Former Atlanta transit cop pleads guilty to stealing and pawning highly sensitive police equipment

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An ex-Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority police officer has pleaded guilty to stealing $26,000 worth of equipment, and selling it at pawn shops throughout Clayton County.

The officer, Christopher Heggs, 40, a 12-year veteran of the force, resigned in February 2007 after being suspected of making unauthorized departmental purchases. A later investigation showed that he had stolen highly sensitive pieces of tactical equipment including ammunition, high-capacity weapon magazines, night vision binoculars and laser sights.

Heggs pleaded guilty to eighteen counts and was sentenced to five years, although he will serve only one in prison. He agreed to voluntarily surrender his MARTA pension to pay restitution for the stolen goods.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Georgia ethics commission lawyers short on ethics; whistleblower collects $280,000

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A former Georgia state employee who was fired in retaliation for a whistleblower lawsuit has been awarded $280,000 in an out-of-court settlement. Jennifer Ward was fired after reporting that two state ethics commission lawyers, Thomas Plank and Yasha Heidari, were handling private cases while on the state payroll, meeting with clients and attending court hearings. Ward also accused the pair of using state computers to research cases and abusing sick leave days.

Ward reported the matter shortly before Plank was named acting executive secretary of the commission in October 2009. She was fired one month later. Heidari left the commission in April to work for the law firm Heidari & Plank, while Plank quit in August to join the firm after the state’s inspector general determined that the lawyers were conducting private business on taxpayer’s money.

After the report of the state’s investigation was released, Heidari said the report was “pathetic” and that it was “50 pages of fluff.” Plank did not respond to requests for comments.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Prison inmates using contraband cellphones to organize subversive activities

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Convicts in Georgia’s state prisons have a new tool to use against corrections department officials- cellphones smuggled in by friends and relatives, or an even more reliable source- prison guards. At least seven facilities are experiencing coordinated effort by prisoners using contraband phones to plan civil disobedience, including refusing to perform prison jobs, or shop at commissaries.

The phones are illegal inside prisons, but authorities acknowledge that they are commonplace. Recently, Charles Manson was reported to have one in his California prison. Officials have been worried that cellphones could be used to communicate with the outside world to plan escapes.

However, prisoners are using the devices in more of a social-networking fashion, communicating about issues on the inside. Topping the list of gripes are demands for better pay for work, more educational opportunities, better meals and reforms in sentencing rules.

Insiders say that inmates have been using the phones to build coalitions that normally don’t get along in prison, such as racial factions and gangs. As many as 10 percent of prisoners are thought to posses the phones.

Officials at the Georgia Department of Corrections have taken the precautionary measure of locking down several of the prisons in response to planned protests by prisoners. So far, the only backlash from the lockdowns has been scattered clashes with guards.

The New York Times

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Blue Cross uses clout to stifle competition, keep prices high

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Georgia state insurance commissioner John Oxendine loves Blue Cross Blue Shield. So much so that he’s insured by Blue Cross, who he thinks is a wonderful company. So why is Blue Cross suing the insurance commissioner?

Keeping prices artificially high?

In July of this year, Oxendine warned Blue Cross and other insurers in the state that certain clauses in contracts between insurers and hospitals were illegal and had to be removed. Those clauses, known as “most favored nation clauses” were being used by the giant insurer to effectively make sure that other insurers could not undercut the deals in place with Blue Cross.

States around the country are beginning to focus on the effects of the special clauses, and so far 16 states ban or limit the provisions. Recently, the Justice Department filed a high-profile lawsuit against Blue Cross Blue Shield inn Michigan over its use of the clause, on the basis that it kills off competition, helping to keep pricing artificially high while allowing the company to maintain its market dominance.

Usually, the clauses are used to make sure that other insurers can not get the same reimbursements rates as Blue Cross. In other instances, the clauses required hospitals to charge other insurers a premium of 30 to 40 percent over the Blue Cross rate.

The provisions often block smaller insurers from offering lower prices, and hospitals and doctors from benefiting from natural competitive forces. For example, if a new insurer to the market proposes to pay for a hospital’s excess rooms at a lower reimbursement rate, the clause prevent hospitals from doing so, with the end result of rooms staying empty and keeping prices high.

After Oxendine warned Blue Cross that the insurance commission was prohibiting the clauses as illegal, Blue Cross fired back with their response. The company filed a lawsuit against the commission, taking the position that not only are the clauses legal, but beneficial to consumers. The case is now pending in court.

