Fund Created to Help Hyattsville Family Displaced by Fire Reaches $55,000

April 21st, 2011

A fund created to help a Hyattsville family devastated by a fire in January has climbed to $55,000, said creator Stuart Eisenberg.

In the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 19, the Hyattsville house where the Zelaya Hernandez family lived caught fire. Of the seven members of their extended family in the house that night, only five escaped. Nine-year-old Kimberly Hernandez and her sister, 13-year-old Kelly Hernandez, died as a result of the blaze.

The fire destroyed the house where the family had been living for the past four years, creating an estimated $350,000 in damage to the home’s structure and content, according to fire officials.

Eisenberg, 47, a close neighbor of the Hernandezes and a former president of the Hyattsville City Council, set up the relief fund for the family shortly after the fire.

He said the money raised by the fund helped replace the family’s car, which was damaged by the blaze. The money was also used to help the Hernandezes with their rent, to pay for funeral expenses and to buy household items, clothing and new mattresses.

The family “had to put together a full household again,” said Eisenberg, adding there was nothing to recover from the house after the fire.

Eisenberg, the executive director of the nonprofit Hyattsville Community Development Corp., said monetary donations for the family are still being accepted, but not goods.

He said funds are being used to address the family’s needs as they come up.

The Rev. Vidal Rivas, 46, head of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, said the family is recovering and now lives in Langley Park. He has been giving the spiritual support, he said, and sees them often in church.

“They are doing very well,” he said.

By Maryland Newsline’s Maite Fernandez

Previous story: Hyattsville Community Comes Together to Help Family Ripped Apart by Fire

Hoyer: Keep Election Assistance Commission, Expect Changes

April 14th, 2011

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, urged fellow lawmakers not to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission at a House Subcommittee on Elections hearing Thursday morning.

“The EAC has created a comprehensive program to test state voting systems for accuracy—and use of this program has been shown to save our states millions of dollars and up to 12 months of testing time,” he said.

Established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the commission assists state officials with election funding and data collection. It also collects and standardizes data from the states and acts as a clearinghouse for best practices and election information.

Witnesses discussed a bill proposed by Subcommittee Chairman Gregg Harper, R-Miss., which would eliminate the agency.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning testified that the organization has “outlived its usefulness.”

Secretaries of state from Florida, New Hampshire and Mississippi supported eliminating the commission, saying the responsibilities of the agency could be handled by other entities like the Federal Election Commission or Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Hoyer said the commission should continue to handle voting-related issues because the FEC is focused on campaign finance, not elections.

Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, said shifting the duties of the EAC  to another organization would not reduce spending because the agencies assuming those roles would require additional funding.

Witness John Fortier, a research fellow from the American Enterprise Institute, said he would like to see a “leaner, meaner EAC.”

Even if the agency is eliminated, Fortier said, continued data gathering and standardization by other agencies is necessary.

Jill LaVine, registrar of voters for Sacramento County, Calif., said election officials rely on the assistance and guidance of the commission. The agency helped local officials when Sacramento introduced assist terminals for disabled voters, she said.

“No one pays any attention  to an election official until something goes wrong,” LaVine said. “Now is not the time to terminate the EAC.”

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said the commission has become redundant. He testified that the agency’s data reporting requirements have burdened states’ small election staffs.

Hoyer conceded that spending cuts and program reform may be appropriate for the agency but questioned the bill stating, “Should that mean that therefore we should abolish an agency which the Congress overwhelmingly decided was a useful and appropriate function for the federal government to follow? I think not.”

By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

Va. Woman Is Pr. George’s 29th Homicide Victim

April 8th, 2011

A Virginia woman was shot and killed in Bladensburg, Md., Thursday night, and a baby girl was found with her body, a Prince George’s County Police spokesman said.

Shawnta Lysheema Coleman, 33, of the 6400 block of Wilcox Court in Alexandria, Va., was found shot behind an apartment complex at about 10:20 p.m. Thursday, police Cpl. Henry Tippett said.

The baby, found with Coleman’s body in the 5600 block of Emerson Street, was unharmed, police Cpl. Larry Johnson said. She is in the custody of the Prince George’s County Department of Social Services, Johnson said.

A call made to the Department of Social Services was not immediately returned.

It was not known whether the baby was related to Coleman, Johnson said.

Coleman is the county’s 29th homicide victim in 2011, and the second this month.

Abraham Felipe-Lopez, 32, of the 1400 block of Kanawha Street in Langley Park, Md., was fatally stabbed during an argument on Saturday.

