Category Archives: Politics

In Newtown Anniversary Gun Battle, A Provocateur Blinks

by Categorized: Politics, Public Safety Date:

Political provocateur Larry Ward made a huge splash last January with “Gun Appreciation Day,” a campaign that prompted rallies from coast to coast intended to counter legislative efforts to tighten gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting a month earlier.

The boisterous rallies highlighted the deep cultural rift over firearms in America, with millions of citizens believing the Sandy Hook shooting tragically illustrated the danger of guns and millions more believing the shooting tragically illustrated the danger of gun control.

That cultural divide, which the Courant covered extensively in print and in collaboration with the PBS documentary series Frontline, is back on display as the anniversary of the Newtown massacre approaches. Larry Ward and a coalition of pro-gun groups are back, too. But this time, their instinct for the dramatic may have gotten the better of them.

Ward’s Washington public relations firm, Political Media, Inc., last week began promoting “Guns Save Lives Day,” which was slated for Dec. 14 – one year after Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary and killed 26.

“Guns Save Lives Day is on December 14, 2013, the Anniversary of Newtown,” a web site set up by Ward proclaimed. “We plan to honor these victims by doing everything within our power to prevent misguided gun control laws from leaving Americans defenseless or worse victims. Don’t be a victim, ARM YOURSELF.”

Groups on both sides of thGSLD3e gun-control battle have accused their opponents of politicizing the Sandy Hook shooting, and the plan for “events and activities in all 50 states” during Guns Save Lives Day prompted significant backlash, particularly within NewtGSLDown. “For this group to use our Sandy Hook tragedy as a springboard for political action is disrespectful to our community of Newtown and is of particularly insensitive timing,” Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llodra said. “I respect their right to promote their beliefs regarding guns. I ask that they respect our community and not use us for their purposes.”

That sort of reaction apparently had the desired effect. Organizers of Guns Save Lives Day have now pushed the day off Dec. 14, and the web site was reworked to read: “Guns Save Lives Day is on December 15, 2013, Bill of Rights Day, the day after the Anniversary of Newtown.”

But for organizers, the message of the day remains the same.

“Americans are concerned about attempts to erode their gun ownership rights, and for good reason,” said Alan Gottlieb, president of the Second Amendment Foundation and chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which are both co-sponsors of the day. “Our mission with Guns Save Lives Day is to assure them our groups are working day and night to thwart government gun-grabbers at every opportunity. We are going to show America that there is a good side to guns.”

310 Million Americans. Three Dozen Fun Facts.

by Categorized: Census, Data, Education, Employment, Politics Date:

Housing values are down. Household sizes are up. Marriages are down. Unemployment is up. Manufacturing is down. College degrees are up.

Annual estimates from the Census Bureau in hundreds of categories became publicly releasable early this morning, and my colleague Mara Lee has a story looking at how Connecticut is getting older – but not appreciably faster than the nation as a whole, suggesting concerns about an aging workforce may be unduly alarmist.

Beyond those big-picture tales hiding in the numbers, however, there are scores of interesting data points capturing the gradual shifts and natural waves of a fluid society. Below are three dozen selected Census figures for the United States and Connecticut, showing the 2012 figures just released and figures for the same categories in 2008, along with the percent change for both the national and state figures.

The numbers, drawn from the American Community Survey, an annual sampling of the nation’s 310 million residents, paint a numerical tapestry of the country through questions on labor, housing, income, ancestry, education and even what portion of the labor force walks to work. (2.8 percent nationwide; 3 percent in Connecticut).

To dig into countless gigabytes of other Census Bureau data, log on to American Factfinder, the bureau’s online search tool.

Protesting a Six-Cent-a-Day Tax Hike

by Categorized: Data, Finance, Politics Date:

If your elected officials had some harebrained scheme that was going to jack up your cost of living to the tune of 6 cents a day, is that the sort of thing that would get your blood boiling and have you demanding a special legislative session?

It apparently would for thousands of Connecticut residents who have signed petitions targeting an upcoming boost in the state’s gasoline tax.  Nutmeggers pay humongous gas taxes and this may be more a reflection of frustration with tax creep than a real pocketbook issue (or maybe it’s just rank political posturing). But either way, let’s hit the calculator for a little reality check.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average American logs 12,888 miles a year. And according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average passenger car on the road gets 23.0 miles per gallon. That mpg figure seems a little high to me but they’re the experts, so using their numbers, the average motorist in a car is buying about 560 gallons of gas a year.

