About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Citizen-Journalist Fined for Telling the Truth

by Walter Brasch

      Vera Scroggins of Susquehanna County, Pa., was found to be in contempt of court, Thursday, and fined $1,000.
      Her offense? She tells the truth.
      Truth is something that apparently has bypassed the court of Judge Kenneth W. Seamans, who retired at the end of 2014, but came out of retirement to handle this case.
      The case began in October 2013.
      Scroggins, a retired real estate agent and nurse’s aide, was in Common Pleas Court to explain why a temporary injunction should not be issued against her. That injunction would require her to stay at least 150 feet from all properties where Cabot Oil and Gas had leased mineral rights, even if that distance was on public property. Because Cabot had leased mineral rights to 40 percent of Susquehanna County, about 300 square miles, almost any place Scroggins wanted to be was a place she was not allowed to be, even if the owner of the surface rights granted her permission.
      Before Judge Seamans were three corporate lawyers, a lawyer from the county, and several Cabot employees who accused Scroggins of trespassing and causing irreparable harm to the company that had almost $1 billion in revenue the previous year.
      Since 2009, Scroggins has led Pennsylvania and New York residents, celebrities, government officials, and journalists on tours of the gas fields. She often had friendly discussions with the workers—and when management asked her to leave, she did. She has posted more than 500 YouTube videos of fracking operations, documenting what fracking is, what it does, and how there may be unsafe practices. The state DEP has even used her documentation as part of the evidence necessary to cite and then fine gas drillers.
      Scroggins asked the judge for a continuance because she had only received the summons three days earlier, on a Friday, and couldn’t get legal representation by Monday.
      Seamans told her he wouldn’t grant a continuance because she didn’t give the court 24 hours notice. “He said that to grant a continuance would inconvenience three of the lawyers who had come from Pittsburgh [about 250 miles to the southwest], and I might have to pay their fees if the hearing was delayed,” says Scroggins.
    That afternoon, Seamans granted Cabot its preliminary injunction.
      By March 2014, Cabot and Scroggins were back in court for a hearing to modify Seamans’ original temporary injunction. This time, Cabot wanted the buffer zone extended to 500 feet, but couldn’t show any reason why 500 feet was necessary. Unlike her first appearance when she didn’t have legal representation, she now had Public Citizen, the Pennsylvania ACLU, and local attorney Gerald Kinchy, represent her when she sought to vacate the order.
      The revised order prohibited Scroggins from going within 100 feet of any active well pad or access roads of properties Cabot owns or has leased mineral rights, even if on public property.
      Although the judge agreed that his preliminary order may have been broad and violated Scroggins’ First Amendment rights, he continued the injunction, which still violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
      What Seamans didn’t agree about was his conflict-of-interest. He refused to remove himself from the case. On Nov. 9, 2007, he and Elexco Energy signed a mineral lease agreement for 79 acres in New Milford Twp., in the northern part of the county. On April 29, 2008, that lease was transferred to Southwestern Energy. Whether or not that lease proved to be financially lucrative is not in dispute—what is in dispute is that the judge, by signing with an energy company working separate fields in the same area as the plaintiff, even if not Cabot, could benefit, thus compromising his objectivity.
      In February, Scroggins and her attorneys were again in court, trying to rebut claims she violated the injunction. This time, Cabot claimed that on Jan. 16, Scroggins, while leading another tour of the gas fields, walked on an access road to one of its operations. It never claimed she was on Cabot property—only that she was on a public access road. “There was no guard on this site,” says Scroggins, noting, “it’s an inactive site; no personnel; no trucks.”
      Scroggins argued she had parked in the private driveway of a friend 672 feet from Cabot property, and that the three persons she was hosting, including a French photojournalist, walked to the gate of a Cabot operation, took pictures, and then walked back to the driveway where she waited for them. Scroggins had witnesses who testified under oath she did not leave the driveway or go onto Cabot property.
      Cabot produced a worker who backed up the company’s claim, and provided a photo of Scroggins. However, that photo didn’t show Scroggins on access roads or on Cabot property but, as she had truthfully claimed, on a private driveway 672 feet from Cabot property. The judge believed the one paid-for worker, not the other witnesses.
      According to a brief filed by Scroggins’ attorneys, “The injunction sends a chilling message to those who oppose fracking and wish to make their voices heard or to document practices that they fear will harm them and their neighbors. That message is loud and clear: criticize a gas company, and you’ll pay for it.”    
      And that’s why the Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. wanted an injunction against Scroggins. It had little to do with keeping a peaceful protestor away or protecting worker safety; it had everything to do not only with shutting down her ability to tell the truth but also to put fear into others who might also wish to tell the truth about fracking and Cabot’s operations.
      Just as important, a judge willingly became a co-conspirator to corporate interests. Seamans had said the fine will go to Cabot to defer some of its legal costs.