The Atlanta Constitution-Journal

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Atlanta school district officials facing criminal prosecution over rampant cheating scandal

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After two years of investigative reports by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution claiming a culture of teachers and school district officials manipulating scores on student tests, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard is moving towards criminal prosecution of those involved.

Howard announced Monday the appointment of two special assistant district attorneys, Mike Bowers, the former state attorney general, and Bob Wilson, the former DeKalb district attorney, to finalize the investigation and handle the indictments. A special investigative grand jury may also be forthcoming, according to Howard.

Both men were appointed in August by Gov. Sonny Perdue as special investigators. Howard said that Bowers and Wilson “presented my office with clear-cut, direct, eye-witnessed evidence” that student tests were improperly altered by Atlanta Public School employees.

Starting in October, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation assigned over 50 agents to look into the allegations of cheating after the state rejected the district’s own probe as “inadequate.” The state ordered the district to look into the activities of 58 schools suspected of systemic cheating, after an “erasure analysis” found troubling evidence in hundreds of classrooms.

The GBI said that teachers would not be subject to criminal prosecution as long as they were truthful with agents.

The AJC has maintained that numerous teachers have admitted to changing answers on tests, providing answers to students, and watching others change tests. The AJC began looking into the testing process in 2008 after district schools began posting statistically unbelievable test results on periodic standardized tests used to monitor students’ progress.

The Atlanta Public School System has used the improving student grades as evidence of their success in turning around the poorly-performing school district.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Atlanta public schools superintendent quits amid cheating scandal

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Beverly Hall, the Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent, announced on Saturday that she will leave her job in June 2011. The administrator has been under attack for the last two years, after an initial investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed test scores in dozens of district schools were highly suspicious, and indicated a pattern of district-wide cheating.

Superintendent Hall quit amid cheating allegations

On Friday, the AJC asked the state to investigate the school district for withholding an independent report that confirms the newspaper’s findings. The report in question was a statistical analysis done by the University of Pennsylvania which examined recent scores on the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. The test are  administered to all students in Georgia’s public schools in the  first through the eighth grade and assesses reading, language arts math, social studies and science.

The AJC asked that the state attorney general determine whether the refusal by the school district to provide the information requested under the Open Records Act was a criminal offense.

A number of federal and state probes have been ongoing since last year, with GBI agents interviewing teachers and administrators throughout the district. Criminal charges could be filed against district employees, based on evidence collected in the investigation.

Agents have reported evidence of widespread corruption in the district, including the erasing of wrong answers and correcting them, on tests in 58 schools. Over 100 teachers have been reported to the state teacher certification body, and U.S investigators are expanding their probe.

Hall became well known in education circles, partially because of her success in improving student skills as measured by the standardized tests. She was recently named to the National Board of education Sciences by President Obama.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Georgia county expecting $55 million budget deficit for next year

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Dekalb county, part of the Atlanta metro area, is reporting an expected $55 million shortfall for the 2011 budget year after experiencing falling tax revenues and increasing employee pension costs. County commissioners are looking to reorganize county government, instead of raising taxes.

The budget deficit comes despite cuts of about $100 million last year. County commissioners ordered 10 furlough days in 2010 which saved the county a total of $12 million, but county employees protested. Police officers struck back by writing 20,000 fewer tickets between May 1 and August 31 compared to the same time last year- costing the county $3 million.

In September, the commission passed a resolution saying it would only seek tax increases if the county CEO reorganizes the local government. Commissioner Elaine Boyer said “We need to reorganize. We need to talk layoffs. Everything has to be on the table this year. We said we want a balanced budget with no millage increase.

Until the county government is reorganized, the commission is looking at severe cuts affecting all departments. The county has identified about $20 million in savings so far. Under consideration are more layoffs and furloughs, closing libraries, recreation centers, satellite tax offices and some fire stations.

Earlier this year, a study by Georgia State University said that the county government was bloated and concluded that 909 positions could be cut. The county released 825 employees through an early retirement program, but turned around and hired over 600 new workers to replace them.

Despite reductions in services and fewer county employees, next year the county will be required to pay $17 million more to the employees’ pension fund. In order to do so, the county is recommending that it stop paying school crossing guards, raising ambulance fees and cutting food services at senior centers.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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