Archive for February, 2011

No Symbolic Vote for Benson

Friday, February 25th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — Senate President Mike Miller on Friday declined to give Sen. Joanne Benson, D-Prince George’s, the only member of the upper chamber who missed Thursday’s final vote on same-sex marriage, the opportunity to cast what would have amounted to a symbolic vote on the issue.

Benson, one of 11 Senate Democrats who voted against the bill Wednesday when the chamber gave it preliminary approval, asked the Senate to grant her the opportunity to vote a day late because the issue carried personal meaning for her (Benson opposes the bill because of her religious beliefs).

Benson explained she missed Thursday’s final vote because she was in Prince George’s County giving a speech to 400 high school students. She returned to Annapolis after the Senate passed the same-sex marriage bill 25-21.

Miller was OK with letting Benson cast a symbolic vote, one that would be recorded in the Senate record. But the idea ran into trouble when Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick, asked if the Senate would extend the same courtesy to Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Harford, who is expected to miss parts of the session after being called to active duty in the Air National Guard.

Miller didn’t appear interested and quickly quashed the issue.

“If it’s not unanimous we’ll leave it at 25-21,” he said.

– By Capital New Service’s David Saleh Rauf

Pr. George’s 20th Homicide Victim Identified

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Prince George’s County police have identified a Laurel, Md., man who was killed Feb. 17.

Aaron Patrick Brown, 24, was found dead in the 13000 block of Laurel Bowie Road in Laurel, near Deerfield Run Elementary School, at about 6:15 p.m., police Cpl. Evan Baxter said.

Brown was the county’s 20th homicide victim in 2011. Of those 20, 19 are being investigated as criminal homicides. The other was ruled self defense.

Baxter said police were still investigating the county’s most recent slaying and that no suspects had yet been identified.

Police are increasingly looking to the community to help solve the county’s homicides this year, the first of which occurred New Year’s Day. On Tuesday, Prince George’s County police teamed with a local radio conglomerate in Lanham, Md., taking phone calls from listeners and doing on-air interviews with radio personalities.

Police co-hosted the radio-thon with Radio One, which owns and operates five stations in the area, as a way to encourage listeners to provide information on crimes. A police spokeswoman said police hoped they would receive calls about information that could be used to help close some of those homicide cases, but calls from listeners were limited to community crime issues.

“The reaction has been very good,” Lt. Tammy Sparkman said. “Most of the calls are … citizens calling in to let us know about criminal activity in their neighborhood.”

Eight phone lines were manned by a team of 12 Prince George’s police officers, working in shifts, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Radio One stations WKYS 93.9 FM, WYCB 1340 AM, WOL 1450 AM, WMMJ 102.3 FM, and Praise 104.1 FM all participated.

-By Maryland Newsline’s Alexander Pyles

Md. Environmental Group to Develop Baltimore Harbor Report Card

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

A University of Maryland environmental research group is developing a “report card” to assess the health of the Baltimore Harbor.

The Baltimore Harbor Report Card will help track water quality levels as property owners and city officials work to clean up the polluted harbor over the next decade.

The report card, which is being developed by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, is being modeled after a similar tool the group created to score Chesapeake Bay water quality.

Research by UMCES’ Heath Kelsey, who is helping to design the report card, found that Baltimore Harbor water is safe for swimmers only 21 percent of the time because of high concentrations of bacteria.

Development of the report card is in the early stages, Kelsey said.  He expected it to be released in 2012.

The report card will measure specific indicators of water health like levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and toxic contaminants.

UMCES, in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Chesapeake Bay Program, developed the first report card program for the Chesapeake Bay, EcoCheck, in 2007.

-By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

Westboro Group Plans Protest in Hyattsville

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011
Members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church protest at Fort Myer, Arlington, Va.,  in July 2006. The group plans to protest at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville next week. (Creative Commons photo on Flickr courtesy of Graeme Wood)

Members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church protest at Fort Myer, Arlington, Va., in July 2006. The group plans to protest at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville next week. (Creative Commons photo on Flickr courtesy of Graeme Wood)

A Kansas church known for its vehement anti-homosexual stance and for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers is targeting a Hyattsville high school for a protest next week.

A small cohort from the Westboro Baptist Church is planning to demonstrate outside Northwestern High School on Tuesday to voice objections over what it describes as a “pervert-run” school.

