Category Archives: Social services

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

Four years ago, coal titan Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s biggest political donors, was riding high.

It was spending $7.1 billion to buy Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm based in Richmond that had compiled an extraordinary record for safety and environmental violations and fines. Its management practices culminated in a huge mine blast on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, according to three investigations.

Bristol-based Alpha, founded in 2002, had coveted Massey’s rich troves of metallurgical and steam coal as the industry was undergoing a boom phase. It would get about 1,400 Massey workers to add to its workforce of 6,600 but would have to retrain them in safety procedures through Alpha’s “Running Right” program.

Now, four years later, Alpha is in a fight for its life. Its stock – trading at a paltry 55 cents per share — has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. After months of layoffs, the firm is preparing for a bankruptcy filing. It is negotiating with its loan holders and senior bondholders to help restructure its debt.

Alpha is the victim of a severe downturn in the coal industry as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling has flooded the market and become a favorite of electric utilities. Alpha had banked on Masset’s huge reserves of met coal to sustain it, but global economic strife, especially in China, has dramatically cut demand for steel. Some claim there is a “War on Coal” in the form of tough new regulations, although others claim the real reason is that coal can’t face competition from other fuel sources.

Alpha’s big fall has big implications for Virginia in several arenas:

(1) Alpha is one of the largest political donors in the state, favoring Republicans. In recent years, it has spent $2,256,617 on GOP politicians and PACS, notably on such influential politicians and Jerry Kilgore and Tommy Norment, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. It also has spent $626,558 on Democrats.

In 2014-2015, it was the ninth largest donor in the state. Dominion was ahead among corporations, but Alpha beat out such top drawer bankrollers as Altria, Comcast and Verizon. The question now is whether a bankruptcy trustee will allow Alpha to continue its funding efforts.

(2) How will Alpha handle its pension and other benefits for its workers? If it goes bankrupt, it will be in the same company as Patriot Coal which is in bankruptcy for the second time in the past several years. Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the nation’s largest coal producer, which wanted to get out of the troubled Central Appalachian market to concentrate on more profitable coalfields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest.

Critics say that Patriot was a shell firm set up by Peabody so it could skip out of paying health, pension and other benefits to the retired workers it used to employ. The United Mine Workers of America has criticized a Patriot plan to pay its top five executives $6.4 million as it reorganizes its finances.

(3) Coal firms that have large surface mines, as Alpha does, may not be able to meet the financial requirements to clean up the pits as required by law. Alpha has used mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachians in which hundreds of feet of mountains are ripped apart by explosives and huge drag lines to get at coal. They also have mines in Wyoming that also involve removing millions of tons of overburden.

Like many coal firms, Alpha has used “self-bonding” practices to guarantee mine reclamation. In this, the companies use their finances as insurance that they will clean up. If not, they must post cash. Wyoming has given Alpha until Aug. 24 to prove it has $411 million for reclamation.

(4) The health problems of coalfield residents continue unabated. According to a Newsweek report, Kentucky has more cancer rates than any other state. Tobacco smoking as a lot to do with it, but so does exposure to carcinogenic compounds that are released into the environment by mountaintop removal. This also affects people living in Virginia and West Virginia. In 2014, Alpha was fined $27.5 million by federal regulators for illegal discharges of toxic materials into hundreds of streams. It also must pay $200 million to clean up the streams.

The trials of coal companies mean bad news for Virginia and its sister states whose residents living near shut-down mines will still be at risk from them. As more go bust or bankrupt, the bill for their destructive practices will have to borne by someone else.

After digging out the Appalachians for about 150 years, the coal firms have never left coalfield residents well off. Despite its coal riches, Kentucky ranks 45th in the country for wealth. King Coal could have helped alleviate that earlier, but is in a much more difficult position to do much now. Everyday folks with be the ones paying for their legacy.

Two Stories on Change in Richmond’s Suburbs


New wegmans site

New wegmans site

By Peter Galuszka

Well, well,

Jim Bacon has this month’s cover story in the Henrico Monthly about the changing nature of office parks in one county that has plenty of them.

