A: The private military contractor Blackwater.
On Thursday the state House has passed a bill to eliminate the use of Sharia law in North Carolina. Opponents of Sharia like Rep. John Blust of Greensboro say Islamic law threatens to how North Carolinians marry, divorce and determine child custody: “It’s creeping, but it is stated within those who are pushing it, that is their goal: to have this type of law rule the world."
Blackwater had a different aim in mind back in 2006. They wanted to use Sharia to escape responsibility for a botched flight that killed three soldiers and the flight crew. Under Sharia law, employers are not liable for harm done by their employees. Federal judges opted to stick with U.S. law, despite the company's entreaties.
Blackwater and its insurers settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.
ABOUT THIS BLOG: No single quality better defines The News & Observer than its dogged investigative reporting.
Our work is aimed at revealing things our readers don’t know. Examples include shining light on rogue agents and disturbing practices and policies at the State Bureau of Investigation; probationers who commit murder while under the state's watch; the state's failed mental health system; the perks of power claimed by former Gov. Mike Easley; and Pulitzer-Prize-winning work on the North Carolina hog industry.
The N&O's Investigations team has won numerous awards, including recognition from Investigative Reporters and Editors; the Associated Press Managing Editors; the Associated Press Sports Editors; the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting; the National Headliner Awards; the Sigma Delta Chi Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists; the McClatchy Co. President's Awards; and the N.C. Press Association's investigative and public service awards.
This blog contains some of our previous work and news we think you'll find interesting. We post fresh updates and follow-ups to stories, as well as supplemental information to our investigations. We also try to point you to other great investigations from around the country.
A: The private military contractor Blackwater.
In a letter to the editor today in our print edition, film industry exec Bill Vassar challenges a couple of points in J. Andrew Curliss' story last week on the growing cost of the state's incentives to movie production companies.
One of Vassar's contentions is flat-out wrong: He writes that Curliss' story "failed to note" that productions in the state last year employed 14,083. Here's the relevant paragraph from the story:
"Film companies reported employing about 14,000 people in films here last year, although many of those were “extras.” The Wilmington Regional Film Commission says there are 4,000 “well paid, clean” film jobs in the state, based on data from the state’s film office."
Perhaps Vassar just overlooked that paragraph.
On to his other challenge: "Your story mischaracterized the incentives' cost to taxpayers."
We would disagree, and so would the state Department of Revenue.
Jon Stewart had Robert Downey Jr. on his show the other night to discuss "Iron Man 3", Downey's latest movie. The two didn't mention one thing they have in common: both recently benefited from tax breaks from North Carolina. Jon Stewart's company (Hello Doggie Inc.) received a check for $190,211 from the N.C. Department of Revenue after he filmed several episodes of the Daily Show in Charlotte during the Democratic convention in Charlotte last year. The Department of Revenue sent a $20 million check to Iron Works III, LLC, the production company for Iron Man III.
We've posted a database of all the film tax breaks paid out in recent years on our website here.
You can also read Andy Curliss' story on film tax breaks here, where you can also find links to Dan Kane's first two stories on tax breaks.
Former UNC-Chapel Hill football player Michael McAdoo is asking the state's highest court to take up his claim that the NCAA improperly banned him from the team in 2010.
McAdoo's attorney, Noah Huffstetler, filed papers this week to petition the N.C. Supreme Court to order the case be reinstated for a trial. McAdoo, who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL, contends the NCAA and UNC-CH did not follow proper procedures in kicking him off the team for receiving improper help from a tutor. The NCAA, for example, found McAdoo had received improper help in three classes, but the school's honor court found it only happened in one.
The honor court's ruling cost McAdoo his junior year on the team, a penalty he accepted, but he would have been allowed to come back for his senior season. He contends missing out on that season hurt his market value in going pro. He ended up signing with the Ravens as a free agent for the league minimum.
Last month, a three-judge panel with the N.C. Court of Appeals sided with a Superior Court judge's dismissal of McAdoo's case, finding he didn't have a claim because he achieved his goal of making the NFL and UNC-CH had not relinquished his scholarship. McAdoo does not have an automatic right to an appeal because the appellate court's decision was unanimous.
