Tag Archives: goozeviews

Why Sweet Briar Is Shutting Down

sweet briar girlsBy Peter Galuszka

Sweet Briar College, the all-female college sprawling on more than 3,000 acres of former plantation land north of Lynchburg, will be closing after 114 years.

The news March 4 stunned students and faculty alike. Forbidding trends, however, had been in place long before. Demographics, declining enrollment and funding quagmires are besetting colleges everywhere, especially those that occupy niche sectors of the market.

In this state, St. Paul’s College, an historically black college in Lawrenceville, and Virginia Intermont College in Bristol have closed their doors. Virginia State University in Petersburg faced a shakeup and the resignation of its president last fall after declining enrollment created an unexpected budget shortfall of $19 million.

At Sweet Briar, enrollment dropped from 760 to 700 during this academic year. Tuition and room and board is a hefty $47,000, but the school had been forced to discount that by 60 percent because it was drawing fewer students. On Tuesday, administrators announced the financial situation was unsustainable, despite an $84 million endowment.

Sweet Briar was known for its strong academics and even offered engineering to its all-female student body.

It also had a reputation, admittedly dated, of being something of a finishing school to prepare spouses for members of the state’s and nation’s white upper and upper middle classes. An equestrian center, the school attracted affluent girls who loved riding. One student was Janet Lee Bouvier, the mother of Jacqueline, wife of John F. Kennedy and the nation’s First Lady.

For decades, young men from schools such as Washington & Lee and the University of Virginia made Sweet Briar a popular destination for weekend road trips.

But these images belong in a different era. Today’s trend towards smaller enrollments is a national phenomenon. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that from 2012 to 2013, college enrollment had dropped by 463,000. The two-year drop was 930,000, the largest since the recession of 2007-2008.

Demographics may be one reason – that is fewer people are passing through their college-age years. Other problems are that student lending has gotten out of control and students balk at taking on hundreds of thousands of debt just to get a bachelor’s degree. At less affluent schools, like Virginia State, cutbacks in Pell Grants that help poor students go to school, have been chopped back, although VSU seems to be on the mend.

Meanwhile, critics say, colleges have become top heavy with administrators who get oversized salaries for jobs that are hard to define. As this happens, some universities rely on underpaid adjunct professors for more of the teaching load.

There’s also a trend that four-year college may not be as essential as it had been thought previously. High-skill blue-collar jobs may pay much better than ones available to college grads.

Some all-female colleges appear to be doing just fine, such as Barnard, but others found they could survive only by becoming co-ed. College administrators say they had had explored going coed, but it wouldn’t work out. There’s a “save” effort but the odds are against survival.

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.”

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.

Propping Up Coal at the Taxpayers’ Expense

W._Va._coal_mine_1908By Peter Galuszka

It’s always curious when big business and their bankrolled politicians complain about how the government and its regulations stymie the “magic of the free market.”

Then they turn around and keep protectionist policies that give certain industries big favors such as tax credits.

That’s what the General Assembly has done with a bill that would have reduced tax credits doled out to utilities that burn coal mined in Virginia. The original proposal backed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe was intended to help fill a $2.4 billion gap in the state’s biennial budget.

The idea quickly ran afoul of Dominion Virginia Power and the Virginia Coal & Energy Alliance. The original idea was to scale back tax credits but cap coal tax deductions at $500,000 in any given year. But after the utility and the coal industry lobbyists got involved, a bill to retain the tax credits was quickly approved setting caps at a more generous $7.5 million in a given year.

The credits stem from a law passed in 1999. Its purpose is to make it easier for big utilities like Dominion to choose thermal coal mined in Virginia over product mined elsewhere.

Coal production peaked in the state at 46 million tons. It’s now about 22 million tons or less. Coal employment has likewise dropped sharply over the years.

Much of the coal mined in Southwest Virginia is of high quality and some can be used either to generate electricity or make steel. The problem is its cost. Many of the seams in the state have played out and coal is increasingly thinner and is in  harder to reach areas. The cost of mining it has gone up.

For years coal maintained a price advantage over alternatives such as natural gas but thanks to hydraulic fracturing, that is no longer the case. Utilities like Dominion have been converted facilities to gas or are building new plants that use gas. Its last coal-related plant is a hybrid near St. Paul.