- By Maryland Newsline’s Alexander Pyles

Marcellus Shale Drilling Moratorium Compromise In The Works

April 8th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS – Compromises on a bill that would create a temporary moratorium on natural gas drilling in Western Maryland’s Marcellus Shale formation are being hammered out in a series of closed-door meetings.

Lawmakers and a variety of interested parties this week held several so-called “stakeholders meetings” that could produce a final compromise on the bill before the Senate takes it up for debate. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House last month.

The legislation would restrict drilling in Maryland’s slice of the Marcellus formation until 2013, when two state agencies would be required to complete a study that outlines the potential environmental impact associated with a controversial drilling method called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Details of the closed-door discussions on the drilling moratorium are being held fairly closely at this point. Delegate Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who is sponsoring the bill,  declined to comment Thursday on the meetings.

But Sen. George Edwards, a Republican from Garrett and an opponent of the proposed drilling moratorium, said at least two items are being negotiated at the meetings.

Under the legislation, energy companies would be required to pay $10 per acre of land leased in the Marcellus formation for two years. The money generated, which is estimated at about $ 1 million each year, would be used to pay for the study mandated by the legislation.

Edwards said the energy industry has agreed in the meetings to pay $10 per acre for one year only.

Edwards also is pushing for test drilling during the moratorium, so that experts can better gauge the potential impact that fracking could have on water wells in Western Maryland.

Another meeting was scheduled for today, but it was closed to the public and reporters.

“It’s not a public meeting,” Mizeur said Wednesday.

The stakeholders meetings are nothing new in Annapolis. The Associated Press’ Tom Lobianco reported in March on a series of “secret negotiations” that produced a compromise that allows wineries to ship bottles of their products to Marylanders.

–By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf

Legislative Audit Details $71,000 Theft by DNR Employee

April 8th, 2011

A legislative audit released last week uncovered about $71,000 of likely fraudulent purchase card charges by an unnamed Department of Natural Resources  employee.

The audit, found here, was released on April 1. The Department of Legislative Services started its audit in February 2010 when the DNR alerted the agency and the state Attorney General’s Office to the potential employee theft.

A DNR spokeswoman said the employee “parted ways” with the agency by March 2010, but the spokeswoman would not say if the worker was fired. The audit report says the employee was fired. The Attorney General’s Office is still investigating the purchases.

The report says many of the purchases were sent to the employee’s home address and had been purchased online.

It says that invoices generated after the purchases by the employee misrepresented the items. In some cases, invoices described office supplies when the actual items purchased included computer games, clothing and gift cards.

The audit recommended that DNR ensure all employees follow state guidelines for purchase cards, since supervisors are supposed to approve purchases.

The DNR said those guidelines had not always been followed until the thefts were exposed.

“We immediately trained everyone to make sure everyone more clearly understood policies (following the thefts),” said Darlene Pisani, DNR spokeswoman.

The agency was audited from May 1, 2007, to March 17, 2010.

In addition to the fraudulent purchase card discovery, the audit found:

  • Some public land leases were not adequately monitored by DNR, which is charged with leasing 468 properties.
  • The DNR lost $30,000 by not applying for federal fund reimbursements in a “more timely manner.”
  • The DNR did not keep up-t0-date equipment records.

By Capital News Service’s Kerry Davis

Leading Hospice Provider Changes Name, Hosts Disparity-in-Care Discussion

April 7th, 2011

Amid a National Press Club conference room full of smiling faces, clapping hands and champagne-filled glasses, Carmela Pellicci welcomed the arrival of her employer’s new moniker: Capital Caring, a fresh title, she said, for one of the Washington D.C. area’s leading hospice providers.

Formerly named Capital Hospice, Capital Caring has helped patients and their loved ones through the arduous process of end-of-life care since 1977, a painstaking process by any standard.

Pellicci, a care representative for patients in Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C., said the provider’s new name is a welcome departure.

“As soon as you meet with a family, and they hear the word, ‘hospice,’ they cringe,” said Pellicci, who along with other Capital Caring employees, a physician panel and several visitors, cheered as President Marlene Smith Davis announced the name change Wednesday afternoon. “Capital Caring shows we really want to be there for them.”

This care, Pellicci said, goes a long way in ending health disparities in hospice care.

Health disparities refer to gaps in health care access that divide along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Black elders in the District are 34 percent less likely to use hospice or end-of-life services than whites in their age group and from their region, according to new research conducted by Capital Caring.

For more than 34 years, Capital Caring has aided 75,000 families in coping with advanced illnesses like cancer. More than 20 doctors round out the organization.

Pellicci said disparities in hospice care bleed into Maryland as well, affecting minority residents for the worst.

“I think members of the African-American community feel like they are being pushed out of the medical system and that their doctors are giving up,” said Pellicci. “That’s a big problem in Prince George’s County, as well as in D.C.”

