in economic growth is between medium-low and medium-high fragmentation. Assuming Virginia metropolitan regions fall into the medium-low category — and I do confess that I do not know exactly what the dividing line is — there doesn’t seem to be much of a growth premium from consolidating our way into “low fragmentation” status. Indeed, I would argue that some competition between jurisdictions in a metropolitan area is a good thing — the ability of inhabitants to “vote with their feet” helps keep the politicians honest.

But that’s a shoot-from-the-hip reaction based upon one OECD chart. If Virginia is serious about positioning itself for economic prosperity in the years ahead, our governance structures, rooted in 19th-century settlement patterns, surely need to keep up with economic reality.

“Hacking for Good” Comes to Virginia

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the "hack for good" movement spreading across the U.S.

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the “hack for good” movement spreading across the U.S.

by James A. Bacon

Michael Kolbe experienced first-hand the power of data-driven election campaigning while working on the 2012 Obama re-election team. He went on to take a job as a strategy analyst for Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Richmond but didn’t discard his idealism. Hoping to harness the power of data to solve social problems, he joined others to bring the burgeoning civic hacking movement to Richmond last year.

His first “hackathon” fizzled, Kolbe concedes. The goal was to create a “where’s my school bus” app for the City of Richmond schools, adapting open code developed elsewhere. Despite initial enthusiasm, school officials “went radio silent” and Kolbe and his compatriots didn’t have a strong enough team to push the project through. “It just fell apart.”

Learning from that inauspicious beginning, Kolbe tried again. The results of his efforts could be seen Saturday in Code for RVA’s code-a-thon held at INM United’s warehouse-chic office building in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. This time, more than 60 participants worked on a half-dozen projects to make local government data more accessible and useful to citizens.

This time Kolbe had time to build an organization and line up sponsors and alliances. The Richmond hack-a-thon was held as part of a national CodeAcross event organized in dozens of cities across the United States by San Francisco-based Code for America. Code for America dispatched a team to help organize the Richmond event. Socrata, a Seattle-based open-data company, created a portal to which the Richmond hackers could add their data. Code for RVA also found a local champion for its open-government projects in Andreas Addison, a self-described “civic innovator” for the City of Richmond.

“This meeting wouldn’t have happened two years ago,” said Addison, who has led the effort to bring data analytics to City of Richmond decision making. “Things are changing.”

Even the governor’s office is getting on board. Zaki Barzinji, deputy director for intergovernmental affairs in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s policy shop, said the administration hopes to work with Code for America, Virginia universities, state agencies and local Code for America “brigades” like Code for RVA to organize a statewide conclave with the goal of driving open data and cultural change in state government.

Most of the projects undertaken Saturday were simple, aiming to make existing data more accessible to the public. One team worked on creating RVA Answers, a Web resource providing answers to most frequently asked questions. Another team tackled the goal of making data about city boards & commissions more readily available, including information on how to apply for a position. Yet another group worked on improving the display of city crime data.

The most ambitious project, long in the works, is an initiative to address the spread of STIs (socially transmitted infections), especially among the city’s poor and young. The city has pulled together a multi-disciplinary team to organize and analyze existing data, supplemented by insight gleaned by interviewing poor people and shadowing government health workers. The mission is to encourage people to get tested for STIs and to direct them to locations in their neighborhoods where they can do it.

This initiative will not likely wither on the vine — Danny Avula, deputy director of the city health department, is pushing the project forward. “A lot of people in government don’t get it,” Avula said, speaking of the use of data analytics. “But there are advocates now.”

Open data sounds great in the abstract, but civic hackers often face indifference or resistance. When the McAuliffe administration launched its open data portal last year, said Barzinji, it encountered a tendency among state agencies to keep their data to themselves.  The administration started small, asking each agency to share at least one data set. Once the value of public data can be demonstrated, he said, he expects the agencies to loosen up.

Never under-estimate the role of simple bureaucratic inertia. Mike Walls, IT strategy manager for the City of Richmond, noted that government IT departments are focused on the core mission of “just keeping the lights on.” Top priorities are making sure payroll is met, bills are paid and basic functions work. “You can’t have the network go down. You can’t have the emergency dispatching software crash. It creates a very cautious mindset.”

In his experience, Walls said, IT bureaucrats aren’t opposed to releasing data to the public as much as they are overwhelmed by their existing responsibilities. They see the task of opening up data as more work. “When your day job grinds you down, it’s hard to find the enthusiasm.”