Not to be outdone, I have my own cover story in the Chesterfield Monthly, a sister magazine published by the same people.

My piece is about how Midlothian Turnpike, the main artery of suburban sprawl in Chesterfield County, is being led into its next iteration y two new types of grocery stores.

One is the high-end Wegmans. The other is New Grand Market, a large-scale international food store that reflects Richmond’s fast-growing diversity and foreign flare.

I think both of our pieces, in different ways, reflect big shifts in two of the largest counties in the state. (I wonder if I got paid more than he did).

Private Immigrant Jail May Face Woes

Farmville jail protest

Farmville jail protest

By Peter Galuszka

Privatization in Virginia has been a buzzword for years among both parties. In this tax-averse state, contracting off public functions is seen as a wise and worthy approach.

But then you get debacles such as the U.S. 460 highway project. And now, you might have one brewing down in Farmville.

The small college town is in Prince Edward County, which gained international notoriety from 1959 to 1964 when it decided to shut down its entire school system rather than integrate. Many white kids ended up in all-white private schools and many African-American children were cheated out of an education entirely.

About six years ago, another creepy project started there – a private, for-profit prison designed exclusively to imprison undocumented aliens. It’s a cozy little deal, as I outline in a piece in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Farmville gets a $1 per head, per day (sounds like slavery) from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Immigration Centers of America, the private firm run by Richmond executives Ken Newsome and Russell Harper, gets profits. Then, in turn, also pay taxes to Farmville and the county.

The ICA facility, whose logo includes an American flag, pays taxes as well and provides about 250 jobs locally. The project even got a $400,000 grant from the scandal-ridden Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission for water and sewer works.

What might sound like a no-lose operation, except for the mostly Hispanic inmates who might have entered the country illegally, overstayed their visas, or had other bureaucratic problems, may face problems.

The census now at the jail is about 75 percent of what it could be. President Obama has issued an executive order that could free some five million undocumented aliens. It is being challenged by 26 states but Virginia Atty. Gen Mark Herring has filed an amicus brief in favor of Obama.

So what happens to Farmville if Obama wins? It could affect 96,000 aliens in Virginia. Could there someday be no prisoners? Wouldn’t that be too bad for Farmville?

Recent history is instructive. Back in the 1990s, Gov. George Allen, a conservative darling, was pushing private prisons in Virginia as he successfully got rid of parole in part of his crime crackdown. Slave labor was part of the deal.

Executive Intelligence Weekly wrote in 1994:

“Slave labor in American prisons is increasingly being carried out in what are called “private prisons.” In his campaign to “reform” Virginia’s penal laws, Gov. George Allen pointed to prison privatization as the wave of the future, a moneymaking enterprise for the investor, and a source of good, cheap labor for Virginia’s municipalities. Indeed, after taxes, pay-back to the prison, and victim restitution are removed, the inmate earns an average of $1 per hour in these facilities.”

Well guess what happened. Allen pushed for more public and private prisons. They were overbuilt. Demographics changed. Crime rates dropped. Prisons had to be shut down.

So, if immigration reform ever comes about what happens in Farmville? Don’t forget, the private jail came at a time when a construction boom, especially in Northern Virginia had drawn in many immigrants especially from Latin America. Their papers may not have been in order.

Neo-racists like Corey Stewart, chairman of the board of supervisors of Prince William County, ordered a crackdown on brown-skinned people who spoke Spanish. But when the real estate market crashed, fewer Latinos arrived. And, if they did, they avoided Stewart’s home county.

Wither Farmville?

Dave Brat’s Bizarre Statements

 By Peter Galuszka

Almost a year ago, Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor at Randolph- Macon College, made national headlines when he defeated Eric Cantor, the powerful House Majority Leader, in the 7th District Brat Republican primary.