Pellicci looked on as NPR host Kojo Nnamdi moderated the panel of physicians, which included doctors from across the country. The physicians discussed the triggers of health disparities and raised potential solutions. One point united them all: Language barriers prolong disparities in hospice care.

“People of all ages, ethnic groups and religious traditions have a fundamental ambivalence about their own mortality…language is critical,” said Dr. Richard Payne from Duke University. He cited a California study to illustrate his point.

“The study looked at Hispanic and African-American populations and found that a major issue or barrier to lack of access for those in California were around how you talk about hospice and how you connect it to other aspects of health care and community life,” he said.

Payne said the study serves as a mirror for the role language plays in deepening disparities in hospice care nationwide.

As far as solutions, Davis said improving access to counseling and pain and symptom management programs are essential to closing the gap–two strides she takes seriously.

“We’re serious about listening to our patients and families–the moms, dads, their children–and looking at the landscape to see what’s there and what’s not there,” Davis said.

Pellicci said community outreach is proving ideal for Capital Caring in Prince George’s County.

“We’re making a lot of headway,” she said.  “We’re providing a lot of education in community churches, senior centers, long-term care facilities, hospitals and just raising awareness about what Capital Caring is about. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a wonderful experience. ”

By Capital News Service’s Jessica Harper

U.S. Government Shutdown Would Affect Potomac Cleanup Plans

April 7th, 2011


View Potomac River Watershed Cleanup Sites in a larger map

Unpaid parking tickets, a prosthetic leg and a Vespa scooter were among the unusual items found at last year’s Potomac Watershed Cleanup, an annual event expected to draw thousands of volunteers this Saturday to sites in Washington and surrounding states.

But if a federal government shutdown goes into effect Friday, due to a congressional impasse on federal budget negotiations, site leaders on federal land would be required to cancel or reschedule their cleanups.

And cleanups that aren’t on federal park sites may also postpone or cancel, said Dolly Davis, a community activist and site leader for the cleanup planned at Pope Branch Park in Washington.

The watershed cleanup, organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation in conjunction with local volunteers and environmental groups, drew more than 15,000 volunteers in 2010 and was expected to exceed that number this year.

“At our first cleanup [23 years ago], there were only 10 people,” said Becky Horner, Potomac River Watershed Cleanup coordinator. “It just snowballed each year.”

More than 400 sites in four states and the District have registered for Saturday’s event and for similar cleanups throughout April, Horner said. But if the shutdown goes into effect, at least 76 cleanup sites would be affected.

The cleanup is part of the foundation’s ongoing effort to achieve a trash-free Potomac River by the year 2013, a goal outlined in its 2005 “Trash Treaty.” The treaty, signed by 161 elected officials from participating states, commits to increasing pollution awareness and implementing strategies for trash reduction in affected areas.

The foundation recommends that individuals take steps – such as properly disposing of trash, purchasing products made of recyclable material and using reusable shopping bags – to reduce pollution.

Volunteers collected 252 tons of trash in last year’s cleanup, Horner said. While hardly a small amount, this was a decrease from the 291 tons collected in 2009, she said. The amount of trash found in the river is largely dependent on weather activity, such as heavy storms.

Parks throughout Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., all participate in the annual cleanup. Site leaders register electronically on the Ferguson Foundation’s website. Those who registered before mid-March received complimentary cleanup equipment, such as gloves and trash bags.

Horner said the most common items found at the cleanups are food containers, paper products and plastic bags. Tires and cigarette butts are also common.

Davis, who has been involved with cleanups in Pope Branch Park since 2001, said she hopes the event can go on as scheduled.

“Right now, we’re just waiting to see what’s going to happen,” she said.

For more information on the cleanup and possible cancellations, volunteers can visit fergusonfoundation.org.

–By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

Hoyer Calls for Compromise to Avoid Government Shutdown

April 5th, 2011

Rep. Steny Hoyer,  D-Mechanicsville, called for Republicans to compromise on the looming budget challenges during a press briefing this morning.

The House Minority Whip said he opposes short-term continuing resolutions like the one introduced by the House Appropriations Committee on Monday. He said the “episodic, sporadic funding levels” of continuing resolutions, in lieu of passing an overall 2011 budget, do not address the essential challenges of funding the government.

The continuing resolution measure would fund the government for one week. The Department of Defense would receive funding through the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Hoyer said Congress is not going to solve the budget with non-security cuts and that all aspects of the budget, with the exception of the interest on the national debt, must be on the table in budget negotiations.

Without a continuing resolution, federal employees could face a shutdown that Hoyer calls “costly and demoralizing — not just for federal employees, but demoralizing for the nation.”