What’s causing this shift away from coal? High production costs and cheaper alternatives. Out West, in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, coal is cheap and easy to mine. It does well. In other words, the free market is affecting  the declining Virginia coal industry  yet the General Assembly wants to prop it up at the expense of taxpayers and the budget.

By the way, Dominion and coal giant Alpha Natural Resources in Bristol are among the biggest political donors in the state.

Why Hide Details of Lethal Injection?

lethal injectionBy Peter Galuszka

It has to be one of the creepiest bills ever considered by the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 1393, sponsored by Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), would drop a veil of secrecy over how Virginia executes prisoners by lethal injection. Its backers, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, are pushing it against a backdrop of global politics and questions of morality.

Virginia is one of 32 states that allow capital punishment. Since 1982, it has so far killed 110 prisoners, either by lethal injection or in the electric chair.

The preferred method is lethal injection. In the process, a doomed prisoner is strapped in a gurney and is given a series of three shots. One is to anesthetize; another is to paralyze; and the third is to stop his or her heart from beating. In some states, one drug may be used. Usually, there are witnesses to the execution, including members of the news media.

But Saslaw wants to start hiding crucial aspects of the gruesome practice. His bill would make information about lethal drugs. Companies that make or compound them would be exempt under the state Freedom of Information Act.

There are persistent national shortages of drugs used in the death process. According to The New Yorker, the sole American manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped making the key, killer drug in 2011. Death penalty states looked to European manufacturers, but the European Union, which crusades against capital punishment, forbids European drug companies to export it if it will be used in executions.

Harried U.S. prison officials started shopping around to their counterparts in other states as shortages spread to other drugs. The situation seemed dire enough for Virginia to consider dusting off the electric chair, which it also allows for executions.

For a while, Virginia did have a good supply of killer drugs but by 2014,it ran short or drugs went past their expiration dates. A solution is to use pharmacies to compound drugs for executions but it could expose the firms to lawsuits.

So, as is too often typical in Virginia, Saslaw & Company started pushing the rights of private companies over the public’s right to know. His bill has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Underscoring the horror of the drug drama is what happened last April in Oklahoma during the execution of convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett. He was injected with the three-drug cocktail, but 10 minutes into the process, he revived as stunned onlookers watched. He died after another half an hour.

There is considerable evidence that lethal injection is not a painless way to go. In fact, the issue may be back before the U.S. Supreme Court again about whether injections are an unconstitutional “cruel and unusual” punishment. Another issue is why facts around execution must be made confidential.

There are larger issues about the ethics of capital punishment. Virginia, after all, follows only Texas when it comes to legally-sanctioned killing. Virginia does not have an unusually high crime rate (ranking No. 34 in violent crimes  per 100,000 population according to 2006 U.S. Census statistics). So why is it so intent on keeping capital punishment and hiding it?

 

In Politics: “Cherchez la femme?”

Fitzhaber and Hayes

Fitzhaber and Hayes

By Peter Galuszka

The two governors couldn’t seem more different.

One is a popular progressive who dressed in an “urban cowboy” style of boots, jeans and down jacket and ran a state as green as a rain forest.

The other favored Joseph A. Banks suits and helmet hair-dos while pushing a “God, Mom and Apple Pie” persona that appealed to Republicans.

Oddly perhaps, especially on Valentine’s Day, women seem to be their downfall. Cherchez la femme?

Until his sudden resignation Friday, John Kitzhaber was into his fourth term as Oregon’s governor and had been highly regarded by liberals nationally for his support of populist ideals and goals involving sustainability. A former emergency physician, he won points for his low key style.

The problem was his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, who lived with him at the governor’s mansion in Salem and acted as the state’s de facto First Lady. She is under investigation for allegedly using her position to win contracts for “green” energy projects she was pushing. As probes grew, Kitzhaber resigned.

the McDonnells

the McDonnells

Sounds a lot like the case of Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell, the former first family convicted of corruption last September.

In that case, the former First Lady of Virginia (FLOVA in code), was smitten with a fast-talking vitamin producer and salesman and convinced her husband, Bob, to arrange meetings with top state officials to help.

The couple was convicted of a variety of felonies after a six week trial. McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison and his wife is due to be sentenced Feb. 20.

Coincidentally, both governors were high fliers in their respective camps. Kitzhaber represented a particular kind of progressive Oregon way of thinking that is strongly influential throughout national politics and journalism.

McDonnell’s good looks and projection of patriotism went down so well with Republicans that he was once on the short list of 2016 GOP possibilities.