Brat’s victory was regarded as a sensation since it showed how the GOP was splintered between Main Street traditionalists such as Cantor and radically conservative, Tea Party favorites such as Brat. His ascendance has fueled the polarization that has seized national politics and prevented much from being accomplished in Congress.

So, nearly a year later, what has Brat actually done? From reading headlines, not much, except for making a number of bizarre and often false statements.
A few examples:

  • When the House Education and Workforce Committee was working on reauthorizing a law that spends about $14 billion to teach low-income students, Brat said such funding may not be necessary because: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and the Plato trained Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
  • Brat says that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a step towards making the country be more like North Korea. He compares North and South Korea this way:  “. . . it’s the same culture, it’s the same people, look at a map at night, half the, one of the countries is not lit, there’s no lights, and the bottom free-market country, all Koreans is lit up. See you make your bet on which country you want to be, right? You want to go to the free market.” One problem with his argument:  Free market South Korea has had a single payer, government-subsidized health care system for 40 years. The conservative blog, BearingDrift, called him out on that one.
  • Politifact, the journalism group that tests the veracity of politicians’ statements, has been very busy with Brat. They have rated as “false” or “mostly false” such statements that repealing Obamacare would save the nation more than $3 trillion and that President Obama has issued 468,500 pages of regulations in the Federal Register. In the former case, Brat’s team used an old government report that estimated mandatory federal spending provisions for the ACA. In the latter case, Politifact found that there were actually more pages issued than Brat said, but they were not all regulations. They included notices about agency meetings and public comment periods. What’s more, during a comparable period under former President George W. Bush, the Federal Register had 465,948 pages, Politifact found. There were some cases, however, where Politifact verified what Brat said.
  • Last fall, after Obama issued an executive order that would protect up to five million undocumented aliens from arrest and deportation, Brat vowed that “not one thin dime” of public money should go to support Obama’s plan. He vowed to defund U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services but then was told he couldn’t do so because the agency was self-funded by fees from immigration applications. He then said he would examine how it spent its money.

The odd thing about Brat is that he has a doctorate in economics and has been a professor. Why is he making such bizarre, misleading and downright false statements?

Pulitzer-Winning Series Exposed Richmond Firm

HDL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

There’s been plenty of discussion about the evils of rising health care costs, but unfortunately, one only hears of government wrong-doing.

Private industry actually spearheads a lot of the price gouging — sometimes with government complicity.

And it just so turned out that a high-flying Richmond firm — Health Diagnostic Laboratory  — was at the heart of a scandal that involved ripping off the Medicare program.

The Wall Street Journal on Monday was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for exposing Medicare fraud. As a result of a front-page story published last Sept. 8, Tonya Mallory, the chief executive and co-founder of HDL, resigned. A few weeks ago, HDL was fined $47 million (while admitting no wrongdoing) after  their Sept. 8 story last year, for paying doctors kickbacks to use their blood tests.

The Journal broke the story after a court battle. It fought to lift a 33-year-old injunction that kept private data regarding Medicare patients. Once the data floodgates were opened, reporters pieced together all kinds of juicy information about health care firms, including HDL.

I have the story here on my “The Deal” blog in Style Weekly.

The upshot? Unlike what you often read on this blog, the problems of rising health care costs may not exactly be government sloth and inefficiency. It can be the private sector gaming the system to their benefit.

Beware Stalling Growth in Northern Virginia

northern virginia mapBy Peter Galuszka

For at least a half a century, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington County have been a growth engine that that has reshaped how things are in the Greater Washington area as well as the Old Dominion.

But now, apparently for the first time ever, these Northern Virginia localities have stopped growing, according to an intriguing article in The Washington Post.

In 2013, the county saw 4,673 arrivals but in 2014 saw 7,518 departures. For the same time period, Alexandria saw 493 arrivals and then 887 departures. Arlington County showed 2,004 arrivals in 2013 followed by 1,520 departures last year.