The church did not cite a specific issue with Northwestern but said teachers across the country have “broken the moral compass of this generation.

“These students are sitting in these high schools and actively together are rebelling against God and his commandments,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman and daughter of the church’s founder. “It’s the same everywhere. You seen one, you seen them all.”

Prince George’s County Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. defended the school, saying the district does not support the planned demonstration.

“Our school district … is committed to supporting all of the students in our diverse population,” Hite said in a statement.

Prince George’s County School Board member Rosalind Johnson had stronger words for the church.

“I am appalled,” she said. “I can’t imagine someone claiming to be a member of a Christian church and truly perverting the word of God.”

The planned picket in Hyattsville comes as the U.S. Supreme Court returns from its winter recess. The Topeka, Kan.-based church is at the center of a Supreme Court case that stems from a protest in which church members picketed the funeral of a slain Marine from Carroll County, Md. The father of the Marine sued, but a federal appeals court ruled the church members were protected by the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in October and will decide if the First Amendment protects protesters at funerals from liability for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the family of the deceased.

Church members frequently travel across the country to protest gay rights and the Jewish faith. The protests can ignite strong emotions, as church members generally scream slurs at passers-by and display signs with controversial slogans like “God Hates America” and “God Hates F –s.”

About seven church members are expected to picket Tuesday across the street from the entrance of the school’s main parking lot, Phelps-Roper said.

In response, Hyattsville Police are planning to beef up security around the school and are developing a contingency plan “in case things go bad,” said Sgt. Chris Purvis.

The church is planning a separate protest in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday morning. Phelps-Roper said the church chose Northwestern, a school of roughly 2,500 students that claims Muppets creator Jim Henson as an alumnus, because it is in the general area, which she said is densely populated with military families.

In a news release, however, the church described Northwestern as a “F — infested, pervert-run” school.

The church was founded by Fred Phelps, who ran a street ministry in the 1950s that crusaded against people making out in public, said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and has followed the church for years.

Phelps first drew national attention in 1998 when he picketed the funeral of slain University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was targeted because he was gay.

Since then, Phelps has used funerals as his “signature protest,” Potok said.

“This is a guy who will do anything to get publicity,” he said.

–By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf and Maryland Newsline’s Alexandra Wilding

Bethesda Bar Owner Awarded Liquor License for Thirsty Turtle Space

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

The space on Baltimore Avenue in College Park formerly occupied by the Thirsty Turtle may have just gotten a new tenant.

The Prince George’s County Liquor Control Board unanimously voted Tuesday to award John F. McManus, owner of The Barking Dog in Bethesda, Md., a Class B liquor license for beer, wine and liquor at 7416 Baltimore Ave. A Class B license allows alcohol to be served and consumed on location.

The approval allows McManus to negotiate a contract with the space’s landlord and Thirsty Turtle owner Alan Wanuck, who still holds the lease. McManus said the three parties have been in discussions for three months, but a deal was contingent on McManus securing a liquor license.

The Thirsty Turtle had its liquor license stripped Nov. 3, after evidence of underage drinking was brought to light after the stabbing of four men, three of them underage, following an altercation inside the bar.

The Barking Dog owner said he expects details to be worked out quickly. Though McManus said he felt badly for Thirsty Turtle ownership, he said he wouldn’t make the same mistakes as his predecessors. “I have nothing to do with those people,” he said.

“It’s a great location, it’s a great space,” McManus said. “University of Maryland’s not going anywhere. There’s not a whole lot of options (in College Park), really. … That building is inherently really nice. It needs some spit and polish. Right now, it looks like a wounded animal. Once it gets cleaned up, and fixed up, and organized and set up, people are going to be really surprised.”

McManus said he will have a target on his back at first, given the space’s history, but hoped to win over the community quickly. But he said some who were fans of the Thirsty Turtle probably won’t be fans of The Barking Dog. “The freshmen won’t like it,” McManus said. “They’re welcome to come in and eat, but not drink.”

Sgt. Ken Leonard, spokesman for University of Maryland police, said he wants to meet McManus soon to “get on equal footing,” given the space’s recent history.

“Hopefully it’ll be a successful business and a good draw for the community and students at large,” Leonard said. “But do it in a responsible manner.”

Franklin D. Jackson, chairman of the county liquor board, said voting to award the license to McManus, who owned five other bars and restaurants before The Barking Dog, was not difficult for him. Jackson said documents showed McManus did not have any violations on record for his bar in Bethesda.