      [Assisting on this column was Staci Wilson, editor of the Susquehanna Independent. Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, is author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sick and Tired Workers: An Epidemic of Corporate Greed

by Walter Brasch

      Snaking its way through the Pennsylvania legislature is a bill that will block local governments from requiring companies to provide sick leave, even if unpaid, that is more than required by state or federal regulations.
      There are no Pennsylvania or federal regulations requiring companies to provide sick leave. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 39 percent of all employees, and 79 percent of all employees in food service and hotel industries, have no sick leave. Unlike the United States, about 130 countries require employers to provide at least one week of sick leave per employee.
      The Republican-controlled state Senate passed the bill, 37–12; the Republican-controlled House will now discuss it—and probably follow the Senate’s wishes.
      Gov. Tom Wolf opposes this legislation, will probably veto it, and then have to deal with a Senate that has enough votes to override that veto.
      The proposed legislation is in response to Philadelphia’s recent directive that requires companies with at least 10 employees to provide mandatory sick leave for its workers. Several metropolitan U.S. cities, as well as California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, already require companies to provide sick leave to employees.
      Republicans are hypocritically philosophically conflicted on the legislation. Their party believes in limited government regulation, and this bill would keep government out of private enterprise’s believed-right to treat workers as serfs. However, Republicans also believe that, if necessary, government should be at the lowest political level, and municipal government is about as low as it can get. Thus, cities should be able to impose rules and requirements in the absence of state and federal law.
      Most legislators don’t understand political philosophy. What they understand is political donations. In this case, the business community opposes sick leave policies, believing corporate executives know better than workers or governments what’s best for the workers. As is the case for their opposition to raising minimum wage, it is because sick leave, somehow in their warped minds, reduces profits, shareholder dividends, and executive bonuses, benefits, and compensations.
      The pretend-savings to preserve corporate greed, however, is a false economy. By not providing a decent sick leave policy, companies risk employees coming to work sick in order not to lose a day’s pay—or be fired.
      This can lead to increased accidents because workers may be too ill to perform their jobs adequately.
     The absence of a sick leave program can also lead a worker with a communicable disease to spread it to other workers and to the public. About 68 percent of all employees report they came to work with a stomach virus and other communicable diseases, according to a poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
     About 30 percent of all workers said they became ill because of communicable diseases spread by fellow workers, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
      Not having adequate sick leave also can result in workers not staying home to care for sick children who, without anyone to care for them, go to school sick, and cause illnesses in other students, staff, and teachers.
      The absence of adequate sick leave can also contribute to low worker morale, less productivity, and higher turnover—all of which affect a corporation’s profit margin.
      There is, of course, sick leave abuse—a worker who calls in sick and then spends the day golfing, or shopping, or is just plain hung over from last night’s party. Just as companies don’t have sick leave, they also don’t have personal days, which can be used for those days when an employee has an important family issue or just doesn’t feel like coming to work. The lack of personal days can significantly decrease worker productivity on the days they would rather be somewhere else than the office or factory line.
      In contrast to the lack of sick leave and personal days, many corporations give upper management unlimited sick days and allow personal days for when a compelling social engagement, such as that golf outing with fellow business executives, seems to be “appropriate.”
      None of this matters to Pennsylvania’s Republicans. Their issue is to give bosses full control over workers; they want to give bosses the right to issue benefits, sick leave, and personal days if they want to do so, or to exclude those benefits if they also want to do so. That’s what they believe is right.
      And they are wrong.
     [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, and author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania.]

