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Court Dismisses Casino’s Lawsuit Against Picknelly; Push On to Raise State’s Minimum Wage; Warren and Cowan Back Protections for LGBT Kids; and more.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Court Dismisses Casino’s  Lawsuit Against Picknelly

By Maureen Turner

Earlier this year, when Springfield businessman Peter Picknelly was sued by a casino developer who accused him of abandoning a project in Palmer to pursue a rival plan in his home town, he expressed certainty that he would win.

“All I can tell you is that it’s completely frivolous and that I’m very confident that we’ll prevail,” Picknelly told the Advocate at the time.

Picknelly’s confidence, it turns out, was well founded. Late last month, Hampden Superior Court Judge Bertha Josephson dismissed the suit filed against Picknelly by Northeast Gaming Group, the company behind the Palmer casino proposal. I

n 2008, Picknelly had invested $500,000 in that project in return for future profits if the plan received a license from the Mass. Gaming Commission. By the end of 2011, however, Picknelly had dropped out of the Palmer project and taken on a more substantial role in Penn National’s plan to build a casino in Springfield’s North End. (That plan was subsequently rejected by Springfield mayor Domenic Sarno, who this spring decided instead to negotiate a host community agreement with MGM, which hopes to build a casino in the South End.)

The Northeast Gaming lawsuit alleged that Picknelly had violated a legal agreement with that company by leaving to work with Penn National. It also alleged that Picknelly had offered Leon Dragone, president of Northeast Gaming, a secret piece of the Springfield deal if he released Picknelly from the Northeast project, which would have been a violation of state law. Picknelly’s attorney, Michael Callan, denied that charge. And, in a motion to have the case dismissed, Callan maintained that his client was never a partner in the Palmer project, but rather an investor who, under the terms of a revenue sharing agreement with Northeast, was due back his money because the company had failed to secure a casino license within two years. (See “Both Sides of the Table,” March 26, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com.)

Josephson agreed with Callan, ruling that the lawsuit failed to prove that there was a formal partnership or contract between Picknelly and Northeast for Picknelly to have breached.

“The judge completely rejected the entire complaint quickly and decisively. We’re happy with that,” Callan told the Advocate last week, adding that Dragone would be “foolish” to appeal the ruling.

Stephen Spelman, attorney for Northeast Gaming, said he was disappointed by Josephson’s decision: “We thought we had made our case that what Mr. Picknelly had done was wrong.” Dragone has yet to decide whether to appeal the case, Spelman said, adding, “it appears it’s moot anyway, because Penn wasn’t selected in Springfield.”

Callan pointed to that comment as evidence of what he’d been arguing all along: that Northeast Gaming had only filed the suit to try to hurt Penn National’s chances of winning a casino license. “The whole thing was about bringing [Picknelly] down,” Callan said. “It really was a shameless ploy, to file this complaint.”

Spelman, however, denied those claims. Rather, he said, Penn National’s loss in the Springfield competition might make an appeal moot because the lawsuit had sought to compensate Northeast Gaming by setting up a trust that would give a portion of Penn National’s profits to Northeast. Without a Penn National casino, he explained, there would be no mechanism to compensate Northeast.

Will Picknelly pursue legal action against Northeast Gaming over the lawsuit’s contention that he had offered Dragone a secret cut of the Springfield project? “It would surprise me if Peter would engage in any mud-slinging campaign with Leon Dragone,” Callan said.•

 

Attorneys General Push For Review of Vermont Yankee

By Pete Redington

Attorneys general from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York have joined Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell in asking the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to review the environmental impact of storing nuclear waste at the Vermont Yankee power plant.

The “Petition for Review of NRC Staff Scoping Decision” was signed by attorneys general Martha Coakley of Massachusetts, George Jepsen of Connecticut and Eric Schneiderman of New York, as well as Darren Springer, Deputy Commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Public Service (DPS).

“Federal law requires that the NRC analyze the environmental dangers of storing spent nuclear fuel at reactors that were not designed for long-term storage,” Vermont AG Sorrell said in a press release.

The petition follows last summer’s ruling, which is being lauded as a “landmark” decision by Sorrell’s office, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. decided against the longstanding “waste confidence rule” that has allowed nuclear facilities to store spent fuel without having a plan for final disposal of the waste.

Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies, a senior policy adviser to the Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration, told Vermont legislators in April that Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel pool holds 513 metric tons of fuel, four times as much as it was designed to hold.

“Our comments made clear,” continued Sorrell, “that the D.C. Circuit’s ruling required the NRC to address the possibility that spent nuclear fuel might stay at reactor sites for years, decades, or even centuries.”