The chief reason appears to be sequestration and the reduction of federal spending. According to a George Mason University study, federal spending in the area was $11 billion less  last year than in 2010. From 2013 to 2014, the area lost 10,800 federal jobs and more private sectors ones that worked on government contracts. Many of the cuts are in defense which is being squeezed after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The most dramatic cuts appear to be in Fairfax which saw a huge burst of growth in 1970 when it had 450,000 people but has been slowing for the most part ever since. It still grew to 1.14 million people, but the negative growth last year is a vitally important trend.

Another reason for the drop offs is that residents are tired of the high cost and transit frustrations that living in Northern Virginia brings.

To be sure, Loudoun County still grew from 2013 to 2014, but the growth slowed last year from 8,904 newcomers in 2013 to 8,021 last year.

My takeaways are these:

  • The slowing growth in NOVA will likely put the brakes on Virginia’s move from being a “red” to a “blue” state. In 2010, Fairfax had become more diverse and older, with the county’s racial and ethnic minority population growing by 43 percent. This has been part of the reason why Virginia went for Barack Obama in the last two elections and has Democrats in the U.S. Senate and as governor. Will this trend change?
  • Economically, this is bad news for the rest of Virginia since NOVA is the economic engine for the state and pumps in plenty of tax revenues that end up being used in other regions. Usually, when people talk about Virginia out-migration, they mean people moving from the declining furniture and tobacco areas of Southside or the southwestern coalfields.
  • A shift in land use patterns and development is inevitable. The continued strong growth of an outer county like Loudoun suggests that suburban and exurban land use patterns, many of them wasteful, will continue there. The danger is that inner localities such as Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, will be stuck with more lower-income residents and deteriorating neighborhoods. The result will be that localities won’t have as much tax money to pay for better roads, schools and other services.
  • Virginia Republicans pay lip service to the evils of government spending and have championed sequestration. Well, look what a fine mess they have gotten us into.

The rest of the Washington area is seeing slowing growth, but appears to be better off. The District’s in-migration was cut in half from 2013 to 2014 but it is still on the plus side. Ditto Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

NOVA has benefited enormously from both federal spending and the rise of telecommunications and Web-based businesses. It is uncertain where federal spending might go and maybe increased private sector investment could mitigate the decline. Another bad sign came in 2012 when ExxonMobil announced it was moving its headquarters from Fairfax to Houston.

In any event, this is very bad news for NOVA.

Amateur Hour at the General Assembly

virginia_state_capitol502By Peter Galuszka

If you are an ordinary Virginian with deep concerns about how the General Assembly passes laws that impact you greatly, you are pretty much out of luck.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Transparency Virginia, an informal coalition of non-profit public interest groups in a report released this week. Their findings  came after members studied how the 2015 General Assembly operated.

Among their points:

  • Notice of committee hearings was so short in some instances that public participation was nearly impossible.
  • Scores of bills were never given hearings.
  • In the House of Delegates, committees and subcommittees did not bother to record votes on 76 percent of the bills they killed.

“Despite a House rule that all bills shall be considered, not all are. Despite a Senate rule that recorded votes are required, not all are,” states the 21-page report, whose main author is Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Transparency Virginia is made up of 30 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, the the Virginia Education Association and the League of Women Voters in Virginia.

The scathing report underscores just how amateurish the General Assembly can be. It only meets for only 45 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. The pay is pin money. Delegates make only $17,640 a year and senators earn $18,000 annually.

It is not surprising then that a part-time group of 100 delegates and 40 senators can’t seem to handle their 101 committees and subcommittees that determine whether the consideration of thousands bills proceeds fairly and efficiently.

“A Senate committee chair did not take comment on any bills on the agenda except for the testimony from the guests of two senators who were presenting bills,” the report states. In other cases, legislators were criticized by colleagues for having too many witnesses. Some cut off ongoing debate by motioning to table bills. Bills were “left in committee” never to be considered.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires that open public meetings be announced three working days in advance. A General Assembly session is considered one, long open session. But the FOIA is often subverted by sly legislators who manipulate the agendas of committees or subcommittees or general sessions.

