A much-anticipated civil rights lawsuit for Alamance County's embattled sheriff is upon us.
In a statement Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice said it has officially filed a civil suit against Sheriff Terry Johnson, three months after accusing Johnson's office of racially profiling Latinos.
Following a two-year investigation of Johnson's office, DOJ officials alleged in September that Alamance deputies target Latinos for traffic stops, install checkpoints in Latino neighborhoods and vary enforcement activity based on a driver's ethnicity.
The DOJ statement came weeks after an Indy analysis of traffic stop data found Latinos were twice as likely as non-Latinos to be arrested during traffic stops, a key finding because—under Alamance's now stripped 287(g) partnership with federal customs officials—Alamance deputies could spur deportations upon arrest.
“This is an abuse of power case involving a sheriff who misuses his position of authority to unlawfully target Latinos in Alamance County,” said Thomas E. Perez, DOJ Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, in a statement Thursday. “Sheriff Johnson’s directives and leadership have caused ACSO to violate the constitutional rights of Latinos in Alamance County and eroded public trust in ACSO.”
In the release, the DOJ said Alamance "declined to enter into meaningful settlement negotiations" after the September allegations.
The DOJ goes on to say that Johnson's tactics violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Johnson's office has long maintained that there is no evidence of profiling in Alamance.
There was no white smoke flowing from Gov.-elect Pat McCrory's chimney to indicate he had selected Art Pope, one of the most powerful people in North Carolina politics, to be his new budget director. But a h/t to WRAL, which reported that the conservative millionaire will be the No. 2 man in charge of crafting the state's financial priorities.
• Higher ed? See ya. Pope and his many think tanks and foundations have long advocated for cutting funding to the state university system. (Earlier this year, Pope expanded his power base when he was named to UNC's Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions.)
• K-12? Bye-bye. Pope's campaign contributions have bankrolled the re-elections of many Republicans who want to privatize the public school system through charter schools and other sleights of hand.
• Environmental regulation and enforcement? Those efforts were chronically underfunded even during Democratic administrations. The folks at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources are probably cleaning out their desks now.
• Is there any good news? Well, unlike the bulk of his foundation and think tank operations, at least Pope's activities will now be subject to open records and open meetings laws—as long as we have them.
Problems remain, however. Recent changes to Medicaid policy have lowered the payments made to reimburse group caregivers for round-the-clock services like dressing and eating assistance. Faced with decreased payments, group home operators are worried they'll either have to evict residents or shut down altogether.
As reported by our own Bob Geary, legislators created a $39.7 million fund to assist the affected adult care homes during last year's budget negotiations. But language in the bill conspicuously excludes group homes from sharing in the money. Representative Nelson Dollar, Republican chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, has said he was not aware of the exclusion at the time.
The new plan gives lawmakers just a short window with which to come up with a permanent solution, said Perdue. Any amendments to the budget are on hold until the General Assembly reconvenes. Legislators report back to work on January 9.
After heading up the McCrory's transition team, Stith, a former Durham City Councilman and one-time candidate for Lieutenant Governor, has been tasked with running the governor-elect's administration. McCrory made the announcement in a Thursday press conference introducing Stith, along with two other senior members of his new administration.
Followers of Durham politics will remember Stith as the lone conservative voice on what remains a left-leaning city council. After serving for seven years, he lost a 2007 mayoral bid to Bill Bell. As noted by the Indy, Stith raised gobs of money—most of it contributed by well-heeled members of the local business community. On election day, he lost with 42 percent of the vote to Bell's 58 percent.
The years since have been relatively quiet. At the end of Stith's last term on Durham City Council, he decamped for the consulting industry. Still, his conservative roots go deep. In 2005, he co-founded the John Pope Civitas institute, a think tank backed by conservative heavyweights like Art Pope. Stith, who is African-American, also helped coordinate McCrory's minority outreach efforts. So, his return to politics isn't exactly surprising. Whether he has aspirations beyond playing McCrory's lead traffic cop remains to be seen.
Thus far, the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission's meetings have been primarily organizational in nature, with members debating such things as pre-meeting prayers and committee assignments.
But commission Chair Jim Womack told members of the N.C. General Assembly's Environmental Review Commission Thursday morning that the group expects its first "substantive" discussion of fracking regulations next week.
"It'll be the first time that we actually start tackling the issues," Womack said.
The mining commission includes drilling industry reps, geologists, a handful of conservationists and local government leaders like Womack—a county commissioner in the likely drilling hub of Lee County. The commission was created when lawmakers voted in July to begin the controversial drilling practice as soon as 2014. In the meantime, Womack's commission is charged with building a regulatory framework.
Proponents say fracking will bolster the state's lagging economy with jobs and cash while providing a cache of locally-grown energy. Critics, however, note many reports of environmental pollution and increased seismic activity blamed on the drilling in other states.
The commission has split into six committees focusing on topics such as mining, civil penalties, environmental standards and water and waste management. The panel has also enlisted three study groups to discuss funding sources, local government regulatory powers and compulsory pooling.