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Call for Fair Pay for College Athletes

by Walter Brasch

     Some people foolishly believe the purpose of a college education is to further one’s education. To explore new cultures and views. Perhaps to help make a difference in the world.
     They, of course, are wrong.
     The purpose of going to college is to party, make contacts, and get a job.
     Sometimes the job is as a shift manager at a fast food restaurant.
     Sometimes it’s as a professional athlete.
     March Madness, the nation’s annual tribute to tall teenagers who can dunk a basketball, is now over.
     A few of the starters will become professional basketball players this year; some in the next year or the year after that.
     The University of Kentucky and Duke University, among a few other Division I powers, in the spirit of getting students jobs, have changed their mottos to “One and Done.”
     That means they recruit the best high school basketball players. They train them. They give them national exposure. And they get them ready to get a job after only one year in college.
     That job pays an average of $4 million a year.
     That’s 10 times what the president of the United States earns, and about 100 times what a social worker or firefighter earn.
     Obviously, reverse layups and 30-foot three-pointers are more valuable to society than helping the poor or rescuing people.
     Division I basketball powers may claim they exist to provide new experiences for all their students. This is just a PR whitewash.
Colleges have been mostly unfair to their future professional athletes. You know, the ones who are exploited and then expected to make a few million dollars a year and shovel over a chunk of that to the Alumni Fund.
     We need to get rid of restrictive NCAA rules and pay these athletes. Not just scholarships and room-and-board, but, an actual salary. With benefits. Maybe disability insurance and a retirement plan.
     We need to eliminate the philosophy that elitists like Joe Paterno had. You know, that having one of the nation’s highest graduation rates for football players was even more important than winning games.
     So, let’s dump those stifling NCAA rules and make college what it should be. A place to fill stadiums and get jobs for athletes.
    [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, and author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania.]

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Pennsylvania School is Flushed by a Problem

by Walter Brasch

      Ten-year-old Kaitlyn Montgomery, a fourth grade student at Park Elementary School in Munhall, Pa., now has access to that school’s restrooms.
      Like most schools, Park Elementary has separate restrooms for male and female staff and faculty, and separate restrooms for boys and girls.  
      The staff and faculty restrooms are on the first floor. The restrooms for boys and girls are on the second floor.
      But Kaitlyn is a special needs student who has a severe pulmonary hypertension and chronic lung disease. It prevents her from being able to climb stairs easily.
      Enter the Steel Valley Education Association and the school administration. They have a contract that requires “lavatory facilities exclusively for employees.”
      Somewhere are rules, regulations, and reasons why schools are the only place where children and adults of the same sex have separate restrooms.
      Nevertheless, the Administration decided to allow Kaitlyn to use the first floor women’s restroom.
      And so, the union filed a grievance against the school management to keep the girl out of staff restrooms. This grievance included a petition from 18 female teachers who complained about the arrangement.
      Can’t have exceptions. You let one child with mobility problems enter your restroom, and pretty soon there might be another one with mobility problems who wants the same privilege. Gotta enforce that contract. Can’t go down that slippery slope of full integration. Next thing you know, students might want to color outside the lines. Or ask tough questions. Or challenge authority. And then you’d have chaos and anarchism in education.
      For its part, when the School Board was planning the school, it could have demanded an elevator that connected both floors. It could have demanded the architect to include boys and girls restrooms on both floors. But, it didn’t.
      Apparently, all elementary school children—and  and staff and faculty—should be able to climb stairs. The heck with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)!
      The union, for its part, said that it filed the grievance because it was “seeking a solution to an issue that will provide a better outcome for all parties involved,” and challenged the schools in the district to meet the ADA requirements.
      The administration said it was trying to find a solution. The school had a small restroom in the first floor Special Education area, but eliminated it because it needed the space to put in a ventilation unit.
      Apparently, until the union raised the issue, albeit a self-serving one, the ADA was considered just to be a set of “suggestions” and not federal requirements.
      The School Board, without comment, unanimously rejected the union’s grievance.
      The union could have appealed. This would have brought in a mediator or arbitrator. It could have led to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board looking at the contract and determining if there was a violation. It could have led to expensive court action. But it didn’t.
      The union withdrew its grievance, having made its point that the administration was in violation of the ADA and, thus, reaffirmed its right to have separate but equal restrooms.
      Sometimes, it’s logical for all parties to agree to make an exception to a contract, and for both parties to work together to seek a reasonable solution, one that protects the rights of all with disabilities—students, staff, and faculty.
      This is one of those times.
      [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and the author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]