“It appeared the applicant was fit and proper, he had significant experience in terms of running a restaurant,” Jackson said. “And he’s bringing a restaurant concept he’s proven elsewhere.”

Jackson said the space on Baltimore Avenue is the “largest retail commercial enterprise in College Park. (McManus has the ability) to keep it safe, (and) run such a space. Since he’s already running a business that’s extremely large, it just makes sense that he’d be able to transfer those skills over.”

McManus said he hopes The Barking Dog could open in College Park by May 1.

- By Maryland Newsline’s Alexander Pyles

Guantanamo Bay Detainee Plea Deal

Monday, February 21st, 2011

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — A military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay sentenced Noor Uthman Muhammed, a Sudanese native, to 14 years confinement on Friday but a plea agreement suspended the sentence and he will serve 34 months in exchange for his future cooperation in other investigations. Noor, as he requested to be called in an earlier hearing, will not get credit for the nine years he already served in Guantanamo.

Noor pleaded guilty to conspiracy and materially supporting terrorism on Tuesday. Under the charges, he admitted to training terrorists recruits at Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2000.

A nine-member commission heard arguments in the sentencing phase without knowledge of the plea arrangement and sentenced Noor to the maximum punishment after more than five hours of deliberation.

Capital News Service was among more than two-dozen news organizations permitted to observe Noor’s trial at the detention center in Cuba.

“Terrorists are not born, they are made,” said Lt. Cmdr. Arthur Gaston in the opening remarks for the prosecution. “And Noor Uthman has made hundreds of them.”

In his opening statement for the defense, lead counsel Howard Cabot, a civilian attorney from Phoenix countered: “I don’t have a catchy phrase to start my remarks.”

Though Noor made some mistakes, Cabot said, he has changed from the young man who left the Sudan for Pakistan 17 years ago.

The parties agreed to a stipulation of facts and offered no live testimony. The commission members- all military officers- saw statements of expected testimony and other documents including terrorism tactic manuals found in the safe house where Noor stayed just before his capture in 2002.

Defense counsel read an unsworn statement from Noor which detailed the alleged abuse he suffered in detention. “The worst time that I spent in Guantanamo Bay was while I was locked in Camp 5. I was there for two years in a cell by myself. I thought that I would lose my mind,” the statement read.

In closing arguments, the defense again offered photographs of the defendant as a young man and his family. They reassured commission members that Noor’s family and tribe would provide support if he is permitted to return to Sudan.

Several non-governmental organizations sent representatives to observe the trial.

Laura Pitter, counterterrorism advisor for Human Rights Watch, questioned the proceedings saying, “There’s a lot of pressure on these people to make a deal.”

Noor is the sixth individual to be convicted through the military commissions proceedings. Capt. John Murphy, chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions, said he was pleased with the outcome calling it, “another step in the justice we are achieving.”

–By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

Experts Address Nitrogen’s Benefits, Challenges

Monday, February 21st, 2011

WASHINGTON – Environmental experts Saturday stressed the importance of balancing the agricultural and nutritional benefits of nitrogen with the harsh environmental effects it can have on air and water quality.

Though most industrialized parts of the world, including the United States, have an abundance of the nutrient found in manure and fertilizer, other areas, including several countries in Africa, suffer from a deficiency of nitrogen in soil. A deficiency can result in low crop yields and serious nutritional problems, said Cheryl A. Palm, senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

“Unhealthy soil means unhealthy people,” Palm said in a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In regions where nitrogen is deficient, an increase in population coupled with a decrease in food supply can result in stunted growth in children, she added.

In Maryland, however, excess nitrogen has been an ongoing problem, especially in runoff flowing from farms into the Chesapeake Bay. Excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in water can cause algae to form, preventing fish, crabs and other sea life from getting adequate oxygen.

In December, the Maryland Department of the Environment submitted its plan to the Environmental Protection Agency for a “pollution diet” aimed at reducing harmful nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the bay. Five other states and the District of Columbia also submitted plans to the EPA.

James Galloway, a professor in environmental science at the University of Virginia, summed up the global problem succinctly.

“How do we feed the world and protect the environment at the same time?” he asked.

One solution Galloway proposed is to cut down on nitrogen use where it is not needed – namely, by reducing the burning of fossil fuels, which can emit harmful amounts of the compound into the air.