The latter subject is an especially touchy one for many fracking opponents, who point out holdout landowners can be forced to ink gas leasing agreements if the bulk of their neighbors have already done so.
Womack said Thursday that the 15-member commission of appointees would likely meet at least once every six weeks. He acknowledged the transition from outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue to Gov.-elect Pat McCrory could spur turnover for some members of the commission.
"We haven't wedded ourselves to those personalities," Womack said.
Womack also made his pitch to lawmakers for more than $500,000 in funding for the commission to cover operating expenses, travel and staff pay.
Next week's meeting of the Mining and Energy Commission is set for 9 a.m. Wednesday in Raleigh's Archdale Building on North Salisbury Street.
The number of methamphetamine labs found in North Carolina reached a record high this year. That's just one of the takeaways from yesterday's meeting of the General Assembly's committee on methamphetamine abuse.
State legislators on Wednesday gathered to hear a final report from investigators of just how bad the problem of meth abuse has become. Among the findings: investigators have identified a total of 446 meth operations so far this year. In 2011, they busted just 344.
The new figures place North Carolina in the top 10 states where meth production sites are being identified. Van Shaw, Deputy Director of the State Bureau of Investigation, told legislators the agency expects the total to jump 30 percent in 2013.
Whether law enforcers are getting better at rooting out meth production, or there are more people cooking and consuming meth is hard to say, Shaw said. The uptick is partly due to "enhanced awareness" of meth production signs among investigators. Another factor is the ease with which the drug can now be produced.
The "one-pot" method of cooking the drug now accounts for 80 percent of the total meth production operations identified, said Shaw. Unlike larger-scale operations, the one-pot method allows producers combine the chemicals needed to "cook" meth in smaller containers. Something as small as a plastic soda bottle can do the job. One-pot cooking also allows for mobility. Case in point: Police arrested a Charlotte woman in September after finding a one-pot-style lab inside her car. The car was parked on the grounds of a high school.
To address the problem, the committee adopted five recommendations, including making it a criminal offense for anyone convicted of manufacturing or possessing meth to possess medicines containing Pseudophedrine, meth's chief ingredient. Another, more controversial, recommendation calls on Assembly members to consider creating legislation that will require people who purchase cold medicines and other products that contain Pseudophedrine to first obtain a prescription. Most are available for purchase over the counter at pharmacies and grocery stores.
The recommendations will forwarded to state legislators for consideration when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
Read the headlines and stories from every major TV station as well as The N&O and you’ll see that the Wake school board passed a “new” student assignment plan Tuesday night.
But the plan’s not really new, which would make it more like the second assignment plan in three years. Give or take a few details, the plan is a return to the same base assignment structure that was in place in the 2011-12 school year.
Students’ addresses will again be tied to a particular school, based on the same assignments that were in place in 2011-12. The assignments for the current school year are based on a choice assignment plan, created by former superintendent Tony Tata.
In that plan students were not assigned to a school based on their address. Each student ranked a list of five or more schools instead. Based on a list of priorities and school capacity, students were then assigned to one of their choices.
Under the choice plan, economic stratification among schools increased, which led Democrats who control the board to strike down choice. Last night’s vote was the final step in ending choice assignment. But in itself, it does not represent a new direction.
Democrats still have to decide what the new direction will be. Each has said in the past that they would like to see some measure for socioeconomic balance restored to assignment.
But for now members of the Democratic board majority say they are putting stability above all else. That’s why the plan that was passed last night does little to rock the boat.
Some Republicans argue that ending the choice plan furthers instability in Wake’s education community. Tuesday’s meeting, however, was relatively calm.
“I’m a bit surprised that on a night we’re voting on student assignment, we only have three speakers,” said board chair Keith Sutton. “People must either be happy or waiting for us outside.”
Watch a video produced by Wake County schools that explains the “new” plan here:
If the Sept. 18 U.S. Department of Justice allegations of racial profiling have had any impact on the Alamance County Sheriff's Office, it doesn't show in recent traffic stop data.
September and October reports to the N.C. Department of Justice show Latino drivers were more than four times as likely as non-Latinos to be arrested during traffic stops by Alamance County deputies. In that time frame, 18.7 percent of Latinos pulled over were arrested, compared to 4.5 percent of non-Latinos.
Traffic stop data can fluctuate greatly between months, but the September and October numbers mirror earlier trends. An Indy analysis of traffic stop records from January 2009 to June 2012 showed Latinos were more than twice as likely to be arrested as non-Latinos in the primarily rural county west of the Triangle. The arrest rate was far higher than in other North Carolina counties. Arrests are key because—under Alamance County's now terminated 287(g) program—Latinos were processed for deportation in the county's jail.
Federal customs officials nixed 287(g) in Alamance shortly after the U.S. DOJ statement. Since the profiling allegations, there have been reports of numerous deportation cases voluntarily dropped by immigration prosecutors in Alamance County, although federal officials have been unwilling to confirm that they are connected.