Another issue, said Walls, is that data can’t just be dumped willy nilly into public databases. When data reveals information about individuals, public access may raise privacy issues. Often there are technical issues as well. Data is typically compiled to the standard of “good enough for the intended purpose,” not for a purpose someone might dream up later. As a consequence, mashing up, say, land use data calibrated to difference levels of accuracy might lead to absurd results like fire hydrants appearing in the middle of a street.

But civic tech advocates expressed optimism that the obstacles can be overcome. Small victories lead to larger victories. Said Barzinji: “First what we need is the proof of concept.” Then the push for legislation and executive action can follow.

Closely Watched Trains?

wva oil trainBy Peter Galuszka

The small town of Pembroke in southwest Virginia is used to seeing endlessly long unit trains of coal cars rumbling past. But last week, it got an unexpected surprise – trains of similar length hauling crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields started going by.

According to Reuters, Pembroke is one of many Virginia towns that are being affected by CSX’s derailment and explosion of oil tank cars filled with Bakken oil a few miles east of Montgomery, W.Va.  on Feb. 16. The massive blast sent fireballs hundreds of feet in the air and forced the evacuation of nearby residents including a college. It also stopped all rail traffic on a major, east-west CSX line for days.

A similar derailment involving a CSX oil train happened last April in Lynchburg on the same rail mainline. Several tank cars caught fire down causing a fire and a spill into the James River.

So, after the West Virginia incident, CSX got in touch with rival Norfolk Southern to see if it could reroute oil trains on some of its lines.

This brings up another issue – who should be informed when new railroad trains hauling potentially explosive or otherwise hazardous cargoes suddenly show up in your backyard? Do they have to tell you so you can get the flashlight, thermos and sleeping bag ready for your immediate evacuation if necessary?

CSX says it has informed appropriate public safety officials of such route changes, but is loath to let the general public in where it is sending unusual trains. Security and proprietary information, you understand.

CSX needs to keep its tank cars rolling to big oil terminal in Yorktown near the Chesapeake Bay. That site had been an Amoco refinery for years but the refinery shut down and was switched to an oil water terminal now owned by Houston-based Plains All-American.

The facility receives Bakken shale oil cars and loads the crude on barges that are then pushed or towed to East Coast refineries, notably in the Philadelphia area. Presumably, if petroleum exports from the U.S. start again, the Yorktown site would be excellent embarkation point.

So, instead of having tank cars with Bakken crude trundling from Charleston, W.Va. through the New River Gorge and on to Lynchburg, they will go on more southerly NS lines through places like Pembroke and Roanoke. Then they will be switched at Petersburg to CSX lines and go north to Richmond and east to Yorktown.

It looks like Richmond could potentially get it either way. On the usual route, oil trains pass by downtown on an elevated bridge which would be quite a mess if a derailment happened there. According to the Forest Ethics Website, all of downtown Richmond to about one half of a mile on either side would have to be evacuated if a major derailment with fires and explosions came.

With the temporary rerouting, Richmond would still be in serious jeopardy in case of a derailment. If I’m reading the map correctly, trains would still pass through the city.

So, you have to ask yourself – why does CSX get away with keeping all this secret? They claim they let “appropriate” public safety officials know, but the Richmond Times Dispatch last year quoted a Richmond fire officer in charge of hazardous situations as saying he had a hard time learning from CSX what a “worse case” scenario would be in the event of a Richmond derailment.

Part of the problem is PR. Bakken shale oil comes from controversial hydraulic fracturing. The uptick in production has turned America’s energy picture on its head. It has also made for big jumps in oil rail traffic. Another problem is that Bakken oil tends to be more explosive than other types.

According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped by 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 shipments last year. Accidents are way up. In 2013, tank cars carrying Bakken crude somehow got loose in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. They rolled through the small town, derailed and exploded. The blast killed 47 and wiped out half of downtown.

According to a recent probe by the Associated Press, a federal study predicts that oil shipments will rise to 900,000 shipments this year. The study predicts that trains hauling petroleum will derail 10 times a year over the next two decades. They could possibly cause $4 billion in damages and kill hundreds of people, the AP reports.

What to do? Build pipelines, I guess, but that’s been highly controversial as well as the experience with Dominion Transportation’s efforts with a $5 billion gas pipeline through the state and the controversy over the Keystone XL show.