“The NRC should fulfill its obligation,” Coakley said in a statement, “to determine the safety around longterm storage of spent fuel at nuclear facilities as we continue to urge the federal government to remove this material from our generation facilities and decommissioned sites.”

“Long term storage [of nuclear waste] has always been an issue,” New England Coalition’s (NEC) Clay Turnbull told the Advocate, noting that the NEC first petitioned the Atomic Energy Commission about its concerns regarding the waste confidence rule back in 1971.

Under the waste confidence rule, nuclear facilities have always been allowed to claim, “By the time we need to move [the spent fuel], we’ll know what to do with it,” explains Turnbull. He adds that the NEC was encouraged that the waste confidence rule was overturned by a federal appeals court last year, and sees the recent petition by the attorneys general as an action taken due to that ruling.•

 

Warren and Cowan Back Protections for LGBT Kids

Several New England senators, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and acting-Sen. Mo Cowan, have signed on to a bill designed to protect gay and transgender kids from bullying.

The federal Student Non-Discrimination Act would extend existing anti-bullying laws to require public schools to address mistreatment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It would offer the same protections as those that now prohibit discrimination based on gender, religion, disability, race and national origin

“Fifty years of civil rights history shows that similar laws are effective in preventing discrimination from happening in the first place,” said a statement from the office of Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat who filed the bill. Franken had filed the same legislation in 2010, but it did not pass.

Numerous studies show that LGBT kids are more likely than heterosexuals to be bullied by their peers, more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to attempt suicide. A recent study by researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle found that 14 percent of eighth-grade boys and 11 percent of girls surveyed had been harassed in the previous month because of their perceived sexual orientation. Twenty-six percent of 12th grade boys who’d been bullied because they were perceived to be gay reported feeling suicidal in the previous year, compared to 8 percent of their non-bullied peers, according to the report.

In the Valley, the problem was made starkly clear by the 2009 suicide of 11-year-old Carl Hoover-Walker, who hanged himself after being tormented by classmates who perceived him to be gay.

Franken’s bill had been added to the Strengthening All Schools Act, which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education (“No Child Left Behind”) Act.

The anti-bullying bill has 30 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Warren, Cowan, Vermont’s Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and Rhode Island’s Jack Reed. All the co-sponsors are Democrats, with the exception of Sanders, an Independent.• —MT

 

Push On to Raise State’s Minimum Wage

State lawmakers were scheduled this week to hear testimony about a bill that would gradually raise Massachusetts’ minimum wage from the current $8 to an eventual $11 an hour.

The bill’s official name, “An Act to improve the Commonwealth’s economy with a strong minimum wage,” makes clear the argument offered by backers: that increasing the income of the state’s lowest-paid workers would help everyone by injecting more money into the economy—$720 million more a year, according to Progressive Mass, an activist group advocating for the bill.

“They’d spend it in our economy, which would create thousands more jobs,” Progressive Mass says in its call for the bill’s passage. “The large majority of minimum wage earners work for large employers of 100-plus employees making good profits. Those earning more than $11 an hour would benefit from the ‘spill over effect’ of the wage floor being raised.”

The legislation, which is sponsored by Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton) and Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), calls for the minimum wage to increase to $9 60 days after its passage, then by another dollar in 2014 and again in 2015. Starting in 2016, increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index. The bill also stipulates that Massachusetts’ minimum wage always be at least $1.50 more than the federal minimum wage.

The state’s minimum wage was last raised in 2008.

The bill’s sponsors include, from the Valley, Sens. Ben Downing, a Democrat from the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden District, and Jim Welch, a Democrat from the Hampden District, and Reps. Peter Kocot (D-Northampton), Denise Andrews (D-Orange), Cheryl Coakley-Rivera (D-Springfield), Ben Swan (D-Springfield), Ellen Story (D-Amherst) and Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke).

The proposal has met with pushback from business organizations who say it would put Massachusetts businesses at a disadvantage relative to competitors in states with lower minimums. Earlier this year, Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, told State House News Service that the issue is better addressed on the federal level, rather than letting the state “put local employers out of step with employers over the border.”

As of Jan. 1, five states and the District of Columbia had higher minimum wages than Massachusetts’, including Vermont, where it’s $8.60 an hour, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The highest minimum wage in the nation—$9.19—is in Washington state.

The legislative Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development had a hearing scheduled on the bill on June 11, after the Advocate’s deadline.• —MT

 

Health News Unfit for Human Consumption?