It is a case that could shine more light on the long-running academic fraud scandal at UNC-CH. All three of McAdoo's classes in the NCAA investigation were among the more than 200 that have been found to be lecture classes that never met, in which a paper was assigned and given a good grade with little evidence it was actually read by a professor. There is nothing in the court record to show the NCAA or UNC-CH's honor court were aware of the bogus classes, in which athletes were enrolled in significant numbers.
UNC-CH academic officials say they did not become aware of the bogus classes until after the NCAA had finished its investigation into improper financial benefits to football players from agents and improper help from the tutor and had sent a notice of allegations to the school.
Huffstetler's court papers make note of the academic fraud scandal in contending that the court should take up McAdoo's case.
Time magazine has published an extensive and exhaustive look at why Americans are paying so much for health care. At 36 pages, it's the longest piece ever published in Time by one author. Steven Brill, a lawyer, journalist and former publisher of Brill's Content, is the author.
As in our series, Brill found huge markups on simple drugs like acetominophen and expensive cancer drugs like Rituximab. He writes about big nonprofit hospitals making huge profits, and hospital executives pulling down million dollar salaries. And he found that hospital acquisitions and consolidations have given them increased leverage and negotiating power over insurers. This results in higher prices paid to hospitals and higher insurance rates.
We're glad to see this issue get national attention from an accomplished journalist like Brill.
The Medicaid manager who made $237,500 in overtime over the last four years recently received a 25 percent raise.
Angie Sligh, the Medicaid Management Information System director, is now being paid an annual salary of $134,944, according to DHHS spokesman Brad Deen. State personnel records regularly obtained by The News & Observer show that her salary was listed as $107,944 on January 11, 2013.
Sligh received the raise as the State Auditor was wrapping up an investigation into overtime payments of $580,000 to Health and Human Services employees who don't normally qualify for overtime.
Most of the overtime went to managers and executive-level job-holders working on the new Medicaid billing system. Sligh, who leads the office working on the new system, received 40 percent of the overtime. There was no written authorization for the overtime payments.
The audit said that the overtime payments ended Jan. 31, 2013.
The Medicaid system has racked up huge cost overruns while running years behind schedule. The system was was supposed to be working in mid-2011. The audit was one of several state audits in the last two years critical of DHHS computer systems and their management.
Sligh did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Deen, the spokesman, said the raise was approved within the department under the previous administration. Deen said he could not answer any other questions, including what role, if any, was played by Sligh's boss, Assistant Secretary for Finance Dan Stewart, who retired last month.
Within the wider effort by lawmakers to cut and eliminate appointees to boards and commissions is language that would fire 12 special Superior Court judges.
Their jobs would be eliminated on July 1, 2013 under the legislation, Senate Bill 10.
These judges are all indeed special -- they were not elected, but were all appointed by past governors. Some were first appointed by one governor, and then continued under a subsequent governor with a reappointment.
As special judges, they could be assigned to any Superior Court case across the state. They would hold regular court, help with special hearings, step in to help other judges avoid conflicts, and otherwise were assigned to alleviate backlogs or cover for absences.
They are paid $125,875 a year with another $62,372 in benefits and travel allowance.
And four of the 12 were made judges in the final hours of the terms of former Democratic governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue.
Easley appointed Shannon Joseph, who is the daughter-in-law of former Senate majority leader Tony Rand and was an administrative law judge, and Bill Pittman, who was in private practice, on his last day in office. They were sworn in at 11 p.m. by a judge who was on his way to Perdue's inaugural ball in 2009.
Perdue left office on Jan. 5 this year, but did not take substantial action after Dec. 31.
That was the day that Perdue appointed as special judges both her secretary of the Department of Public Safety, Reuben Young, and Kendra Hill, who was her chief ethics officer and deputy counsel. Young had previously been a close adviser to Easley. Neither had judicial experience.
Of the other eight, one is overseeing a case now involving Republican Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr. That judge's term expires later this month, though the judges typically remain in place until a successor is picked or they are reappointed.
