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Alabama State University Under Fire; So is President Boyd

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By Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from The Afro-American Newspaper

The historic presidency of Alabama State University’s first female chief continues to be shrouded in controversy.

ASU’s accrediting body, The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) placed ASU on a six-month warning period in June, citing the college for failing to comply with six standards. Moody’s recently downgraded the university’s bond rating for the second time in nine months. Two Board of Trustee members were forced to resign last week. This week, a member of the committee that helped select Gwendolyn Boyd as ASU’s first female president in its 146-year history is saying he regrets his choice.

In a nearly 1,200-word Facebook post on July 27, Donald Watkins, a former Board of Trustee member and ASU pro bono counsel, detailed the reasons he felt choosing Boyd was the university’s “greatest mistake.”

“I want to publicly apologize to the entire Alabama State University family. I made a serious error in judgment when I nominated Dr. Gwendolyn E. Boyd and asked the board of trustees to elect her as president of ASU,” Watkins wrote. “At the time, I sincerely believed that Dr. Boyd was qualified for the position. I have since learned that her prior executive experience was greatly exaggerated and that her administrative skills are sorely lacking for what is required to be an effective president at ASU.”

Watkins accused Boyd of being a “part-time executive employee,” who “sprints out of town every Thursday or Friday to advance her ministerial career.” He castigated her for allegedly misusing university funds by accepting a $1,000 monthly car allowance though she does not own a car and is chauffeured by officers that have racked up thousands in overtime pay.

Watkins also accused Boyd of being an ineffective fundraiser. “In her first 100 days, she only raised $26,500 – a pathetic performance by the University’s chief fundraiser,” he said.

The former trustee’s acrimony was especially sharp, however, in his accusations concerning her treatment of the trustees and her alleged role in the forced resignations of ASU Board Chairman Elton Dean and Vice Chairman Marvin Wiggins. Boyd previously butted heads with the pair. In a series of letters, the trustees accused the president of disregarding the board’s authority and of behavior that bordered “blatant disrespect and insubordination.”

Boyd denied the charge. She accused Wiggins of disrespecting after a decision made during a meeting on an ASU controversy involving the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Watkins said Boyd’s alleged alienation of trustees was a result of her “unholy alliance” with Gov. Robert Bentley, who forced Dean and Wiggins from their positions last week.

“As soon as she finished taking the oath of office as president, Dr. Boyd swore her allegiance to Tea Party Republican Gov. Robert Bentley,” Watkins said. And Bentley has repaid Boyd for that allegiance.”

“After Bentley forced the resignation of Board Chairman Elton Dean and removed Vice-Chairman Marvin Wiggins from the board last week, the message from Bentley to the remaining trustees was clear – leave Dr. Boyd alone; she is the governor’s overseer at ASU and she is untouchable,” the former trustee said.

The AFRO contacted Boyd’s office for a response, but a university spokesperson said the president is not making any statements on these matters.

According to the governor’s office, however, Dean and Wiggins were removed because of a conflict of interest. The letter sent to Wiggins, a copy of which was emailed to the AFRO, cites Alabama statute, which states: “It shall be unlawful for any member of the board to be financially interested in any contract or transaction affecting the interests of the university; to procure, or be a party in any way to procuring the appointment of any relative to any position of financial trust or profit; or to influence the appointment, non-reappointment, retention, dismissal or compensation of any employee of the university except through the prescribed procedures for such purposes, and the violation of this provision shall subject the member so offending to removal by the governor or the board.”

From 2010 to January 2013, several of Wiggins’ relative, including his wife, received more than $250,000 in compensation from ASU. Dean has a similar familial conflict of interest, the letter stated. The trustees’ violation of the statute was one of the reasons cited by SACS, the accrediting body, for its warning. Other reasons include problems with financial stability and control of funds, Title IV program responsibilities, and control of sponsored research/external funds.

Carib Takes Reparations Case to UK Parliament

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By Bert Wilkinson
Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News

Caribbean trade bloc countries fighting to make Britain and other European countries pay for the transatlantic slave trade have formally taken their case to the British Parliament, with their leading reparations advocate urging legislators to correct wrongs that were enacted into law by that very House of Commons, because millions in the region are still suffering from the effects of slavery.

Sir Hilary Beckles, principal of the umbrella University of the West Indies and head of the Caribbean Reparations Commission, told the House of Commons in an address a week ago that the Caribbean region fully expects that European governments would have no problem acknowledging the sheer brutality of the slave trade and the fact that European slave owners were paid for giving up slaves at emancipation in the 1830s, rather than the people who were brutalized on plantations without being paid a single cent.

The mid-July address to British MP’s was released by the bloc this week.

“Like you, I am aware that this parliament prepared the official political basis of the crimes that defined the colonial past,” Beckles said. “It is here, in this house, that the evil system of slavery and genocide was established. This house passed laws, framed fiscal policies and enforced the crimes that have produced harmful legacies and persistent suffering now in need of repair.”

He said research by governments shows that British slave ships brought an astonishing 5.5 million enslaved Africans to Caribbean colonies over 180 years, but by the time the practice was abolished in the 1830s, only 800,000 remained, a survival rate among the slave population, including those born into slavery, of a mere 15 percent.

His address came two weeks after Caribbean leaders at their summit in Antigua had asked European nations to participate in a reparations summit later this year or early next year and as the region prepares its case to fight Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, among others, for reparations for slavery, genocide against indigenous communities and Asians shipped to work on Caribbean plantations.

He said governments feel that paid reparations will “bring honor and dignity to the people of the Caribbean, as well as to the people of Great Britain and Europe.”

