Federal judge orders utility company to explain any role it had in causing California wildfires

Natural Disasters

California National Guard photo.

A federal judge has ordered Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to reveal what role, if any, it had in causing the Camp Fire that destroyed the California town of Paradise and killed at least 88 people.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued the order on Tuesday in connection with his oversight of the utility company’s probation for a fatal 2010 fire caused by a natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, report the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee.

Alsup said he wanted PG&E to explain any role it had in causing the Camp Fire, as well as all other wildfires in California since the company was sentenced in January 2017 in the pipeline case. Jurors had found that the company obstructed investigators and violated public safety regulations in connection with pipeline maintenance. The utility was fined $3 million and placed on probation; a probation condition included a ban on committing any further crimes.

Alsup asked what steps a court-appointed monitor in the pipeline case had taken to monitor and improve PG&E’s safety and reporting. He also asked the company to tell him what aspects of the pipeline judgment “might be implicated by any inaccurate, slow or failed reporting of information about any wildfire by PG&E.”

Several lawsuits have been filed against PG&E in connection with the Camp Fire. An earlier suit alleges the fire began when a high-voltage transmission line failed and ignited a vegetation fire. The suit says PG&E had a duty to maintain its aging infrastructure and could have satisfied its obligations by putting electrical equipment underground in wildfire-prone areas, increasing inspections, and developing protocols to shut down electrical operations in emergency situations.


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Criminal defense lawyer arrested for alleged threats against attorneys

Criminal Justice

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A Louisville, Kentucky, lawyer who won a murder acquittal for a client earlier this month has been arrested in connection with alleged threats against two lawyers in his own child custody battle.

The lawyer, 51-year-old Brendan McLeod, was charged with retaliating against participants in a legal process, terroristic threatening and harassing communications, the Louisville Courier Journal reports. He was arrested on Nov. 16 and released on his own recognizance.

McLeod is accused of leaving threatening voicemail messages for the lawyer representing McLeod’s ex-wife, Mark Dobbins. In one message, McLeod said he was going to “strap one on you,” and in another he said, “I will come find you,” according to allegations cited by the Courier Journal.

McLeod also allegedly told a third party that he would kill Dobbins and lawyer Forrest Kuhn, who was appointed as guardian ad litem for McLeod’s children. He also allegedly told police that he wished both lawyers were dead.

McLeod’s custody battle was in the news in July when McLeod sued the judge who released his drug test results. McLeod claimed that the judge defamed him and caused “a whirlwind of gossip, looks, stares and whispers” in the courthouse when she failed to seal results showing he had tested positive for methamphetamine, WDRB.com reported at the time. The lawsuit has since been dismissed.

The drug test was on May 8, the same month that he represented a murder defendant who was convicted at trial. The public defender’s office had sought a mistrial in the case because McLeod visited a co-defendant in jail at around 2 a.m. during the trial, WDRB.com previously reported. The judge denied the motion.

This month, McLeod represented a murder defendant who was acquitted of burglary and murder but convicted of terroristic threatening. The Courier Journal indicates the verdict was on Nov. 19, while reports in the West Kentucky Star and Paducah Sun say the date was Nov. 9.

McLeod didn’t respond to the Courier Journal’s request for comment. His lawyer told the Courier Journal he hadn’t yet investigated the case and had no comment.

McLeod responded by email to the ABA Journal’s request for comment. “This is newsworthy?” McLeod wrote. “They even have my picture wrong,” he said of the Courier Journal.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. with comment from McLeod.


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Court removes judge from child rape case, citing opinion sarcasm and ‘personal animus’

Judiciary

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A Pennsylvania appeals court has removed a judge from the resentencing of a convicted child rapist, citing the judge’s “demonstrated bias and personal animus” toward the defendant’s lawyer and the public defender’s office.

A three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ordered the recusal of Judge Donna Jo McDaniel of Allegheny County in an opinion on Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. She was kicked off the case of Anthony McCauley, who was convicted of rape of a child and other offenses for sexual abuse of a minor when she was 6 and 12 years old.

McDaniel made “gratuitous statements” and sarcastic statements about the counsel in an opinion and made a veiled threat implying that their challenges to her decisions could be harmful to other criminal defendants, the superior court said. In addition, McDaniel “continually refuses” to follow sentencing mandates from the superior court in other sex offender cases, the court said.

In one case, McDaniel had imposed consecutive, statutory maximum sentences that deviated from guidelines and failed to consider mitigating evidence, the superior court said. In another, McDaniel had relied on unreliable facts and misinformation and didn’t properly consider statutory sentencing factors.

In both cases, superior courts reviewing McDaniel’s sentencing decisions had written “highly unusual footnotes” indicating they were troubled with McDaniel’s biased decision-making process and her inability to impose individualized sentences for sex offenders, the superior court said in its Wednesday opinion.