And, both women involved raise issues of what role First Ladies (officially married or not) have in state government. Are they public figures? How much influence should they really have? Are ethics laws tough enough? Do they apply to spouses? Ms. McDonnell’s lawyers suggested that she was being set up to take the fall for her husband as part of a “throw Maureen under the bus” strategy.

Issues like these are certain to come up when Maureen McDonnell appeals her conviction. Similar questions may evolve in the Hayes case as well if she ever faces criminal charges.

Coal Giant Won’t Pay Blankenship Legal Bill

don-blankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The the man described by Rolling Stone as the “The Dark Lord of the Coal Fields” is suing coal giant Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol for refusing to pay his legal bills as he approaches his criminal trial April 20 related to the worst coal-mine disaster in 40 years.

Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of Richmond-based Massey Energy, filed suit in Delaware against Alpha which said: “Going forward, we do not intend to pay any legal fees with regard to Don Blankenship’s defense.” Those fees are likely to run in the millions.

Blankenship was indicted in November on four felony counts related to safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine where an explosion killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010. He is also accused of securities fraud.

Blankenship resigned from Massey in December 2010 with a parachute estimated at $86 million. Alpha bought Massey in 2011 for $7 billion.

Since then, Alpha has been retraining the hundreds of Massey workers it absorbed but has gone through severe layoffs as demand for coal has stumbled.

Alpha’s stock has slipped from about $5 a share a year ago to $1.19 a share now. The firm lost $875 million last year. Demand for thermal coal has been drying up as cheaper natural gas from fracking has flooded the market. Also, the rich steel-making coal reserves Alpha got with its buy of Massey have gone wanting as Asian nations, especially China, go through an economic slump.

Blankenship will go on trial in U.S. District Court in Beckley, W.Va.

Dominion Resources Is on a Tear

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

Dominion Resources has been on a tear recently.

It’s been muscling through a dubious law in the General Assembly that would allow it to avoid State Corporation Commission rate audits for six years.

And, it has been throwing its weight around in less populated sections of the state. It is suing to force its way on the land of private property owners to survey its $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline project that would take fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in West Virginia and Pennsylvania on new routes to the southeast.

Property owners, particularly those in Nelson and Augusta Counties, are fighting in federal court in Harrisonburg.

What’s most interesting about this case is how the Commonwealth of Virginia, which swaddles itself in the ideals of the American Revolution of individual rights , somehow ignores the rights of small property owners when a big utility with deep pockets for political donations is involved. One wonders where all the conservatives are who were huffing and puffing over the Kelo case a few years back

And (bonus question) what do the two situations have in common? Republican State Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, that’s who. He introduced the bill for Dominion to sidestep SCC oversight with the excuse that Dominion has deal with the impacts of a yet-to-be-finalized set of new federal carbon emission rules.

In 2004, Wagner also carried water for Dominion and other power companies by getting a law passed that would allow a “public service company” to survey private property without getting permission.

This is the basis of several hundred lawsuits Dominion has filed against small landowners. In the pipeline case, it will be interesting to see whether the natural gas is used for the common good of American customers or will end up being exported to foreign countries. Dominion insists it won’t,  but time will tell.

Another oddity is that Dominion is demanding access to survey a pipeline route when it hasn’t formally applied for  the project with the Federal Energy Energy Commission. Imagine if some private landowners showed up at the front door of Dominion’s downtown Richmond headquarters and demanded access to the building because they were thinking about building a natural gas pipeline? (Somebody call security!)

Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for this morning’s Washington Post.

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg

temptationsBy Peter Galuszka

The World Wide Web is a wonderful thing. It can provide useful, nearly instantaneous information, build communities and topple dictators.

It has also wreaked havoc on how journalists and commentators gather and disseminate original content. Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs because the old business model that paid them has collapsed.

Blogging, fashionable for two decades ago, is, of course an offshoot of the Net. It is based on slicing and dicing other people’s original content.

Jim Bacon and I do that on this blog, but we also accomplish a lot more. We create our own original content that often is unique. Between us, we have more than eight decades of experience and hope that shows in our work.

We have been working mostly for free, but we need to pay our bills. Some blogs and Net services have paywalls or require subscriptions.  We’re not asking for that, but we are requesting that you consider making a contribution so we can keep on doing what we have been.If you would like to contribute you can do so by looking at the payment icon on the upper left of the home page.

Many thanks.