“That’s the no-brainer,” he said. “We don’t need to do that.”

-By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

Biotech Researchers Stress Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops

Friday, February 18th, 2011

WASHINGTON – The United States should genetically engineer its food supplies to adapt to a hotter, drier climate if it wants them to withstand the impact of global warming, biotech researchers said Friday.

Nina Federoff, professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, called food security “arguably the biggest challenge … of the 21st century” in a speech Friday to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Through genetic modification, scientists can change the DNA of plants and food crops to increase pest resistance and drought tolerance. Traditionally, such traits have been advanced by breeding. Genetic engineering provides a faster alternative.

“We have to adapt crops to a hotter, drier world while doubling the food supply by 2050,” Federoff said. With an increase in unexpected weather events like floods and fires due to climate change, crops need to be adapted to extreme conditions, she said.

Genetic modification has drawn criticism from environmental groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists. They worry that genetically modifying food could increase allergic reactions or introduce new allergens into the food supply.

-By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

Miller Tries to Avoid Rancor During Same-Sex Marriage Debate

Friday, February 18th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — The Senate will cast a final vote on a controversial bill that would allow same-sex marriage on March 2, Senate President Mike Miller predicted Friday.

The same-sex marriage bill, which passed a Senate committee Thursday, will be debated by the full chamber next week. Miller, who opposes the proposal, plans to use his power as the chamber’s president to keep what is expected to be a lively debate as civil as possible.

His message to the rest of the Senate: Keep the venom at a minimum during the debate or be prepared to work over the weekend, a threat that would require the chamber to meet on Feb. 26 and Feb 27 to vote on the bill. He said that scenario is unlikely, though.

Miller’s goal is to avoid a repeat of the emotional debate that unfolded in the early 1990s over abortion.

“During the abortion issue, I cried,” Miller said. “I just grew so angry. Seat mates quit talking to each other, friends stopped talking to each other … it was just terrible.”

Audio: Miller talks about the upcoming same-sex marriage debate:

Miller touched on a range of topics — pensions, the budget and proposed tax increases — during a roughly 12-minute chat with reporters.

The General Assembly, he said, will pass a “modest” alcohol tax increase that falls short of the proposed “dime-a-drink” tax. Translation: A compromise on the proposed alcohol tax increase is on the horizon.

Miller also called for leaders to start looking into another Chesapeake Bay crossing.

“People are putting their heads in the sand and ignoring the fact that we should be planning another Bay crossing now, deciding where it should be and then finding the money to pay for the bridge,” he said.

–By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf

O’Malley Helps Democratic Governors’ Group Raise $670K

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — In roughly one month as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Gov. Martin O’Malley helped it raise more than $670,000, according to an IRS filing.

In all, the DGA raised $670,916 between Nov. 23 and Dec. 31, the organization reported in its year-end financial disclosure filing. Only about $425 was donated before Dec. 1, the day O’Malley was elected chairman. He served as vice chairman the previous two years.

The DGA is the arm of the party that helps raise money to elect Democratic governors. O’Malley, who has shrugged off assertions that he’ll run for higher office, will reach a national audience and attain a higher profile with his chairmanship.

The year-end report shows O’Malley and the DGA relied heavily on contributions from big corporations. Among them is a $100,000 contribution from pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which donated $400,089 to the DGA in 2010. O’Malley drew $100,000 contributions from BNSF Railway Co. and Duke Energy Corp. and a $50,000 check from San Francisco-based biotech firm Genentech.

Maryland-based companies kicked in a total of $55,000 during the roughly five-week reporting period, including $10,000 checks from Salisbury-based Perdue Farms and Annapolis-based lobbying firm Capitol Strategies.

There were only a few individual contributors to the DGA during the period. The biggest individual donor was former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, the founder of Austin-based lobbying firm Ben Barnes Group LP. Barnes gave $10,000 during the period for a total of $20,000 during the year.

Democrats hold governorships in 20 states across the country. Money pumped into the DGA will help fund upcoming gubernatorial elections in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi.

The Republican Governor’s Association reported raising $1.5 million during the period, according to this filing.

O’Malley was scheduled to appear in Washington today to present the state’s legislative wish list to the Maryland delegation, but the event was canceled because lawmakers are working to pass funding legislation.

– By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf