Attorney general’s office ‘reviewing’ ex-Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke’s sentence

CHICAGO — In a highly unorthodox move, the Illinois Attorney General’s office is “reviewing” former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s relatively lenient prison sentence, a spokeswoman for the office said Thursday.

“We are going to do a careful review of the record and the law and make a determination based on our review,” spokeswoman Maura Possley said in an email.

Possley declined to elaborate on what exactly the office is examining, but legal experts told the Tribune the attorney general may try to persuade a higher court to force a re-sentencing or have state lawmakers reconsider the state’s somewhat confusing sentencing laws.

Last week, former Illinois State Senator Kwame Raoul was sworn in as attorney general just days before Van Dyke was sentenced to less than seven years in prison for shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times.

Last fall, a Cook County jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, making him the first Chicago police officer in half a century to be convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting.

Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke under the less stringent second-degree murder statute, not for the aggravated batteries that could have led to a potentially much longer prison sentence.

— Chicago Tribune

Florida secretary of state steps down after blackface photos surface

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel resigned Thursday after photos emerged of him wearing blackface as a Hurricane “Katrina victim” at a Halloween party in 2005.

The stunning development ended the former Seminole County election supervisor’s 16-day stint as Florida’s top elections officer.

The Tallahassee Democrat obtained the photos and showed them to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office on Thursday morning. The governor’s office announced Ertel’s resignation just hours later.

“It has been an honor to serve you and the voters of Florida,” Ertel’s resignation letter stated.

The Tallahassee Democrat reported that the photos were taken two months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005, leading to an estimated 1,836 deaths.

Ertel, 49, a Republican, had been appointed Seminole supervisor of elections just a few months earlier by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. He had previously served as spokesman for Seminole County and the county sheriff’s office.

Ertel told the Tallahassee Democrat that he was the man “in blackface and red lipstick, wearing earrings and a New Orleans Saints bandanna, and falsies under a purple T-shirt that had ‘Katrina Victim’ written on it.”

Ertel would not talk with the paper about the circumstances surrounding the photo.

“There’s nothing I can say,” Ertel said. He did not respond to the Orlando Sentinel’s request for comment.

— Orlando Sentinel

Day of service, acts of kindness to honor Stoneman Douglas victims on anniversary

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It’s not an anniversary anyone wants to celebrate. But as Feb. 14 approaches, schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties are preparing to honor the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland one year ago.

Most schools are looking at community service projects and ways to encourage generosity and compassion. Aware that emotions are still raw, organizers say they have settled on activities that will remind students about the lives lost without inflaming a sense of anxiety or despair.

Broward schools will observe a moment of silence at 10:17 a.m. Feb. 14. Although the shooting at Stoneman Douglas began at 2:21 p.m., Principal Ty Thompson said the school district decided on a morning observance to ensure widespread participation.

At 10 a.m., he said, all students in the district are in class and none are at lunch. The 17 honors the 17 students and teachers killed by former student Nikolas Cruz during a rampage through the freshman building. He remains in custody and faces the death penalty.

Broward schools will be open on Feb. 14, although Stoneman Douglas will close at 12 p.m. Stoneman Douglas students who don’t go to school that day won’t be marked absent.

Stoneman Douglas will offer a morning of wellness activities for students, including manicures, massages, cooking demonstrations, therapy dogs and counseling.

— South Florida Sun Sentinel

Private power lines, not PG&E, caused wine country fire that killed 22, investigation finds

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The 2017 fire that destroyed thousands of homes in Santa Rosa, Calif., and killed 22 people was caused by private power lines, not ones owned by utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a long-awaited state investigation released Thursday concluded.

The finding by Cal Fire marks a bit of good news for the struggling utility as it prepares to file for bankruptcy because of huge potential liabilities related to last year’s Camp fire, which destroyed more than 90 percent of the town of Paradise and killed at least 86 people.