The ability to compromise is essential to the process, Hoyer said, and tea partyers who rallied on The Hill last week are unwilling to compromise.

Referring to last year’s tax cuts, he said, “In December, we made some compromises we didn’t like,” he said. “We’re prepared to compromise” on the budget issues, he said.

Hoyer said the budget is “a reflection of what people think is important.”

By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

Church Damaged by Pipe Break Moves to Suitland

April 5th, 2011
(Photo by Maryland Newsline's Alexanda Wilding)

Property at the Capitol Heights church was damaged in January by the water main break. (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Alexanda Wilding)

A Capitol Heights church that was extensively damaged earlier this year by a 54-inch water main break has temporarily relocated to a new location in Suitland, where it shares a space with New Birth Christian Church.

Pastor Stephanie Stratford of the Ekklesia Family Life and Worship Center said the church ended its lease at the previous location and has been worshiping in the new location since early February. The church is looking for a permanent home and is in the process of gathering funds to eventually relocate, Stratford said.

“I am very hopeful that someone who owns property suitable for the church would consider donating it to the church because of our tragedy with our building,” Stratford said. “Even if it needs fixing up, we’d be willing to do that.”

She said she hopes the church can remain in the Capitol Heights, Forestville, District Heights or Suitland areas.

The Christian community and political leaders have been helpful in the recovery process, and the church has received some “considerably generous” donations, Stratford said.

In late January, 50 million gallons of water burst from a broken water main in Capitol Heights after reinforcing wires in the main snapped. Water rushed into the office park housing the church and onto the nearby inner loop of the Capital Beltway.

About 400,000 Prince George’s County customers of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission lost water pressure due to the burst main, and they were under a boil water advisory for four days.

The inspection of the broken main has been completed, but it will need additional repairs and is not in service at this time, said WSSC spokesman I.J. Hudson. It will cost about $480,000 to repair the main and restore the parking lot that surrounds it, he added.

WSSC is installing an acoustic fiber optics system on the larger and older mains as preventative measures to prevent further incidents. The system is expected to be installed in all the larger mains by 2013, Hudson said.

Following the water main break, the church settled with WSSC for damages to its property in an amount that Stratford didn’t wish to disclose, but said was “fair.”

The insurance company representing the owner of the damaged building – The Korth Companies Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md. – is handling financial discussions with WSSC, said company Vice President Terry Korth.

Stratford said she likes the church’s current location, on Meadowview Drive in Suitland. “It’s in the heart of the community, and our mission is directed toward the community,” she said of her following, which includes about 60 families. Members worship there at 7:30 a.m. on Sundays and hold a Bible study at the same location on Thursday evenings at 7 p.m.

In the days that followed the water main break, church members worshiped at Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland and Brown Memorial AME Church in Washington.

Donations to the church can be sent to P.O. Box 1479 Suitland, Md., 20752.

–By Maryland Newsline’s Alexandra Wilding

Previous Story: Water Main Break Gives Church Hope

Bowie Man Pleads Guilty in Prince George’s Extortion Scheme

April 1st, 2011

A Prince George’s County restaurant owner pleaded guilty to conspiracy and extortion in a scheme involving the transportation of untaxed cigarettes, said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney in Baltimore.

Chun Chen, 34, of Bowie, Md., was named in charging documents as one of seven co-conspirators in the scheme. He is the first of the defendants to enter a guilty plea, Marcia Murphy said. The other six pleaded not guilty in November.

Chen faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He will also forfeit the $2.66 million in lost tax revenue the state attributes to his dealings.

Since July 2009 Chen, also known as Eddy Chen, bought untaxed cigarettes from two co-conspirators, including one Prince George’s County Police officer, according to the plea agreement. Chong Chin Kim, a Prince George’s Police officer for more than 16 years, also bought untaxed cigarettes, the agreement said.

Former Prince George’s Police officer Richard Delabrer and Amir Milijkovic bought cigarettes without state tax stamps on the cartons — making them contraband — from an undercover FBI agent, then re-sold them to Chen and Kim, among others, the document said.

Delabrer transported or aided in the transport of the untaxed cigarettes from Virginia to Maryland, the agreement said. Sales tax on cigarettes in Virginia is $0.30 a pack; in Maryland, it is $2 a pack. After buying from Delabrer and Milijkovic, Chen would then sell those cigarettes to people in New York, where taxes on cigarettes exceed $8 per pack, the agreement said.

Chen and others listed in charging documents paid Prince George’s County Police officers to help ensure safe transport, the agreement said.


- By Maryland Newsline’s Alexander Pyles