With the gas tax in Connecticut slated to rise 4 cents a gallon next week, that means our average motorist can look forward to dropping an extra $22.41 a year at the pump. That’s a daily drag on our personal economies of a little over 6 cents, or roughly the cost of – actually, nothing costs 6 cents.

That, of course, is only the average and, as they say, your mileage may vary. Drivers of pickup trucks and large SUV’s could be shelling out closer to 8 cents a day, and a Ferrari owner who lives 50 miles from work might have to come up with as much as 20 cents a day.

That’s probably not enough to sink the state into a double-dip recession (and the extra cost could be wiped out by driving just 1 mph slower on the highway). But for some, it may be more the principal of trying to get government to live within its means rather than going to the well for a few million here and a few million there.

Still, it’s worth remembering that if the legislature does go into special session, that too will have taxpayers reaching for their wallets. According to a 2010 analysis by the Office of Legislative Research, it costs $11,000 a day to operate a special session. And if the session is called with less than 10 days’ notice, that’s on top of at least $9,600 the state will spend to dispatch marshals or troopers to notify legislators of the session – a task which, for the record, The Scoop is willing to do for free.

In the Newtown Clerk’s Office, a Dishonorable End to Six Months of Lawlessness

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

If you were a government official, how far would you go to push back against a law you disagreed with?

Would you openly defy the law?

Would you be willing to violate your oath of office?

Would you go so far as to badger those who favored enforcement of the law?

Until today, those questions earned a shameful “yes” in the Newtown clerk’s office, where officials for six months illegally withheld access to death certificates after deciding their personal sense of right and wrong trumped the statutory demands of their office.

This morning, the clerks finally relented, turning over dozens of heartbreaking photocopies bearing witness to the sad duty of doctors in the Chief State Medical Examiner’s Office to apply, over and over, a clinical description to the violence that stole so many innocent lives.

As I write this, a reporter is driving back from Newtown with the documents. When they arrive, they’ll be somberly analyzed for anything that might improve our understanding of that awful day – though it’s not likely the sparse documents will do much to peel back the mystery. We will wince at the now-familiar names, and think of the parents that we have come to know, but don’t really know. We’ll do our best to avoid flashes of the terror inside that school. And then the documents will be filed, along with hundreds or thousands of other sheets of paper amassed in our investigation and coverage of this obviously important, internationally significant story. [Update: Courant editors tell me that, following a review of the death certificates, no story will be written based on their content.]

That is what we will do with the records. And the town should have given them to us as soon as we asked last December. Continue reading

From 42 Years Ago, A Supreme Court Justice’s Take on Secrecy, Leaks and National Security

by Categorized: First Amendment, Media, Politics, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

As the media swirls with stories of government eavesdropping and CIA leaks and national security worries, it’s instructive to recall this is hardly the first time the nation has sought to balance the public’s right to know against their government’s desire for secrecy.

In 1971, a divided U.S. Supreme Court decided the “Pentagon Papers” case, ruling that the government could not prevent newspapers from publishing stolen and leaked classified documents that revealed a pattern of official deception during the Vietnam War. Then, as now, there were concerns over the independence of the press, the trustworthiness of the Executive branch and the duty to preserve national security.

All nine justices penned individual opinions. Hugo Black, the court’s strongest First Amendment advocate, offered up a passionate defense of baring the government’s secrets, as a means of providing what he saw as true security for the nation’s bedrock values. Below are excerpts from his concurring opinion in that landmark case.

 

“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. … In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.

“The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic. The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged.”

Society of Professional Journalists Blasts Newtown Secrecy Bill

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

The Society of Professional Journalists has stepped into the debate over concealing portions of the investigative report into the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, sending a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy denouncing a secretly drafted bill that would block public access to crime-scene photographs, 911 recordings and death certificates related to the massacre.

“The Society condemns the creation of this legislation outside the normal, transparent process of public hearings and debate. And we deplore the attempt to use the tragic events of Dec. 14 as an excuse to close off access to records that are otherwise available to the public,” SPJ President Sonny Albarado and Connecticut chapter President Jodie Mozdzer Gil wrote to Malloy.

The legislation was drafted out of concern for relatives of those killed at the school, who might be traumatized by widespread distribution of grisly images if crime-scene photographs were released. Transparency advocates, however, have bristled at the breadth of the proposed bill.

“This legislation does not honor the victims of the Newtown shooting, and the tragedy should not be used as an excuse to close access to public documents, the release of which does not change the circumstances surrounding the Newtown massacre,” the letter states. “In fact, their release could debunk conspiracy theories  and provide lessons worth learning.”

The legislature could vote on the bill this week, though Albarado and Mozdzer Gill are asking for a delay until public hearings can be held.