Agendas of the General Assembly are not covered by the FOIA because there is too much work to cram in 45 or 60 days. In the case of local and state governments, similar meetings are, presumably because they meet more regularly. House and Senate rules do not stipulate how much notice needs to be given before a committee or subcommittee session. So, crucial meetings that could kill a bill are sometimes announced suddenly.

The setup favors professional lobbyists who stand guard in the Capitol ready to swoop in to give testimony and peddle influence, alerted by such tools as “Lobbyist-in-a-Box” that tracks the status of bills as they proceed through the legislature. When something important is up, their beepers go off while non-lobbyist citizens with serious interests in bills may be hours away by car.

The report states: “While most of Virginia’s lobbyists and advocates are never more than a few minutes from the statehouse halls, citizens and groups without an advocacy presence may need to travel long distances.” Some may need to reschedule work or family obligations, yet they may get only two hours’ notice of an important meeting. That’s not enough time if they live more than a two-hour drive from Richmond.

The report didn’t address ethics, but this system it portrays obviously favors lobbyists who benefit from Virginia’s historically light-touch approach when it comes to limited gifts. That issue will be addressed today when the General Assembly meets to consider Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s insistence that a new ethics bill address the problem of allowing consecutive gifts of less than $100 to delegates or senators.

The only long-term solution is for Virginia to consider creating a legislature that works for longer periods, is better paid, more professional and must adhere to tighter rules on bill passage. True, some 24 states have a system somewhat like Virginia and only New York, Pennsylvania and California have truly professional legislatures.

The current system was created back in Virginia was more rural and less sophisticated. But it has grown tremendously in population and importance. It’s a travesty that Virginia is stuck with amateur hour when it comes to considering legislation crucial to its citizens’ well-being.

Jonnie R. Williams’ Mansion on Market for $4.9m



 By Peter Galuszka

It might be right out of the “Lifestyles of Richmond’s Rich and Famous.”

A trust controlled by Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the glad-handing vitamin salesman who was the chief witness against former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen, has put his 14,700 square foot mansion along with 61 acres of land up for sale for $4.9 million.

I have the story here in Style Weekly.
“1 Starwood Lane” has six bedroom suits, a paneled “executive” study, a pool, a gazebo, a billiards and media room and (what the truly wealthy really need) a state-of-the-art security vault. There must be trouble in paradise however, because the realtor says it was originally listed as a $5.5 million purchase with just the mansion and 28 acres of property. Later, they threw in 35 acres more and dropped the price.

Williams, who got immunity from prosecution for his testimony for the McDonnell trial and another, unrelated one involving securities fraud, has apparently left the Richmond area where his former company Star Scientific moved from Henrico County after renaming itself Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals. He gave the McDonnells $177,000 in cash, loans, gifts and stock in exchange for influence in peddling his products, according to testimony at the six-week trial last year.

The McDonnells were convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud and other felonies. McDonnell got two years and his wife was sentenced to a year and a day. They are appealing.

The McDonnell’s who have separated sold their home in a Short Pump subdivision. It was listed at $944,000 and sold in a week. Williams’ mansion is in the middle of the high cotton Hermitage Golf Course in Goochland County.

For more details, click on Style.

A New, Improved Ken Cuccinelli?

ken-cuccinelliBy Peter Galuszka

Is one-time conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli undergoing a makeover?

The hard line former Virginia attorney general who lost a bitter gubernatorial race to Terry McAuliffe in 2013 is now helping run an oyster farm and sounding warning alarms about a rising police state.

This is remarkable switch from the man who battled a climatologist in court over global warming; tried to prevent children of illegal immigrants born in this country from getting automatic citizenship; schemed to shut down legal abortion clinics; tried to keep legal protection away from state gay employees; and wanted to arm Medicaid investigators with handguns.

Yet on March 31, Cuccinelli was the co-author with Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia of an opinion column in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Their piece pushes bipartisan bills passed by the General Assembly that would limit the use of drones and electronic devices to read and record car license plate numbers called license plate readers or LPRs.