When the Institute for Natural Healing published an online article in May attributing the scientific conclusion that “processed meats are too dangerous for human consumption” to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), the WCRF disavowed the claim. In fact, WCRF said it had “no part in the production of this article,” which, amounted to “scaremongering.”

Of course, by the time WCRF issued its statement challenging the Intitute’s report, the story had informed dozens of newspaper reports around the world and was mentioned on hundreds of social media sites. Many of those reports also included the following quotation from the Intitute’s online article, again attributed to WCRF: “Consumers should stop buying and eating all processed meat products for the rest of their lives.” Few, if any, of the media outlets that gave the initial report legs followed up after the WCRF objected. On May 22, however, the Institute for Natural Healing noted WCRF’s objection, updating the initial story but standing by it: “We read [WCRF’s] review and drew the only logical, possible conclusion.”

What conclusion is that? That people shouldn’t eat processed meat.

So if WCRF disavows the Institute for Natural Health conclusion about its report, what does WCRF actually have to say about processed meat? According to a WCRF press release, “World Cancer Research Fund International recommends avoiding processed meat. This is the conclusion of an independent panel of leading scientists who, following the biggest review of international research ever undertaken, judged the evidence that processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer to be convincing. This review was done in 2007 and was subsequently confirmed in 2011.”

The Institute for Natural Healing describes its mission as twofold: providing “the latest medical science and breaking health news,” and offering for sale “the world’s most effective natural therapies.” Essential BioNutrients “is the Institute’s evidence-based line of nutritional supplements,” according to its website.• —PR

 

Valley Journalist Not Surprised by Everest Brawl

Each spring sees increased crowding on the slopes of Mount Everest, resulting in more death, and now violence.

As a photo in the current issue of National Geographic shows, traffic choked the popular route up Everest last May. “Some climbers spent as long as two hours at this 40-foot rock wall below the summit, losing body heat,” reads the photo’s caption. “234 people reached the top on [that] day. Four climbers died.”

Additionally, this May saw a near-brawl break out at the base camp of the Himalayas’ highest mountain.

“Three European men were involved in a brawl at 24,000 feet when a dispute over climbing procedure turned into a violent, near-death scuffle that raises new questions about the overcrowding of the summit,” reports The Atlantic. “Local officials are investigating the matter and say it’s the first time they ever heard of such an incident at the world’s biggest mountain.”

Apparently, “a group of Sherpa guides instructed the three climbers not to touch the ropes that the guides were placing on the way to the summit,” The Atlantic continues. “Witnesses say the three Europeans—one Italian, one British, and one Swiss climber—ignored the request and started climbing above them on their own. One of them may have also knocked some ice loose, hitting one of the Sherpas.”

Sherpas are renowned as high-altitude climbers, and many Sherpa communities are dependent on the international climbing community for their livelihood, local Valley journalist Jonathan Green tells the Advocate.

“Wealthy climbers often get winched up, tied in to Sherpas, and basically dragged up the mountain,” says Green, author of Murder in the High Himalaya: Loyalty, Tragedy, and Escape from Tibet (see “Gunshots on the Roof of the World,” Sept. 6, 2012). “Then [the climbers] go back and make all this money speaking about character and courage.”

“There’s such an income disparity between the Sherpas and these luxury adventures,” continues Green, “there’s bound to be animosity.”

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first known successful summiting of Mount Everest, by British climber Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Since then, reports The Atlantic, “more than 4,000 climbers have scaled “the top of the world” … [while] at least 220 have died trying.”• —PR

 

Wendell Says No to Pot?

Wendell has long had a reputation as one of the more marijuana-friendly communities in the Valley, so it came as no surprise to most when the small hilltown included Article 32, “An Article In Support of Medical Marijuana,” on the agenda at its Town Meeting last week.

“The medicalization of marijuana in other states has tended to economically favor large, corporate structures rather than smaller, worker-owned cooperatives,” reads the article, which notes that “Wendell has a long history as a nexus of holistic health and healing, spiritual enlightenment and social awareness, and a passion for agriculture and gardening.”

But something strange happened on the way to Wendell’s declaring “itself a medical marijuana friendly community”: the town’s citizens voted the motion down.

“A number of people expressed concerns about increased traffic and the loss of Wendell’s rural character,” Town Coordinator Nancy Aldrich tells the Advocate. “The debate did not seem to center on the actual medical marijuana issue itself.”

“The selectboard put the article on the agenda at the request of some citizens,” Aldrich continues. “I don’t know that any conclusions about the town can be drawn from this vote.”• —PR

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