Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Five of 12 Alamance residents charged with voter fraud take plea deals to lesser crimes

Five individuals from the “Alamance 12,” a group of North Carolinians accused felony voter fraud, have taken a plea deal to lesser charges, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

As part of the plea deals, Alamance County prosecutors dropped all felony voting-related charges for the five voters, who were represented by SCSJ. Anthony Haith, Neko Rogers, Whitney Brown, Keith Sellars and Willie Vinson Jr. each pleaded instead to a charge of misdemeanor obstruction of justice.

As part of the plea, the five individuals will each complete 24 hours of community service, be placed on unsupervised probation for 12 months and offer no admission of guilt to any voting-related charges, according to a Monday news release.

SCSJ released a statement afterward that its clients had to make a “hard decision.” It states they believe the law they were initially charged under was enacted in 1901 with an intent to discriminate against people of color and intimidate communities from voting.

“Such a law is unconstitutional,” the release states. “What happened in the courtroom today is nothing new, though. Far too often, people plead to lesser charges, even when justice is on their side, in order to avoid the possibility of facing time in prison, being separated from their families, losing their jobs, and disrupting their lives and the lives of those around them. Similar events happen every day in courtrooms across the country.

Our communities deserve better. No one should have to face the possibility of prison time for the act of casting a vote that they believed they were eligible to cast. These charges sought to punish people whose only intent was to participate in our democracy. All of the charges should have been dismissed and the law that led to these prosecutions should be deemed unconstitutional.”

Prosecutors charged 12 Alamance County voters with felony voter fraud because they were all on probation or parole for felony convictions at the time they voted in the 2016 presidential election.

It was not immediately clear if charges against the seven other individuals remained pending Monday or if they too took plea deals.

Environment

EPA hosting key community forum on GenX, PFAS, PFOS in Fayetteville today; public can comment from 3 to 8 p.m.

Policy Watch will live tweet the highlights of the daylong event @ncpolicywatch and @lisasorg .

Seven top EPA officials. Three division directors from the Department of Environmental Quality, plus Secretary Michael Regan. Even one of the top brass from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of the major regulators and community watchdogs in the GenX drinking water crisis will speak at today’s public forum about perfluorinated compounds, but Chemours, the company responsible for the widespread contamination, will be conspicuous by its absence.

Hosted by the EPA, the public event begins at 10 a.m. at the Crown Ballroom, 1960 Coliseum Drive, in Fayetteville. It includes panels devoted to science, local issues and the community. A listening session for the public to provide input runs from 3 to 8 p.m.

State environmental officials had asked the EPA to hold two additional forums, one in Wilmington and the other in Greensboro, where emerging contaminants have also been detected in the water. The EPA declined, state officials said, because it lacked the time and resources.

Nonetheless, this is the first and only opportunity for North Carolinians to hear from, and speak directly to, the federal agency ultimately charged with regulating the more than 15 perfluorinated compounds, including PFAS, PFOS and GenX.

GenX has been detected in the Cape Fear River basin from Cumberland to Brunswick counties, including in river, its sediment, plus groundwater, drinking water, honey and the air. PFAS and PFOS have been founded throughout North Carolina, including Jordan Lake and Lake Michie. In the case of Jordan Lake, the contamination could be coming from the Haw River, already a problematic waterway. It is believed that Lake Michie is receiving the contaminants through the air; there are no wastewater treatment plants, industrial discharges or even sludge applications discharging into the lake.

The forum and public comments could help inform the EPA’s next steps, some of which could be finished yet this year. The EPA is scheduled to develop human health toxicity levels for GenX and recommending groundwater cleanup standards. PFOS and PFAS have been linked to high cholesterol, decreased immune response, thyroid disorders, cancer and high blood pressure in pregnant women. The EPA has set a drinking water health advisory — which is not legally enforceable — of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFAS, either individually or combined.

The health effects of GenX are less clear, because there is a lack of independent, peer-reviewed data. However, North Carolina has set a health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion. The state’s Science Advisory Board has been investigating the science behind that goal and is scheduled to recommend any changes some time this year.

Two health studies on these compounds are ongoing: Researchers Jane Hoppin, Nadine Kotlarz and Detlef Knappe of NC State, are analyzing blood and urine of about 300 volunteers in the Wilmington area. The state Department of Health and Human Services and CDC are conducting a smaller study of 30 people who live near the Chemours plant.

