Saturday, August 01, 2015

Billy Long: Situation in VA hospitals has not improved

(From Seventh District Congressman Billy Long)

Last year, we learned of the unacceptable waiting list manipulation at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals around the country in an effort to achieve high marks and bonus pay. I, along with many Americans, found the actions to be egregious and Congress took action to implement historic VA reforms. Unfortunately the situation has not improved.

Despite the historic passage of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act - which holds senior agency officials responsible for the 2014 scandal to be fired, allocated $15 billion to the troubled agency to better handle patient load, process inquires and facilitate better access to VA facilities for veterans -, the VA has not made good on its mandated reforms. No more than three agency officials were formally removed over veterans’ prolonged wait times, there are 50 percent more veterans waiting more than 30 days for care and, even worse, an April 2015 VA report indicates 28 percent of the nearly 850,000 veterans awaiting an enrollment decision have already died. There have also been reports of more agency employee misconduct. Further, a recent Government Accountability Office study shows the length of time to remove a federal employee can be up to one year, even for the most blatant offenses.

Making the situation worse, the VA’s lack of response to Congressional inquiries has impeded Congress’ responsibility to oversee the agency. The agency has more than 100 outstanding requests for information from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

All of this is why I joined the House this week to pass the VA Accountability Act, which would strengthen provisions put in place with the 2014 reform bill to improve quality and access to care and demote or fire agency employees for poor performance. It would increase the sting of consequences for VA employees contributing to poor veterans services and would require a report to better understand labor organization activity within the agency. The bill would also protect whistleblowers within the agency. Overall, the House has acted to make sure that absolutely no veteran, who has sacrificed so much to defend our freedom, is neglected for someone else’s personal gain.

There are approximately 60,000 veterans residing in Missouri’s Seventh Congressional District, all of whom we owe a debt of gratitude to. Providing for veterans’ care is the least we can do for the great sacrifices they have made. Passing this bill was for them – to get the meaningful reform needed to hold the VA accountable to serve our veterans in the best way possible.

Tom Dempsey: Why I am resigning from the Senate

(Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, the President Pro Tem of the Senate, announced his resignation Friday. The resignation will likely end up making Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, the most powerful member of the Senate. Dempsey's statement announcing his resignation is printed below)

Twenty-four years ago, in front of an altar and in the presence of family and friends, I pledged to a beautiful young lady that I would love and be true to her all the days of my life. Though I have never managed to be all that she deserves, I have taken very seriously my responsibility to provide for her and the three wonderful children with whom we have been blessed.

For the past 17 years, my family has allowed me to serve the people of St. Charles County in public office, first on the City Council, then in the Missouri House of Representatives, and now in the Missouri Senate. While holding this public trust has been one of the highest points of my life, it has come at a cost. It has been said that time is like money: it can only be spent once. I have spent a lot of it away from those I love.

When I first packed my suitcase and headed off for Jefferson City in the winter of 2001, I said goodbye to two little girls ages eight and six. Our son Jack was a baby and doesn’t remember a time when I wasn’t away much of the winter and spring, serving in the legislature.

Today, Meaghan is a college graduate. I recently had the privilege of driving with her on a cross-country trip to California where she is spreading her wings and starting a new life as an independent, young adult. Abby isn’t far behind. She is getting ready to start her junior year at the University of Missouri. Jack is a high school sophomore, learning to drive, and has become a fine young man.

As I look in the mirror and count an ever increasing number of gray hairs, I have had to come to grips with the reality that the next year and a half is precious. Once our kids have come and gone, Molly and I will be “empty nesters” with a house full of memories and pictures.

In addition to the kids growing up, much has changed since my last election. Two years ago, I said “goodbye” to my mother who left us suddenly and far too soon. Her passing left a void and has led me to reassess my priorities. Last December, we closed down a part of our family business where Molly and I had worked for the past 24 years. As I drive by the location where the building once stood, the family banquet center known as ‘The Columns’ is now a memory, the building demolished to be replaced by a new outpatient health center.

These events have helped me come to the conclusion that it is time for me to return to private life. It has been an honor to be chosen to represent my community in Jefferson City, and a privilege to serve my colleagues in the House and Senate as an elected leader. In return, I have tried to steer our state in a direction they would support.

As I look over the past 15 years in the Legislature, we have made some great strides forward for our state. It is difficult to prioritize these accomplishments, but some that stand out include initiatives to make our state a better place to live, raise a family, and operate a business.