The full text of their letter is below.

Download (PDF, 199KB)

‘Conspiracy Nuts’ Relish Sandy Hook Secrecy Bill

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

It surely wasn’t their intention – and it’s clear they really don’t care what those on the fringe think – but a new bill developed by top state officials that would shield parts of the Sandy Hook investigation is proving to be a big hit with conspiracy theorists.

“The conspiracy nuts are going to love this,” a colleague had predicted the night details of the bill surfaced.

He was right. The legislation – drafted in secret and promoting secrecy – has unintentionally tickled the minds of those who feel buoyed by believing they’re in the know about some spectacularly massive government cover-up.

“In my estimation,” wrote a commenter on The New American website, “what they are trying to hide is that what happened at Sandy Hook (as well as at the shooting at the Batman movie not long before that) was a False Flag perpetuated by this administration for the purpose of furthering their on-going attacks upon our Constitutional freedoms and nothing less!!”

On the Courant’s site, a poster from Toronto asked: “Since when in the history of the world do they not publish a DEATH CERTIFICATE? I’ll tell you when… When the death certificate DOES NOT EXIST!”

And on infowars.com, the granddaddy of conspiracy sites, hundreds of comments have been posted in response to the legislation, with many posters knowingly shaking their heads at the obviousness of it all.

“Nice how criminals get to cover up their own crimes and tracks,” one wrote. “Fortunately internet investigators have enough proof of what may have happened that day. One thing is certain: everything around Sandy Hook is a lie, a cover-up or a deception.”

Proponents of the legislation say they merely want to spare the relatives of  those killed at Sandy Hook the trauma that could come from having crime-scene photographs or other grisly details widely released. While typical media outlets refrain from publishing particularly disturbing images, proponents fear that the extraordinarily high profile of the Dec. 14 rampage would attract interest from others who would be willing to splash the images on the Internet.

As drafted, however, the bill goes beyond shielding images, and includes 911 recordings, police transmissions that describe the victims, and the death certificates issued for the 20 students and six educators killed at the school. The bill does not protect images or other records related to shooter Adam Lanza, who fatally shot himself in the school, or his mother, whom he also killed.

Transparency advocates have roundly criticized the proposal, particularly its extension to 911 recordings, which are often used to gauge law-enforcement response. The bill includes a provision for transcripts of such calls, though it is not clear if those transcripts could accurately reflect the tone and timing of the communications. Others question the fairness of legislation aimed at protecting the Sandy Hook families, but not the grieving relatives of other homicide victims.

Lawmakers are debating those points, and the bill might be amended if and when it comes up for a vote. In the meantime, those on the edge are relishing the fresh fodder.

“We already know they lied about assault rifles being used. That’s a proven fact,” one Huffington Post commenter confidently declared. “What are they covering up now?”

Nearly 10 Percent of Connecticut’s Bridges Are “Structurally Deficient”

by Categorized: Data, Finance, Politics, Public Safety Date:

The collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state Thursday night brings frightening memories of the deadly bridge failure near Minneapolis in 2007 and the collapse of the Mianus River bridge in Greenwich 30 years ago next month. And while the MianusBridgeinvestigation in Washington is just beginning, the collapse also revives lingering questions about the quality and safety of the nation’s 600,000 bridges – including more than 4,200 in Connecticut.

Data from the Federal Highway Administration show that 9.6 percent of Connecticut’s bridges are considered “structurally deficient,” meaning one or more major components is deemed to be in poor condition, defined as “advanced section loss, deterioration, spalling or scour.” (Spalling refers to chipping or flaking of concrete and bridge scour is the phenomenon in which water currents wash away sediment, rocks or other material that surrounds the base of the bridge.) Highway officials caution that the designation of a bridge as structurally deficient does not mean the bridge is unsafe.

The deficient bridges are typically shorter spans along minor roadways, but there are also dozens of Interstate bridges and ramps that are in poor condition.

The percentage of Connecticut bridges in poor condition is lower than the national average of 11.0 percent. But the state’s number has been rising, slowly but steadily, since 2006. The recent climb reversed significant progress to reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges. More than 15 percent of state bridges were in poor condition in 1992, but that number dropped to 8.2 percent by 2003.

In addition to bridges deemed structurally deficient, nearly one in four Connecticut bridges is deemed “functionally obsolete,” meaning it no longer meets contemporary criteria for such factors as load capacity or shoulder width. That figure – significantly higher than the 16 percent of such bridges nationally – is partly a result of the state’s aging bridge infrastructure. In Connecticut, the average age of a bridge – or the time span since it was reconstructed – is about 44 years.