Meanwhile, the NC Policy Collaboratory received $5 million in this year’s state budget to conduct research on these compounds. Over the next year, more than 20 researchers, led by UNC professor Jason Surratt, will sample public water sources statewide. This will enable state regulators to know the current levels of contamination and begin monitoring for changes in those concentration.

The researchers also plan to examine how air emissions can contaminate groundwater, use modeling to predict vulnerable drinking water wells and test treatment systems that could remove the compounds.

The study will be overseen by an advisory committee of faculty members from UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Wilmington, Duke University, East Carolina University and North Carolina State University. Detlef Knappe, professor of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering at NC State University, and Lee Ferguson, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University, are the co-chairs of the committee.

News

Five former NC governors stand against amendments

All five living former North Carolina governors spoke out against two proposed amendments to the state constitution Monday.

“This is not about partisan politics,” former North Carolina Governor Jim Martin said at a press conference Monday. “It’s about power politics – and it must be stopped.”

Martin organized all five living North Carolina governors for the press event at the old State Capitol building Monday to denounce two proposed amendments to the state constitution.

Martin and fellow Republican Pat McCrory joined Democrats Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue in condemning two amendments they say pose a threat to separation of powers.

The amendments in question – two of six on the ballot this November – shift power from the governor to the Republican dominated legislature. That’s a move opposed by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat – but part of a trend that began under his Republican predecessor, Pat McCrory.

One amendment would shift appointments to the state elections and ethics board to from the governor to the legislature – and open the door for the legislature to take over appointments to hundreds of boards and commissions.

McCrory successfully sued legislative leaders from his own party over that issue during his one term as governor, which ended in 2016. Having lost the legal argument, McCrory said, legislators are now trying to get around a near unanimous decision by the N.C. Supreme Court by changing the constitution.

The goal is nothing less than to “strip our executive branch of its rights and responsibilities,” McCrory said – at the expense of a separation of powers that is essential to both national and state government.

“This is what our Founding Fathers were so brilliant in doing,”McCrory said. “Creating checks and balance, the separation of powers.”

McCrory said he had a suggestion for legislators who want the responsibilities of the state’s governor.

“Have the courage to run for governor and win,” McCrory said. “Earn it.”

Perdue said she was dumbfounded upon reading the proposed amendments. The lawmakers should ask themselves what their goal is with them, she said.

“Everything that goes on here should be open, transparent and should be about the people of North Carolina,” Perdue said. “Does it make our lives any better? Does it help our families? Or is it all about making me Boss Hogg?”

Easley predicted that if the amendments pass, the state will be tied up in endless lawsuits. Investors would see it as an unstable “hornet’s nest” in which they wouldn’t be interested in doing business, he said.

“It’s remarkable how poorly these amendments have been drafted,” Easley said. “It would take years upon years for the courts to dissect them and tell the public what they mean.”

“When somebody asks you to vote for a change in your constitution, you have the right to know what the amendment is,” Easley said. “And if you don’t know, vote no.”

Asked if they were worried about their relationship with the GOP in opposing the amendments, Republicans McCrory and Martin said they were not. They felt it was their duty to oppose the amendments no matter who advanced them, they said, and hoped some GOP legislators would join them in urging voters to reject them in November.

In a joint statement Monday afternoon, Speaker of the House Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) dismissed the former governors’ criticisms.

“While it’s not surprising former governors oppose checks and balances on the unilateral authority of their office,” the legislative leaders said in the statement, “We are confident the people will support a more accountable approach to filling judicial vacancies and approve a bipartisan balance on critical boards like the state’s ethics and elections commission over a system of purely political control.”

Environment

A first for NC, DEQ wants new rules on methyl bromide emissions — and they’re stronger than sandbags and duct tape

After receiving more than 3,000 comments about proposed log fumigation facilities in eastern North Carolina, state officials are asking the Environmental Management Commission to pass new rules on emissions of methyl bromide, the toxic chemical used in that process.

If the EMC agrees, the rules would be the first in North Carolina to specifically regulate methyl bromide. There are no federal or state air quality regulations to protect the public from methyl bromide emissions, according to the Division of Air Quality.