McDaniel had initially sentenced McCauley in November 2014 to 20 to 40 years in prison. In the first appeal, the superior court affirmed the convictions but remanded for resentencing because it was unclear whether McDaniel had wrongly imposed a mandatory minimum sentence. If McDaniel did not impose a mandatory minimum, she should reimpose the original sentence, the superior court said at that time.

On remand, McDaniel held a “brief and inadequate resentencing hearing,” the superior court said. First, she said her first sentence was not a mandatory minimum. Then, she resentenced McCauley, but the sentence was not quite the same; McDaniel took two days off the 20-year term and four days off the 40-year term.

McCauley’s lawyer filed a motion for recusal, which McDaniel denied. The motion should have been granted, the superior court concluded.

“There is substantial evidence that the trial court judge demonstrated bias and personal animus against appellant’s counsel and the public defender’s office to such an extent that it ‘raises a substantial doubt as to the jurist’s ability to preside impartially,’ ” the superior court said, using language in a prior opinion.

The superior court said it was particularly troubled by “gratuitous comments” denigrating the defense counsel in McDaniel’s opinion denying the recusal motion. They included McDaniel’s assertions that:

• It appeared likely that the defense counsel had, “in a fit of pique,” made it her mission to disagree with every aspect of McDaniel’s decision.

• Sentencing challenges were “reflective of defense counsel’s assertion of her agenda over the best interests of her client.”

• Challenges to her decisions made McDaniel question the credibility of the defense counsel, which “is also harmful to other criminal defendants who may actually have meritorious claims.”

• The defense lawyer had engaged in a “coordinated effort” to attack her sentencing decisions with lawyers in the two other sex offender cases.

“We note that the trial court did not make these gratuitous statements during an emotional and stressful courtroom hearing where the trial judge is attempting to control the courtroom and momentarily loses her temper,” the superior court said.

“Rather, the trial court made these derogatory comments during the deliberative process of drafting an opinion. The trial court’s animus and hostility to appellant’s counsel and the public defender’s office appears to be deep, unwavering and demonstrates an unjustified bias against the public defender’s office.”


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Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleads guilty to lying to Congress

Criminal Justice

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President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen made a surprise appearance in a federal courtroom in New York on Thursday and pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.

During the hearing, Cohen admitted making false statements about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow in testimony last year to the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNBC.

According to the criminal information describing the charges, Cohen sent a letter to the committee that falsely said the Moscow project was not discussed extensively, he never agreed to travel to Moscow for the project, and he didn’t recall any Russian government response with regards to the project. Cohen later gave testimony consistent with false statements in the letter.

The guilty plea is the first obtained from Cohen by special counsel Robert Mueller, the New York Times points out. According to the Washington Post, Cohen has spent hours meeting with prosecutors, including prosecutors working for Mueller.

Cohen previously pleaded guilty to crimes brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

In that case, Cohen pleaded guilty on Aug. 21 to eight counts of campaign finance violations and bank and tax fraud. The campaign finance charges related to hush money payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. The tax charges related to failure to report income from a taxi medallion business, brokerage commissions and consulting fees.

Trump continued to criticize the Mueller investigation on Twitter on Thursday.


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Prison inmates indicted in sextortion ring that targeted military service members

Criminal Justice

Five prison inmates and 10 of their associates have been indicted in a sextortion ring in which they allegedly posed as women online and then as angry fathers demanding money.

The ring targeted military service members found through dating websites and social media platforms, report the Herald, the Army Times, and the Post and Courier. The scheme cost 442 service members from across the country more than $560,000 in financial loss, according to a press release by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, one of the investigating agencies.

The inmates, all from South Carolina, and the 10 people accused of helping them are charged with money laundering, extortion and wire fraud conspiracy. More than 250 additional people are being investigated and could face future prosecution.

Officials detailed the scheme at a press conference on Wednesday. The inmates allegedly carried out the scheme with cellphones that had internet connections. First, the inmates would pose as young women interested in dating. Next, they would send nude photos found online to service members who responded. Then, the prisoners would call the targeted service member and pretend to be an angry father or police officer who said the women were underage.

At that point, the service member would be told that charges wouldn’t be pursued if money is paid. A “money mule” would receive money for the inmates and transfer it into a JPay account, a payment processing system used by inmates, according to the Army Times.

U.S. Marshal Thomas Griffin said he hopes the indictments will persuade federal officials to allow the blocking of cellphone signals in prisons. Cellphones are smuggled into prisons, tossed over wire fences into prison yards, or dropped in by drones, according to the Post and Courier. “The technology exists to make these cellphones nothing more than paperweights in a cell block,” Griffin said.

The investigation is called Operation Surprise Party.


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