Hartsell rose on the Senate floor Wednesday and raised concerns about the judge cutting, saying he thought it was in violation of the state Constitution. He did not mention that a special judge was handling his ongoing case. Others said he was not reading the Constitution correctly.
Another of the special judges is overseeing a lawsuit brought by former District Attorney Tracey Cline against The News & Observer.
A legislative fiscal note says that the judge eliminations would save $2 million in the upcoming fiscal year that begins in July 2013. It would jump to $2.6 million the next year (because severance payments would not be required in that year).
The fiscal note says that the court system could have to call up retired judges and pay them $400 a day on a contract to assist with any backlog created by the job cuts. But it says that money would come from lapsed salaries.
The bill's chief proponent, Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican, could not be reached to comment on the thinking behind cutting the judges. Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Charlotte, said the idea is the first in steps needed to make sure that judges are elected by the people instead of being appointed by elected officials.
The Senate debated the legislation on Wednesday, with both Republicans and Democrats describing its overall aims as being to install a new political regime after the takeover by Republicans of the governor's office and legislature in the past two years.
Democrats also expressed concerns about the constitutionality of cutting judges, like Hartsell, and questioned the rationale of getting rid of judges who they say handle about 10 percent of the state's cases. Others disputed that.
An amendment offered by Democrats to sever the judge eliminations from the larger bill failed.
The bill then passed the full Senate. It will get a final vote on Thursday. It would head to the House next and, if it passes there, then the governor before anything is final.
Here is the full list of judges on the block, according to the state courts system:
1. Reuben Young (Wake County), appointed Dec. 31, 2012. Term expires Dec. 31, 2017.
2. Kendra Hill (Wake County), appointed Dec. 31, 2012. Term expires Dec. 31, 2017.
3. Lane Williamson (Mecklenburg County), appointed Feb. 24, 2011. Term expires Jan. 9, 2013. He is continuing to serve until a new judge is appointed to this slot, officials said.
4. Sharon Barrett (Buncombe County), appointed Feb. 10, 2011. Term expires May 14, 2013.
5. Lucy Inman (Wake County), appointed April 30, 2010. Term expires April 29, 2015.
6. Andrew Robinson Hassell (Guilford County), appointed March 31, 2009. Term expires Jan. 26, 2016.
7. Shannon Joseph (Wake County), appointed Jan. 9, 2009. Term expires Jan. 8, 2014.
8. Bill Pittman (Wake County), appointed Jan. 9, 2009. Term expires Jan. 8, 2014.
9. Jack Hooks (Columbus County), appointed Jan. 9, 2003. Term expires Feb. 7, 2013.
10. Jack Jenkins (Carteret County), appointed Jan. 26, 2001. Term expires Jan. 26, 2016.
11. Gary Trawick (Pender County), appointed April 1, 1999. Term expires Oct. 20, 2015.
12. Richard Doughton (Alleghany County), appointed Aug. 22, 1997. Term expires Feb. 24, 2013.
(This version is updated from the original post.)
What would have to go?
That's the question may higher-end wage earners who will join the droves of unemployed this year may be asking themselves.
The North Carolina General Assembly is poised to bring vast changes to our unemployment system, and we'd like to hear from you about how they would affect you.
The one that will hit workers hardest is a reduced cap in benefits for those earning the most money. Currently, benefits top out at $535 a week for unemployed workers. The legislation calls for a max weekly benefit of $350. And the number of weeks of benefits would be reduced, too. As where the state pays 26 weeks of benefits, the proposed bills calls for a limit between 12 and 20 weeks depending on the unemployment rate in the state.
The overhaul comes as the state must make good on a $2.48 billion debt it owes the federal government. During the recession, the state emptied its unemployment reserve fund and borrowed the billions from the feds to pay benefits to unemployed workers. Now the feds want their money, and for every year the state is still in debt, employers will be paying more in federal unemployment taxes. Those hikes have already started.
The proposed legislation would also demand higher state unemployment taxes from some employers, though worker advocates say the burden is much heavier on workers than their bosses.