The EMC will hear the proposal at a special meeting Wednesday at 10 a.m. in the Archdale Building in Raleigh. The first portion of the meeting will be devoted to a special consent order regarding illegal seeps of coal ash contamination from Duke Energy’s Roxboro and Mayo plants in Person County.

The meeting will have an audio stream; the password is 1234.

A hazardous air pollutant, methyl bromide has been largely banned internationally because it depletes the ozone layer and can harm the nervous system in humans. However, the chemical has received a critical use exemption to treat logs and crops for import and export.

The impetus for the proposed rules has been the public outrage over two proposed log fumigation facilities:

  • Last year, Tima Capital had submitted a permit application to emit 60 tons a year from an operation near Wilmington; it withdrew the request after the Department of Environmental Quality received more than 2,000 comments.
  • And earlier this year, Malec Brothers, based in Australia, proposed an even larger operation — 100 to 140 tons of annual emissions — near the small towns of Delco and Riegelwood in Columbus County. In its permit application, the company proposed using sandbags and duct tape to control emissions leaving the fumigation containers.

DAQ received more than 1,000 comments and held two public hearings, at which residents demanded that state environmental officials strengthen rules on methyl bromide.

A third new log fumigation facility has also been proposed by Royal Pest Solutions for Halifax County, northeast of Scotland Neck.

All pending methyl bromide permits are on hold; DAQ has notified existing facilities that it plans to modify their permits.

DAQ Director Mike Abraczinskas noted in a PowerPoint presentation that unlike agricultural uses, in which methyl bromide has been used to kill pests over large farm tracts, these log fumigation operations concentrate the emissions in one spot.

The new proposed rule would establish control requirements for all hazardous and toxic air pollutants from all existing, new or modified log fumigation operations.

A draft of the proposed temporary rule will go to the EMC next month; it will be subject to public comment and a public hearing. In addition, DEQ has asked the state Science Advisory Board to evaluate inhalation risks of methyl bromide and to recommend an acceptable level of it in the air.

The temporary rule could go into effect as early as December. Next year, a permanent rule, which has its own public comment and hearing period, could become effective in July.

DEQ also is sending a letter to the EPA asking that log fumigation facilities that use methyl bromide be required to be equipped with stringent emissions controls — Maximum Achievable Control Technology.

This requirement is known as a Section 112(g) classification under the Clean Air Act; it applies to industrial sources that emit 10 or more tons of one pollutant or 25 tons or more of a combination of pollutants.

 

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Board of Elections investigating alleged misconduct at some voter drives

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement is investigating alleged misconduct at voter registration drives in New Hanover, Pitt and Robeson counties.

The State Board received reports that individuals misinformed voters that they must re-register in order to cast a ballot in November, according to a Friday news release. Voters who are already registered do not have to re-register or update their registrations unless they have moved or wish to change their name or party affiliation.

The State Board also reported receiving information that individuals approached people at their homes or businesses, falsely identifying themselves as county or state elections workers. And in recent months, the agency investigated reports of falsified registration documents delivered to county boards of elections offices.

“Voters should check their registrations online,” said Board Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach. “There is no reason to submit a new form unless the information is outdated. The State Board will investigate all credible allegations of voter registration fraud by individuals or organizations. When workers involved in voter drives falsify or alter information on registration forms, it can cause problems for innocent voters at the polls.”

It is unlawful in North Carolina to pay voter drive participants on a per-form basis. It is a Class I felony to falsify a voter registration form and a Class 2 misdemeanor to retain a copy of a registrant’s confidential information, such as date of birth or driver license number, according to the news release.

The State Board encourages voters to consider the following tips:

  1. Check your voter registration status through the State Board’s “Voter Search” tool here.
  2. If you are not registered or need to update your registration, applications are available on the State Board website and at all county boards of elections offices.
  3. Always ask voter registration workers to verify their identities and their organizations before providing any information. If an individual refuses to comply, do not provide any information and call the State Board office immediately at 919-814-0700. Ask for the Investigations Division.
  4. If you fill out a registration form as part of a registration drive, you may personally return the form to your county board of elections, either in person or by mail. You do not have to give the form back to the voter drive worker.
  5. County and state elections officials do not go door-to-door. If a person claims to be a state or county elections worker, ask them for identification, take down their name and contact the State Board office immediately at 919-814-0700.