Court Digest

Commerce secretary sued in plan to move whales for research

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — An animals rights group is suing in federal court to stop a Connecticut aquarium from acquiring five more beluga whales for research, saying they would be harmed by the trip from Canada and by being torn from long-term relationships with others of their species.

Friends of Animals, based in Darien, Connecticut, filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which approved the research permit that allows Mystic Aquarium to import the belugas from Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Mystic Aquarium is already home to three beluga whales, which are known for their white color and vocal sounds. In Mystic, they live in a 750,000-gallon outdoor habitat that the aquarium calls the largest in the United States. The five whales in Canada were born in captivity.

Aquarium officials say the permit is the first of its kind and will allow them to conduct noninvasive research that is vital to help boost endangered and depleted beluga whale populations.

Friends of Animals is suing over the granting of the research permit, which the group claims violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Protection Act because government officials did not adequately address the potential harm to the belugas of being moved to Mystic.

“Moving these belugas inflicts two distinct traumas on them,” the group said in a statement. “It tears them away from deep familial and social relationships that they have formed with the dozens of other belugas at Marineland, and the long and foreign voyage on trucks and airplanes emotionally and psychologically scars them.”

Stephen Hernick, a lawyer for Friends of Animals, added, “Not only is it unprecedented for the government to issue a permit to import members of a depleted species of belugas for purported research, it is illegal.”

Friends of Animals says research on belugas can be done in the wild, which is happening in waters off Alaska, where the population is critically endangered. That research is being led by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The NOAA is overseen by the Commerce Department.

A Mystic Aquarium spokeswoman, Dale Wolbrink, referred questions about the lawsuit to the NOAA and to information about beluga research on the aquarium website. NOAA spokeswoman Kate Goggin said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

On the website, the aquarium defends the research and says the beluga habitat there will provide a safe, healthy and spacious environment for the five new whales. It also says they will be transported safely. It says having a larger group of belugas will advance knowledge quicker on information vital to their survival, including reproductive systems, behavior, stress response and immune system capabilities.

“The non-invasive research we will be able to do as a result of this permit is pivotal to stemming the tide of extinction for endangered belugas and to ensuring the sustainability of beluga populations in a rapidly changing environment,” Tracy Romano, chief scientist at the aquarium, said in a statement last week.

Aquarium officials did not say in the announcement when the five belugas would be moved to Mystic.

Former patrol trooper accused of ripping off man’s mask charged

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper who was fired after a man filming a traffic stop accused him of ripping off his face mask has now been charged with assault.

Harvey Briggs approached a protester at a peaceful demonstration last month in Nashville and tore off his mask, touching his face in the process, according to court records filed Thursday.

Briggs was fired after the incident for unprofessional conduct, a THP spokesperson said.

Briggs, a 22-year employee of the agency, was placed on leave after a video surfaced of the encounter. In the video, Andrew Golden films a traffic stop by troopers at the state Capitol. Briggs, who was not involved in the stop, crosses the street and threatens to arrest Golden if he tries to impede the stop. Briggs has his hand on his gun and is not wearing a mask. At one point he gets inches away from Golden’s face.

Golden then turns the camera away and it captures his mask flying to the ground. Golden has said Briggs ripped it off. In the video, Briggs denies the allegation.

Miner who flagged safety concerns reinstated to job

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A federal administrative court has reinstated a Kentucky miner who was fired from his job at a limestone mine after complaining about safety conditions and whether the mine was keeping workers safe from the coronavirus.

The court temporarily reinstated Bill Whitmore to his job at the Riverside Stone mine last month. Whitmore alleged he was fired for complaining about unsafe equipment and that superiors were not taking precautions to protect against COVID-19. The order by administrative judge William B. Moran on Aug. 4 allows for Whitmore to be reinstated to his job at his previous pay level while his case is litigated.

The company that owns the mine, Yager, said in court records that Whitmore was fired for making erroneous comments to a probationary employee at the mine. An attorney for the Owensboro, Kentucky-based company did not respond to a request for comment this week.

The case moved forward last week when the U.S. Department of Labor filed a complaint with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission in Washington on behalf of Whitmore, saying Yager “unlawfully discharged” Whitmore. Yager has 30 days to respond to that complaint, said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety lawyer in Lexington who is representing Whitmore.

Whitmore was fired April 29, according to court records.

He had told superiors a contractor at the mine property was not following coronavirus protocols because he had concerns the worker had been exposed to the virus while working in Louisiana. Whitmore also reported an incident where he had a near accident with a hauling truck underground and alleged several safety defects on company equipment.

Whitmore, who has worked in the mining industry for 35 years, started at the limestone mine in Meade County in 2019 as a maintenance manager.

Whitmore filed his complaint in May under the anti-discrimination provision of the federal mine safety act. Oppegard said in an email it’s “important that miners learn about their safety rights, which is why we think this case is newsworthy.” Wes Addington of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg is also representing Whitmore.

Oppegard said as part of the agreement, Whitmore has been receiving pay during the reinstatement but will not be working at the mine. He went back on the payroll Aug. 5.