A Crime Like No Other, Followed by Secrecy to Match

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

For many, the horrible massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School five months ago was a crime like no other in the state’s history.

So is that a reason to treat its investigation with a level of secrecy like no other?

Connecticut’s top prosecutor thinks so, as do some gubernatorial and legislative leaders, as well as some of the relatives who lost loved ones in the school. As my colleagues Jon Lender and Ed Mahony report, officials have been working behind the scenes for weeks on legislation that would establish special rules for Sandy Hook, blocking release of certain details from the investigation that would be released for other crimes.

The officials are asking the legislature for permission to withhold images of the victims, recordings of 911 calls and any other audio transmission that describes the physical condition of the victims, and the name of any minor witness.

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane told the Courant that major news outlets typically don’t publish or broadcast crime-scene photographs or other gruesome images, but he said the Newtown killings “rose to a whole different level,” attracting wide interest from bloggers and the public. Proponents also say releasing the 911 tapes would unfairly show the anguish of those who called.

Another provision would give Newtown officials permission to refuse media requests for copies of death certificates for those who died at Sandy Hook. Remarkably, the bill would grant that permission retroactively, meaning the legislature could take a vote in May 2013 that would establish what the laws of the state were in January 2013. That sort of ex post facto lawmaking is typically frowned on.

As the community tries to cope with its incomprehensible loss, access to those death certificates has become a curious line in the sand, and perhaps a cathartic battle for town officials rightly steeped in grief. State Rep. Mitch Bolinsky called reporters “jackals” for requesting the records. Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia defied decades of law by simply refusing to turn them over. And a recent poster on this site declared “I don’t want to or need to read a 6 year old’s death certificate explaining how his head was blown off.”

But that is almost certainly not what any of the death certificates contain. As those who have worked with death certificates know, the records typically include extremely brief and clinical descriptions of the cause of death. “Atherosclerotic heart disease” is common. Or “malignant neoplasm of the lung.” Or, tragically, “multiple gunshot wounds to the head.”

Withholding that detail may not bring much solace to those most affected by last December’s rampage. But as officials strive to navigate the sensitivities of Newtown, that may not much matter.

Officials say the bill could be voted on at any time. The full text of the legislation is below.

Download (PDF, 256KB)

The Curious Logic of State Rep. Mitch Bolinsky

by Categorized: Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Transparency/FOI Date:

Imagine there were a bill under consideration in the legislature that, if approved, would legalize marijuana use in Connecticut.  Would the existence of that debate mean we’re all free to spend the next few days firing up joints, without waiting to see if the bill actually becomes law?

Or let’s say lawmakers were thinking of raising the speed limit to 65 mph on the entire length of I-84. Would the introduction of such a bill be legal justification to immediately start blowing through Hartford at that top speed?

These would not qualify as difficult civics questions, and yet, under the curious logic of state Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, the answer to both questions would seem to be “yes.”

Bolinsky, a Newtown Republican, has introduced legislation that in most cases would set a six-month waiting period before a town clerk could release the death certificate of a child under 18. The bill was drafted after news reporters requested copies of death certificates for those killed inside Sandy Hook Elementary School – and after Newtown Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia, in a bow to the sensitivity of the tragedy, refused to release them.

Bolinsky famously called reporters seeking the records “jackals.” But perhaps more intriguing is the logical path he is following in defending Aurelia. Bolinsky told the Danbury News-Times‘ Dirk Perrefort that he does not believe Aurelia’s actions violate state law because there is pending legislation that would change the rules, and she hasn’t yet broken that potential, future law.

“She is still within that six-month window that is being proposed,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “I would argue that she is well within her rights and I support what she’s doing.”

There is no serious dispute that death certificates in Connecticut are public records and town clerks are bound by their oaths of office to release them. So this is more the municipal equivalent of civil disobedience, where a town official has concluded that the interests served by disobeying the law are greater than the interest served by adhering to the statute.

Those are individual decisions, and it will be up to the Freedom of Information Commission to decide what consequences, if any, there will be for a town clerk who makes a principled decision to break the law.

But a legislator who endorses the practice on the chance that the action will stop being illegal some time down the road may not like what he finds following that concept to its logical conclusion.

In January, Bolinsky introduced another bill that, if approved, would repeal the state’s $250 business entity tax. Would Rep. Bolinsky be sympathetic to a company that stops paying the tax immediately, under the argument that, hey, there’s pending legislation?

I’ve left a telephone message for Bolinsky. When I hear back, I’ll ask him.