For example, we cut taxes twice, and after repeated attempts we fixed an insolvent Second Injury Fund, providing stability to those who create jobs while giving relief to thousands of workers who were injured on the job. We also improved Missouri’s economic landscape by reforming workers compensation, and we protected job creators from those who abuse the unemployment system by redefining workplace “misconduct”. We also passed the first reform to Missouri’s prevailing wage laws in 40 years and restored balance to a healthcare tort system where outrageous awards risked driving physicians out of Missouri or into retirement.

We've developed new tools to lure amateur sporting events and the tourism those events generate, to attract data center development, and in an eight-day special session, enticed Boeing as they sought to build a new generation of airliners. The latter has allowed St. Louis to expand its role beyond defense work into the commercial side of Boeing’s manufacturing. Further, we increased funding for the Missouri Technology Corporation which has fostered job and investment growth for small, high tech companies.

In order to capitalize on our geographic advantage, we worked tirelessly to promote economic development on the widest possible spectrum with a proposal we sent to voters to improve Missouri’s highway infrastructure, including the rebuilding and expansion of I-70. Though the proposal failed, it has led to broader discussion of our transportation challenges and possible solutions. We also passed a landmark bonding bill to allow for an array of much needed infrastructure improvements to facilities across our state.

To preserve the sanctity of human life in Missouri, we passed legislation that protects the weakest and most vulnerable among us by requiring a 72-hour waiting period before an abortion. We owe it to women who find themselves in desperate circumstances to give them the benefit of time, counsel and funding for abortion alternatives (something we also have funded in record amounts).

We passed legislation in 2015 to revamp our welfare system for the first time in 20 years by promoting work and self-reliance.

Twice, with large bipartisan Senate votes, we passed legislation to give kids in failing schools an opportunity to transfer to a better educational environment while taking steps to reverse the decades of decline in unaccredited districts. Sadly, both bills were vetoed. However, we were successful in promoting innovative charter schools, demanding greater accountability in those schools, and allowing failing schools to be placed under outside governance more readily.

We moved forward in a bipartisan way to pass a revision to Missouri’s criminal code – something that had not happened in decades. Recently, we enacted municipal court reform which will take the perverse profit motive out of running local courts and return them to their intended purpose, the administration of justice.

Of course, there is always more that can be done to protect the freedoms and liberties of the citizens of our great state, but I look back with pride on how far we’ve come. I also recognize that others are waiting in the wings to pick up the torch and carry on the work we have begun.

It is with mixed emotions that I announce that my time in the legislature has come to an end. I have been honored to serve. I have been blessed in more ways than I can count, and I leave owing a great debt of gratitude to my neighbors who have allowed me to serve. However, my family is my highest priority, and in the proud tradition of the “citizen legislator” the framers of our Republic envisioned, I now return to private life.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Representative pleads guilty to DWI charge, blames Nixon

Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, pleaded guilty today in Boone County Circuit Court to a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated.

Hinson said the plea was the best option he had out of three presented to him by Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Todd Richardson.

He blamed Gov. Nixon's administration and publicity from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for his guilty plea.

From the Columbia Tribune:

He waived formal arraignment and pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge filed Wednesday. Sodergren accepted the deal struck between Hinson’s attorney and Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson to pay a fine of $500 plus court costs.

“He gave me basically three options, and that was the best of the three evils,” Hinson said of Richardson. He did not say what the other possible charges being discussed were.

“The other options were worse,” Hinson said. “You had people from the administration that was pushing for the worse options.”

The accident came to light July 20 when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch obtained a copy of the accident report. “Once that came out, there was a whole lot of pressure put on to do something,” Hinson said.

Joplin man bound over for trial on murder charge

Stephen Thompson, 56, Joplin, waived his preliminary hearing today and was bound over for trial on charges of first degree murder, two counts of armed criminal action and domestic assault, in connection with the June 10 killing of a woman who lived at his home and the shooting of his wife.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 9 a.m. August 24.

The crime was described in this Joplin Police Department news release:

On June 10, 2015, at 1227 the Joplin Police Department responded to a report of shots fired at 4223 West 26th Place. An adult male suspect submitted to officers upon their arrival. He was arrested without incident. Officers ascertained that the crime scene includes 4215 W. 26th Place as well as 4223 West 26th Place. An adult female victim was found deceased and another adult female victim was transported by ambulance to Freeman Hospital.

Stephen R. Thompson has been formally charged with the following; Murder 1st Degree, Armed Criminal Action (two counts), and Domestic Assault - 1st Degree- with Serious Physical Injury. Thompson’s bond amount is $1,000,000.00.

Victim #1 is identified as Carissa L. Girard, 38, 4215 West 26th Place. Carissa was found to be deceased upon the arrival of officers.

Victim #2 is identified as Kristina S. Thompson, 38, 4215 West 26th Place. Kristina was transported by ambulance to Freeman Hospital and continues to receive medical treatment.