Better, newer, safer tank cars? Maybe, but the West Virginia and Lynchburg derailments both involved new “1232” models. The same type also caught fire recently in Timmins, Ontario.

Federal rules require railroads to tell local officials where they are carrying Bakken crude, which is more explosive than other types. Railroads like CSX claim the information is proprietary, according to Reuters. That’s rather pointless. If the goal is to keep “proprietary” information from competitors, Norfolk Southern, CSX’s biggest competitor, already knows about it because it has agreed to let CSX use its rail lines.

And don’t ask some public officials. West Virginia officials have gone along with keeping much of the information secret. Mountain State officials responded to an Freedom of Information Act request by redacting much of the data they finally gave out.

Not only do the railroads need to clean up their act, they should be forced to be more forthcoming about where the next evacuation might be.

The McDonnell Saga Is Far From Over

maureen mcdonnell sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

Former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell has been sentenced to 12 months and a day in federal prison, but the GiftGate saga is far from over.

She will appeal as has her husband, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who was sentenced to two years in prison last month. The now estranged couple was convicted of public corruption felonies, making McDonnell the only Virginia governor, past or present, to be convicted of a crime.

The next step is for the former governor’s appeals to be heard at the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in May. The issue is whether so-called “honest services fraud” for which both were convicted, should be interpreted broadly or narrowly.

During their trial, U.S. District Judge James Spencer took the broad approach, instructing the jury that there did not have to be a very strict “quid pro quo” for them to return a guilty verdict. He reiterated his stand on Friday by overruling a slew of motions from the defense relating to the issue.

The appeals could have far-reaching consequences, as I reported with a colleague on Bloomberg News this week. Charles James, a former federal prosecutor who works at the Williams Mullen law firm in Richmond, says the case “could be the next case to further restrict the use” of the honest-services fraud statute.

If the Robert McDonnell’s appeal is successful, then it would have a big impact on his wife, as well as loosen the interpretation nationally of how far “honest services” should go.

If the government is successful, then expect a crackdown on public official hankie-pankie.

At Friday’s sentencing, eight character witnesses described Ms. McDonnell, 60, as an empathetic, self-sacrificing woman who would do anything for her children and husband.

That image stands in marked contrast to the image defense lawyers for her husband painted during the trial. Incredibly, her own lawyers piled on with the idea that Maureen McDonnell was a naïve but abusive woman who hated being First Lady. She was so frustrated with her husband ignoring her for his political career that she got entangled with Jonnie (the serpent) Williams, who ran Star Scientific, a Henrico company that made and marketed vitamin supplements.

Williams gave the financially strapped McDonnells about $177,000 in gifts, loans and trips while the McDonnells set up meetings with state officials to the products of his money-losing firm. Ironically, the main product was Anatabloc, a skin cream, which has since been ordered off the market the Food and Drug Administration.

At the top of this blog, you see a teaser story that the convictions were corrupted by Williams’ dubious integrity. That’s nonsense, of course. Prosecutors use inside testimony, especially in organized crime and drug cases, all the time.

The bigger issue is whether “honest services” means bribery or whether it is a normal part of setting up appointments by public officials to consider projects that might benefit their city, state or country. This will be the key issue in the appeals.

Meanwhile, the soap opera has been weirdly painful, fascinating and entertaining. It’s also been rather crass. The former governor tries to come off like a Boy Scout yet refused a chance to cop a plea in exchange for Maureen not being indicted at all. She was not a public official, but non-public officials have been convicted in the past of honest services fraud.

Both defense teams made Maureen the scapegoat. She was portrayed as a greedy and unstable hustler who brought her husband down.

Before delivering the sentence to Maureen, who gave a tearful, first-time statement asking for mercy, Spencer made bitingly critical remarks of the defense lawyers. “The ‘Let’s throw Momma under the bus’ defense morphed into the ‘Let’s throw Momma off the train defense,’” he said. Ms. McDonnell seemed to be two very different people and Spencer had trouble figuring it out.

Her lawyers had asked for no prison time and 4,000 hours of community service. Federal guidelines could have given her more than six years but prosecutors asked for only 18 months in prison.

Spencer split the difference, mostly because he gave Mr. McDonnell a light sentence. He was more culpable since he was a public official, not to mention a former state prosecutor and the state attorney general.

He cut Maureen some slack, too. By sentencing her that extra day, he gave her the opportunity to get out in only 10 months for good behavior since that’s the rule under federal prison guidelines.