Cuccinelli and Gastanaga say that McAuliffe may amend the bills in ways that would expand police powers instead of protect privacy. “The governor’s proposed amendments to the LPR bills gut privacy protections secured by the legislation,” they write. The governor’s amendments would extend the time police could keep data collected from surveillance devices and let police collect and save crime-related data from drones used during flights that don’t involve law enforcement, they claim.

When not protecting Virginians from Big Brother, Cuccinelli’s been busy oyster farming. He has helped start a farm for the tasty mollusks on the historic Chesapeake Bay island of Tangier. According to an article in The Washington Post, Cuccinelli got involved when he was practicing law in Prince William County after he left office.

He would visit the business and get roped into working at odd jobs. He apparently enjoyed the physical labor and the idea that oysters are entirely self-sustaining and help cleanse bay water.

Environmentalists scoff at the idea, noting that as attorney general, Cuccinelli spent several years investigating Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist who noted that humans were responsible for the generation of more carbon dioxide emissions and that has brought on climate change.

Some have pointed out that if Cuccinelli had had his way, he would have helped quash climate science, generated even more global warming and sped up the inundation of Tangier Island by rising water levels.

It will be interesting to see if Cuccinelli intends to rebrand himself for future political campaigns and how he tries to reinvent himself.

Cruz, “Liberty” and Teletubbies

AP CRUZ A USA VA By Peter Galuszka

Where’s the “Liberty” in Liberty University?

The Christian school founded by the controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell required students under threat of a $10 “fine” and other punishments to attend a “convocation” Monday where hard-right U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president.

Thus, Liberty produced a throng of people, some 10,000 strong, to cheer on Cruz who wants to throttle Obamacare, gay marriage, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and blunt immigration reform.

Some students stood up to the school for forcing them to become political props. Some wore T-Shirts proclaiming their support of libertarian Rand Paul while others protested the university’s coercion. “I just think it’s unfair. I wouldn’t say it’s dishonest, but it’s approaching dishonesty,” Titus Folks, a Liberty student, told reporters.

University officials, including Jerry Falwell, the son of the late founder, claim they have the right as a private institution to require students to attend “convocations” when they say so. But it doesn’t give them the power to take away the political rights of individual students not to be human displays  in a big and perhaps false show.

There’s another odd issue here. While Liberty obviously supports hard right Tea Party types, the traditional Republican Party in the state is struggling financially.

Russ Moulton, a GOP activist who helped Dave Brat unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last summer, has emailed party members begging them to come up with $30,000 to help the cash-strapped state party.

GOP party officials downplay the money problem, but it is abundantly clear that the struggles among Virginia Republicans are as stressed out as ever. Brat won in part because he cast himself as a Tea Party favorite painting Cantor as toady for big money interests. The upset drew national attention.

Liberty University has grown from a collection of mobile homes to a successful school, but it always has had the deal with the shadow of its founder. The Rev. Falwell gained notoriety over the years for putting segregationists on his television show and opposing gay rights, going so far as to claim that “Teletubbies,” a cartoon production for young children, covertly backed homosexual role models.

Years ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story showing that the Rev. Falwell took liberties in promoting the school he founded in 1971. Brochures touting the school pictured a downtown Lynchburg bank building with the bank’s logo airbrushed off. This gave the impression that Liberty was thriving with stately miniature skyscrapers for its campus.

Some observers have noted that Liberty might be an appropriate place for the outspoken Cruz to launch his campaign. The setting tends to blunt the fact that he’s the product of an Ivy League education – something that might not go down too well with Tea Party types – and that he was actually born in Canada, although there is no question about his U.S. citizenship and eligibility to run for question.

Hard-line conservatives have questioned the eligibility of Barack Obama to run for U.S. president although he is likewise qualified.

With Cruz in the ring and Liberty cheering him, it will make for an interesting campaign.