Hearing for legislative aide charged with choking woman rescheduled

A case review hearing for a former Joplin man charged with domestic assault, originally scheduled for Wednesday, has been rescheduled to August 28 in Boone County Circuit Court.

Kolton M. Babb, 22, who has been suspended from his job as the legislative aide to Rep. Mike Kelley, R-Lamar, is free on $10,000 cash bond after being charged with felony domestic assault after allegedly placing a rag soaked with chemicals in a woman's mouth and choking her until she passed out

Babb, who now lives in Columbia, formerly lived in Joplin and attended College Heights Christian School and Missouri Southern State University.

Hearing set for former Webb City teacher on sex charge

A possible plea hearing for former Webb City High School vocal music teacher Carrie Njoroge is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday in Jasper County Circuit Court.

The hearing has been postponed on three occasions. If Njoroge does not enter a guilty plea, motions will be heard and the case will proceed toward an October 5 trial date.

Njoroge is represented by Springfield attorney Dee Wampler.

The probable cause statement says Njoroge is being charged with an after-hours sex act with an 18-year-old high school student that allegedly took place Tuesday, April 15, 2014, in her office at the school.

Trial date set for lawsuit against. C. J. Huff, Eggleston

When Norm Ridder was introduced as Joplin R-8 interim superintendent last week, it was made clear that the $50,000 consulting fee that was part of his predecessor's severance package would not have C. J. Huff offering any sage advice to Ridder.

Huff was being kept on retainer, so to speak, to be able to offer information regarding the lawsuits that he and his administrative team have brought to the district (including some, I am hearing, that have yet to be filed).

A September 16, 2016 trial date has been scheduled in federal court in Springfield for one of those lawsuits, filed by Jane Doe on behalf of her children following a May 8 North Middle School field trip to Victory Ministries.

The jury trial is expected to last four days. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for September 1, 2016, and the deadline for any settlement is September 12, 2016.

The lawsuit claims the older child was "exposed to defendants' promotion and endorsement of religion" and "felt coerced by the school to participate in religious activity and has been made to feel like an outsider and unwelcome in the school district." The younger child will be a student at North, the lawsuit says, and the parent does not want any further such activity to be sponsored by the district.

The situation that brought about the lawsuit was explained as follows:

On or about May 8, 2015, a class field trip of students from North Middle was taken, during regular school hours, to a facility owned and operated by a Christian ministry. The facility in question is known as Victory Ministries and Sports Complex, and is located in Joplin, Missouri.

Victory Ministries and Sports Complex (hereinafter “Victory”) is a Christian facility that operates for three stated purposes that are expressed on its web site: “Exalt Jesus,” and “Expand the Kingdom of God,” and “Equip the Body of Christ.”

The same web page states Victory’s goals, which include: “Keep Jesus central in everything we do,” and “Have God-honoring entertainment,” and other religious goals. Christian imagery is prominent at the Victory facility. Most, if not all signs that include the “Victory” name at the facility utilize a Christian cross as the “t” in the word “Victory.”

A large banner that exalts Jesus is visible at the Victory gym. The banner, which states “Jesus is worthy of it all!” is placed high on the wall of the gym, above approximately ten other banners, many of which also contain religious messages. One banner, for example, reads “ Worship” whereas another states: “Hope. The confident expectation that what God has promised is true.”

Prior to the field trip, permission slips were sent home to parents for the school field trip to Victory. Doechild I was given a permission slip for Plaintiff Jane Doe to sign. The permission slip for parents to sign in order to allow students to attend the field trip expressly stated that parents understand that their children may be invited to Bible studies and local churches while at Victory. The same permission slip, in paragraph number 6, required parents to allow their child to participate in “worship services, Bible studies or any other activities that may pertain to the Christian faith.”
On May 5, 2015, an email was sent by American Humanist Association (“AHA”), a Washington, D.C. nonprofit organization, to Defendants Huff and Eggleston warning them that a North Middle School parent had raised concerns about the planned field trip and pointing out that the trip would violate the Establishment Clause. That same day, Defendant Huff responded to AHA’s email with an email of his own denying that the trip violated the Establishment Clause but admitting that the permission slip was inappropriately worded.

Also that same day, in response to Defendant Huff’s email, the AHA sent a second email to Defendants, drawing specific attention to the religious nature of the Victory operation and warning that the field trip would result in litigation.

Defendants did not respond to said email, and in fact, the trip was conducted on or about May 8. Doechild I did not participate in the field trip, which was conducted during an ordinary school day. Plaintiff Jane Doe, faced with the choice of an unconstitutional field trip or no school for her child for the day, kept Doechild I out of school. As such, Doechild I was denied a full day of academics due to Defendants’ actions. If Doechild I had participated in the field trip, Doechild I would have been exposed to Christian messages that directly contradict the religious beliefs of Plaintiff Jane Doe and Doechild I.