New Hampshire
State: Lawmaker advocated burning Black Lives Matter houses

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A legislator accused of making a Facebook post that advocated burning and looting houses displaying Black Lives Matter signs is being investigated by the state attorney general and facing calls to resign.

“Public Service Announcement: If you see a BLM sign on a lawn, it’s the same as having a porch light on at Halloween. You are free to burn and loot that house,” New Hampshire Rep. James Spillane, a Republican, posted recently, according to an image the state attorney general’s office provided in a  letter  to House Speaker Steve Shurtleff.

The Facebook post now appears to have been deleted.

Sean Locke, of the attorney general’s office civil rights unit, said his office received complaints about the post. In his letter to Shurtleff, dated Thursday, Locke wrote that “members of the public who support the Black Lives Matter movement have expressed fear that they may become targets of violence as the result of Rep. Spillane’s post.”

Shurtleff, a Democrat, called for Spillane’s immediate resignation. He said the post was “inexcusable.”

Spillane, of Deerfield, is seeking a fifth term in the Legislature. Email, phone and Facebook messages were left seeking comment.

Jordan Thompson, a founder of Black Lives Matter Nashua and a racial justice organizer for the ACLU of New Hampshire, also called on Spillane to resign.

“Remarks like these indicate a total lack of decency and respect for Black lives,” Thompson said in a statement.

Last year, Spillane lost a seat on a legislative committee after sharing a photo of a squirrel’s bloody carcass in response to a vegan animal rights activist. “I shot a squirrel on my bird feeder today with a .50 caliber muzzleloader. Enjoy,” he wrote.

The tweet prompted a complaint to the state Fish and Game Department, which sent officers to Spillane’s home to tell him he did not have the legal right to kill the squirrel outside the hunting season, which runs from Sept. 1 to Jan. 1.

Indictment accuses 12 of illegally trading shark fins, drugs

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Federal authorities said Thursday that they have charged 12 people and seized nearly $8 million in cash, jewels and precious metals after disrupting a criminal enterprise that dealt drugs and sold illegally harvested shark fins to buyers overseas.

U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine of Georgia’s Southern District said that what began five years ago as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation into illegal shark fin trading led to authorities “dismantling a major conspiracy” also involved in illegal marijuana trafficking and money laundering.

“This operation is about much more than disrupting the despicable practice of hacking the fins off of sharks and leaving them to drown in the sea to create a bowl of soup,” Christine told a news conference in Savannah.

An indictment in U.S. District Court says that Terry Xing Zhao Wu ran a company called Serendipity Business Solutions in Burlingame, California, that smuggled shark fins into the U.S. from Mexico and shipped them to Hong Kong.

Soups made from shark fins are considered a delicacy in some Asian countries, and that demand has fueled an illegal practice of catching sharks at sea, removing their fins and then dumping the maimed animals back into the water to die.

The indictment says Wu used a front company in Florida to ship at least 12,500 pounds (5,670 kilograms) of dried shark fins to Hong Kong through the Port of Savannah in 2016 and 2017. Prosecutors said Phoenix Fisheries of Panama City, Florida, used fake paperwork to exploit a Florida law that allows licensed dealers to sell fins from sharks that are legally caught and brought to land whole.

Wu was also involved in illegally shipping marijuana from California to Georgia and other parts of the U.S., according to the indictment.

Using third-party accounts, some of the profits were converted to precious metals and jewels to hide their illegal origins, Christine said. While making arrests in the case, he said, authorities seized more than $3.9 million in cash, about $3 million in gold, silver, and other metals, as well as $1 million in diamonds.

Court records did not list defense attorneys for Wu or any of the other 11 defendants indicted on conspiracy charges involving wire and mail fraud, drug possession and money laundering. Christine said the investigation hasn’t wrapped up and there could be more arrests.

“Make no mistake: We’ve hit them where it hurts and we have them on the ropes,” Christine said.

State Supreme Court rules bonding plan is unconstitutional

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Supreme Court on Friday rejected as unconstitutional former Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal to use bonding to pay Alaska’s oil and gas tax credit obligations.

The court, in a written ruling, said the plan which was approved by the Legislature in 2018, is “unconstitutional in its entirety.”

The bill passed by lawmakers approved the creation of a new state corporation that would be empowered to sell up to $1 billion in bonds to pay off remaining tax credit obligations. The Legislature previously voted to end the tax credit program geared toward small producers and developers, saying that the program had become unaffordable.

The state constitution limits the power to incur state debt. But a 2018 legal opinion by then-Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said the proposed bonds would not be considered state debt subject to the constitutional restraints because they would be “subject-to-appropriation” bonds and contingent upon annual legislative appropriation decisions.

Superior Court Judge Jude Pate dismissed the lawsuit brought by resident Eric Forrer, who had challenged the bonding plan. Forrer appealed.

The Alaska Supreme Court, in its decision, said subject-to-appropriation bonds are “contrary to the plain text of the Alaska Constitution and the framers’ intent.”

“If the State intends to utilize financing schemes similar to HB 331 in the future, it must first seek approval from the people — if not through a bond referendum then through a constitutional amendment,” the opinion states. HB 331 refers to the bonding bill.