PG&E’s electrical systems were found responsible for numerous destructive Northern California fires in recent years. In many cases, heavy winds downed power lines that sparked the blazes.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection released few details about the source of the Tubbs fire, saying only that it was caused by “a private electrical system adjacent to a residential structure.” The fire agency also said it found no violations of state law related to the blaze. Whoever owns the lines faces billions of dollars in claims from people who lost their homes.

Despite the investigation’s findings, PG&E said it still is moving forward with Chapter 11 protection. The company was found to be the cause of several other fires that hit wine country in October 2017, including the Atlas fire, which killed six people and destroyed more than 780 structures, and the Redwood Valley fire, which killed nine and razed more than 540 structures.

— Los Angeles Times

Even out at sea, the air on cruise ships may be dirtier than you think, study shows

The salt breeze on the deck of a cruise ship may not be as fresh and clean as the beach air its meant to evoke, a new study reveals.

An associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Ryan Kennedy, secretly measured the amount of ultrafine particles in the air on four cruise ships. He found measurements similar to prominently polluted places such as Beijing and Taipei, Taiwan, with the worst readings taken in areas designated for exercise or children’s activities. Carnival Corporation said Kennedy’s tests were “completely ridiculous, inaccurate and in no way represent reality.”

Kennedy’s research contradicts the long-held belief that the air at sea is clean, and that the emissions from cruise ships don’t affect passengers.

“I think there’s a perception that these ships are out there in the middle of nowhere and the winds just disperse it,” Kennedy said. “You’re still being exposed to these ultrafine particles.”

Kennedy tested the air on four cruise ships: Carnival Liberty in October 2017, Carnival Freedom in April-May 2018 in the Caribbean, Holland America Amsterdam in October 2018, and Princess Emerald in November 2018 off the West Coast of the U.S.

He counted the tiny particles of pollutants in the air on board, called ultrafine or nano particles because each piece is smaller than 0.1 cubic centimeters. Currently the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have standards for safe limits of those particles, although an EPA scientific advisory board met last month to begin reviewing data.

Naresh Kumar, an associate professor of environmental health in the University of Miami’s department of public health sciences, said the elevated levels found on the ships’ decks “should be a matter of concern” given how easily those tiny particles can infiltrate the body.

In this study, Kennedy secretly counted pollutants at port and at sea. He found average particle counts ranging from 1,540 to 33,514 particles per cubic centimeter across all four ships. Before the study began, he tested the air on a beach and found an average reading of under 500 particles per cubic centimeter. A nearby idling diesel car registered in the tens of thousands.

He compared these results to tests done with the exact same device in infamously polluted cities. A busy street in Beijing in 2009 showed concentrations of about 30,000 particles per cubic centimeter, and a train station in Taipei in 2009 had readings averaging 15,500 particles per cubic centimeter.

— Miami Herald

China’s arrest of Australian writer is called ‘hostage diplomacy’

BEIJING — China confirmed Thursday it had arrested prominent Australian writer and blogger Yang Hengjun on suspicion of endangering national security, the identical accusation used in the recent detention of two Canadian citizens.

The arrest came after Australia criticized China for detaining the Canadians and heightened suspicions that Yang was taken into custody in retaliation for the arrest of the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei.

Yang, a prominent novelist and former Chinese diplomat who gave up his nationality and moved to Australia, disappeared Friday after flying from New York — where he is a visiting scholar at Columbia University — to Guangzhou in southern China. He was detained before he could catch a connecting flight to Shanghai, where he was to meet up with his wife and child. He stopped posting on social media, and for four days his whereabouts were unknown.

Rory Medcalf, a former Australian diplomat now at the Australian National University in Canberra, described Yang’s arrest as “hostage diplomacy” and linked it to the arrests of the two Canadians — Michael Kovrig, an analyst with International Crisis Group, and Michael Spavor, a businessman who runs a travel company in China arranging trips to North Korea.

Those arrests came after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the company’s founder and one of China’s leading tech billionaires, was detained in Canada at the request of the U.S. and as the U.S.-China trade war was deepening.

Yang’s arrest now “drags Australia into China’s hostage diplomacy,” Medcalf said in a tweet.

— Los Angeles Times