The field trip has given the impression to a reasonable observer that the public school endorses Christianity. Doechild I was put in the position of having to choose to attend a religious school-sponsored event or forgo participation entirely. Public school resources, including paid personnel time and other resources, which were paid for by tax monies, were expended in planning and conducting the field trip to Victory.

The lawsuit asks for a permanent injunction against any further trips to Victory Sports Complex or any other religious-based venues, a judgment that Huff and Eggleston have violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and damages and punitive damages against Huff and Eggleston for violating the children's constitutional rights.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs are Arthur Benson & Associates of Kansas City.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Joplin Globe misses the point with R-8 Board meeting coverage

You certainly cannot argue with the placement of the Joplin R-8 Board of Education coverage in today's Joplin Globe print edition.

The article was planted firmly in the upper right hand corner of page one, the place studies show is the destination the eye first settles on when it looks at a newspaper.

The placement was right, but continuing the practice the Globe has followed with its coverage the past few years of both the Joplin R-8 School District and the City of Joplin, the newspaper missed the story.

Certainly, the decision to proceed with the early childhood center was an important story, but to those who attended the meeting in person or followed Jet HD's coverage on YouTube, the district website, or the Turner Report, the big news that came out of Tuesday night's meeting was Interim Superintendent Norm Ridder's assessment of the district following his first week on the job.

Ridder described the system as "sick," said it would take more work to get it into shape than he had anticipated, and talked about a district that needed to take a focused approach and instead of heading in all different directions.

"Everybody's working hard, but not smart," Ridder said.

It was a firm indictment of the mess Ridder's predecessor C. J. Huff  made of the district, both with his concentration on Bright Futures and gimmicks to increase the graduation rate and his inexplicable decision to surround himself with people who were not qualified to hold the positions they were holding.

Ridder said he would be talking with teachers, students, and taxpayers and coming to the board with a one-page, focused strategic plan.

This is what the Joplin Globe said about Ridder's statement:

Interim Superintendent Norm Ridder, in his first Joplin board meeting, said he has been studying the board and the school district since his arrival on July 20, and he will report back with his analysis and findings by October 1. He said that after the first of the year, perhaps by March, he will present a one-page strategic plan for the district that will be "really focused."

No mention of any of Ridder's on-the-money comments about the disarray that he has inherited.

And who can blame the Globe for not reporting on it? The area's newspaper of record has not been reporting on any of the problems in the school district for years, why should it start now?

It has to be embarrassing for Globe reporters to have to leave out important parts of the story because they do not fit in with the narrative the newspaper has been feeding its readers.

From everything I am hearing, R-8 teachers were ecstatic to hear Ridder say that he thinks the same things they have been thinking, but dared not say, for the past few years.

No, a functioning board, which finally got rid of the poison that had infected this district for the past seven years, is not the story the Globe has been pushing. A board that is discussing issues and making decisions in a professional manner without the prima donna antics of C. J. Huff, does not fit in with the Globe's warped version of reality.

It makes it hard to offer solid coverage, when the truth is at odds with the story the Globe has been selling this community ever since the tornado.

The newspaper faces a crisis sometime in the next few weeks when the Missouri State Auditor's office releases its report on the City of Joplin. How will the Globe be able to sell itself as a community watchdog when it had the story about Councilman Mike Woolston's property dealings in the tornado area and never printed a word?

I certainly would not want to be in the situation that faces Editor Carol Stark.

When the story of these times in Joplin is written, it will be a toss up on whether the biggest con artists were Wallace and Bajjali or the Joplin Globe.

State representative/school board member charged with DWI

A 1:30 p.m. Thursday arraignment is scheduled in Cole County Circuit Court for Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, on a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated.

The alleged drunk driving incident took place February 2, but only recently came to light when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about it in its July 20 edition:

The Post-Dispatch obtained the Feb. 2 police report from the Department of Public Safety under the Sunshine Law.

The night of the accident, Hinson said he was leaving the Missouri House parking garage when his car slid into what he thought was the curb.

"The roads were freezing and slick," he said. Hinson added that he had one alcoholic beverage that night with dinner.

Later, he realized his bumper must have hit the bumper of a parked vehicle, he said. He waited until the next morning to report it to Capitol Police.

"I figured it was no big deal" to wait until morning, he said. "I figured I'd get my car taken care of and then let them know what happened."

Hinson, who is serving his third term in the House and is also serving his third term on the St. Clair Board of Education,