So what does $350 a week provide for an unemployed worker? How does it stack against the bills that don't stop just because his job did? What would you give up?
If you are an unemployed worker who used to earn more than $52,000 a year, the N&O wants to hear from you. Email email@example.com or call 919-829-8927.
As we reported in Saturday's editions, there are continuing questions about campaign transactions of state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr.
The latest is that there was conflicting information about one of those payments – $800 from the campaign to his property company in 2011.
Former Gov. Jim Martin in a letter in today's paper objects to a couple points in our Sunday story on his report into long-running academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill's African studies department.
It has to do with a conclusion he delivered to the UNC Board of Trustees on Dec. 20. That finding would help absolve athletics officials and academic support staff for athletes of any wrongdoing because Martin said they had twice sounded a warning about suspect classes.
"On two occasions (in 2002 and 2006)," Martin told the trustees, "leaders of Academic Support for Student Athletes brought to the Faculty Athletic Committee their concerns about students taking nominally lecture courses that did not meet and only required one 20-page term paper, and other forms of questionable independent study."
His letter first appears to say our Sunday report hadn't shown enough homework:
"In checking this, you found three members of the committee who deny this was presented, only one of whom was present in April 2002."
Readers should know that our stories don't always include every interview that we do for our reporting. In this case, we interviewed five members of the 2002 committee who said they either did not recollect such a warning or say it never happened. They include the chairman, Dr. Stanley Mandel, and faculty members Lissa Broome, Nick Didow, Gar Hershey, and Celia Hooper. (A sixth, Jim Murphy, briefly said he had no recollection before his wife hung up the telephone.)
Martin's report said the same concerns were raised in 2006. The meeting minutes show references to independent studies being discussed in November 2006 and January 2007. We interviewed three faculty members at the November meeting -- Broome, Steve Reznick and Desmond Runyan, and then Chancellor James Moeser, who was listed as in attendance, and four who were in attendance at the January meeting, Broome, Hershey, Reznick and Barbara Wildemuth. None remembered being warned about suspect classes.
Martin interviewed none of these people. He said that Broome told him after he released his report that he had gotten it right. We talked with Broome after the report was released. She said the same thing she told me earlier, that she didn't remember a warning.
Martin's letter continues:
"While discrediting testimony on behalf of ASPSA as self-serving, you need similar skepticism about motives of the accusers."
Martin's basis for the red flag finding comes from officials with close ties to athletics: former athletic director Dick Baddour, senior associate director John Blanchard, former academic support director Robert Mercer and Jack Evans, a business professor and former longtime faculty NCAA representative. He acknowledged that those tied to athletics would have a reason to make up a story.
But he also said they were backed up by two others who do not have ties to athletics: Chancellor Holden Thorp and Laurie Maffly-Kipp, who co-authored a special faculty report on the academic fraud that was released July 26.
That report was the first mention of academic support being told not to question how classes are taught. It came after we had broken a big story on the case, that Nyang'oro had formed a no-show class four days before the start of a summer semester and it immediately filled with football players. Thorp said in that story that academic support staff helped the players enroll in a class that staff knew did not meet.
Maffly-Kipp has now acknowledged that she and her colleagues on the special committee never investigated the red flag claim. That information was provided to her by Thorp. His spokeswoman referred me to the 2002 minutes.
Which brings us back to the remaining point in Martin's letter:
"The minutes of that meeting clearly state that this subject was discussed, and there is an appended 'Report on Independent Studies.' For our part, we relied on this and four witnesses who were there and affirmed it happened, plus a later conversation with a participant who did not deny it."
We reviewed the minutes and posted them online for readers to judge for themselves. (They are also attached to this post.) We did not see a warning about lecture style classes that didn't meet, or out-of-control independent studies. There is nothing in the "Report on Independent Studies" or in the minutes that suggest any kind of problem with the African studies department.
Blanchard was an author of the 2002 independent studies report. He said he does not remember much about it other than "just reporting on independent studies." He said he twice raised concerns to the committee in 2006 about an African studies professor offering lecture-style classes as independent studies. We asked if he had any records or correspondence to back up that assertion. He said he had none.
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