- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

FBI investigating Texas ‘fight club’

HOUSTON | The FBI says it is investigating accusations of civil rights violations at a Texas school for mentally disabled people where workers were purportedly videotaped watching fights between residents.

Six workers at Corpus Christi State School are accused of organizing a “fight club” where mentally and developmentally disabled residents of the facility fought each other for the staff’s entertainment.

Patricia Villafranca of the FBI’s Houston office said Friday the agency will look into whether civil rights violations occurred at the school. Corpus Christi police issued arrest warrants for the six workers on charges of injury to a disabled person.

Officials say the fights were recorded on a cellular phone camera that was found at a clothing store and turned over to police.

N.M. Legislature OKs death-penalty ban

SANTA FE, N.M. | The New Mexico Legislature voted Friday to repeal the state’s death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The state Senate voted 24-18 for the repeal bill, sending it to Gov. Bill Richardson, who has opposed repeal in the past but now says he would consider signing it.

“I have met with many people and will continue to consider all sides of the issue before making a decision,” the second-term Democratic governor said in a statement issued after the vote. He would have three days - excluding Sunday - to make a decision once the bill reaches his desk.

The House approved the legislation a month ago. The vote capped a decade of repeal efforts in New Mexico, one of 36 states with capital punishment.

“The tide is turning across the country, and we are part of that tide,” said Ruth Hoffman, director of Lutheran Advocacy Ministry and a longtime lobbyist against the death penalty.

Juror ‘tweeting’ leads to appeal

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. | A building materials company and its owner have appealed a $12.6 million verdict against them, charging that a juror posted messages on Twitter.com during the trial that showed he was biased against them.

The motion seeking a new trial was filed Thursday on behalf of Russell Wright and his company, Stoam Holdings. It claims juror Johnathan Powell sent eight messages - or “tweets” - to the micro-blogging Web site via his cellular phone.

According to the motion, one posting listed the company’s Web address and read in part: “oh and nobody buy Stoam. Its bad mojo and they’ll probably cease to Exist, now that their wallet is 12m lighter.”

Mr. Powell, of Fayetteville, told the Associated Press on Friday that Mr. Wright and his lawyers are “just grasping at straws at this point.”

“I didn’t really do anything wrong, so it’s kind of crazy that they’re trying to use this to get the case thrown out,” he said.

The jury awarded the money Feb. 26 to Mark Deihl and William Nystrom, two northwest Arkansas men who invested in Mr. Wright’s company. The company sold a building material called Stoam that it claims combines the insulation qualities of foam with the strength of steel. Mr. Deihl’s attorney, Greg Brown, called the venture “nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.”

California deficit continues to grow

SACRAMENTO, Calif. | The California Legislature’s budget analyst says the recession has created another $8 billion hole in the state’s budget just weeks after the end of a bruising fight to close a $42 billion gap through June 2010.

Legislative analyst Mac Taylor says in the report released Friday that California’s 10.1 percent unemployment rate, further declines in the stock market and lower tax collections have led to lower revenue projections. He expects the new $8 billion budget gap in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

State Controller John Chiang also said this week that February revenues were nearly $1 billion below previous projections.

Mr. Taylor says the deficit will grow even larger unless lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger take action.

Lawmaker wants tax on caffeine

SALT LAKE CITY | A state lawmaker says that if Utah wants to raise its tax on tobacco then it might as well raise taxes on such addictive substances as caffeine.

Rep. Craig Frank, Cedar Hills Republican, requested that lawmakers study the possibility of taxing caffeine before next year’s legislative session.

In a video post on his blog, Mr. Frank says the proposal is simply to prove a point that lawmakers shouldn’t target certain segments of the population and tax their weaknesses.

Legislative leaders decided against raising the cigarette tax this year, but said it will likely be approved in an upcoming session if the economy doesn’t improve.

Resort sends bill to rescued skier

ANCHORAGE, Alaska | Operators of Alaska’s largest ski resort are taking the rare step of billing a 19-year-old skier for the cost of rescuing him after he was badly hurt in an off-limits area.

Ben Habecker, an assistant patrol director at Alyeska Ski Resort south of Anchorage, says it took 13 highly trained ski patrollers to rescue Matt Davis, who had fractured his left leg.

Mr. Davis, of Eagle River, must pay $845 for the Feb. 28 rescue from 3,939-foot Mount Alyeska. He also is banned from skiing on the mountain for a year.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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