Additionally, Beckles argued, governments today are saddled with the task of “cleaning up the awful mess left behind by Britain’s colonial legacy,” noting that the region has waged this battle valiantly. “We are not beggars,” he said. “We are not subservient. We do not want charity and handouts. We want justice, reparatory justice.

“Britain and its Parliament cannot morally and legally turn their backs upon this past, and walk away from the mess they have left behind. This parliament has to return to the scene of its crimes and participate as a legitimate parliament, as a legal parliament, in the healing and rehabilitation of the Caribbean.”

Kansas Plagued by Voter Suppression Despite New Legislation

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By Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

Kris Kobach is a man on a mission.

Mere days after being sworn in as Kansas’ 31st secretary of state on Jan. 10, 2011, the co-architect of Arizona’s divisive and much-disputed anti-illegal immigration law, SB 1070, introduced a law to combat what he saw as unchecked voter fraud, particularly by non-U.S. citizens.

The Secure and Fair Elections (SAFE) Act, he touted, would make it “easy to vote but hard to cheat.”

Among other things, the law required Kansas voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polling place as of July 2012 and that new voters provide proof of U.S. citizenship before they could be registered, beginning January 2013.

“Election crimes have been documented across the state of Kansas, but very little has been done to rectify the situation,” said Kobach in a statement at the time. “The time has come to secure the integrity of Kansas elections.”

But critics, and even some who supported the legislation, say it has not lived up to its promise of easy access to the ballot box and has, instead, put roadblocks in the way of eligible voters.

“Kris Kobach testified before the Kansas Legislature, promising that people wouldn’t even notice this new law once it was in effect.  In fact, he promised that the enactment of this legislation would be easy, simple, and seamless,” said state Sen. Jean Kurtis Schodorf (D) during a campaign speech in her run for secretary of state. “My mistake was trusting Kris Kobach: believing the lies that Kris Kobach told me, the lies that Kris Kobach told the Legislature, and the lies that Kris Kobach told the Kansas people.

“We have now lived with this law for over a year and a half, and its effects have been devastating.”

While the photo ID requirement blocked about 500 voters from casting votes in the 2012 elections, the effects of the citizenship requirement has been even more acute.

As of January 2014, more than 20,000 persons attempting to register as first-time voters in Kansas are being held in a “suspense” status until they provide documentary proof of their citizenship. In some cases, activists said, those would-be voters may have already provided proof to the Division of Vehicles, which then failed to pass on the documents to the elections authorities.

Forcing eligible voters to navigate additional hurdles before they can vote undermines the goal of the federal National Voter Registration Act, or “Motor Voter” law, which was intended to increase participation in the American democracy, activists said.

“This is a new and hefty barrier to registration,” said Julie Ebenstein, counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. She added, “Any state who cares about their responsibility to increase the numbers of eligible voters will be concerned and very cautious with how this law has played out so far.”

In testimony before the House Elections Committee in January 2014, Kobach said 72 percent of new voting registrants had already provided proof of citizenship and touted the number as being “extraordinarily high.”

But detractors say Kobach should be more concerned with the remaining 28 percent.

“If this law was put in place because of voter fraud, which has been proven in so few numbers, that is not a match to the more than 19,000 people who wish to vote and are barred from doing so,” said Dolores Furtado, president, League of Women Voters of Kansas.

The League has worked with Johnson County—and a couple of other counties followed suit—whose officials provided devices that allowed League volunteers to take pictures of individuals’ citizenship certificates at naturalization ceremonies and pass on those documents to election officials.

An effort has also been made to match names on the suspension list to birth records from the state office of vital statistics and that has produced about 7,700 matches.

Still, Furtado said, there is a “discriminatory effect” against Kansans who have changed their name—mostly women—and those born outside the state.

The League was also one of the interveners, supporting the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, in a lawsuit filed by Kobach to force the EAC to add Kansas’ citizenship requirement to federal mail voter registration forms.

The complaint is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, however, Kobach has declared that Kansas voters who use the federal registration form will only be able to vote in federal races.

That two-tiered or dual registration system – which the ACLU and others have challenged in court – is clearly discriminatory, critics have said.

“Kansans proudly fought to correct the Jim Crow separate but equal laws through the Brown vs. Board of Education case. However, right now in the state of Kansas, radical Kris Kobach is making our voters separate and unequal,” Schodorf said. “This is clear-cut disenfranchisement.  Not all Kansas citizens are being treated equally.  This is government at its worst. And it is wrong.”

Equally questionable, voting rights activists said, is the Kansas-hosted Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which is used to check for duplicate voter registrations and possible double voting.

Republican proponents claim the program provides solid evidence of “widespread voter fraud,” and have used it to justify a number of voter restrictions.

That was the case earlier this year when North Carolina officials said the database found that about 38,000 voters in their state were also registered in other states, causing hysteria among voter fraud believers. On closer examination of the list, however, the names of at least four state legislators appeared, and the list was further whittled down as evidence of clerical and other errors were found. In fact, very few actual cases of fraud have been referred for prosecution.

“It is another incident in which the facts really don’t match some of the dire predictions and this world legislators have dreamed up to justify these suppressive voting laws,” the ACLU’s Ebenstein said. “It should be a very careful process [of determination] before we deny someone the right to vote or remove them from registration lists. Certainly the overblown scare tactics and rough determinations are not sufficient.”

Drug Offenders Receive Retroactive Sentence Reductions

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – In a major move last week, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to moderate federal sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, and apply the guidelines retroactively. Consequently,  more than 46,000 currently incarcerated drug offenders – 73 percent of whom are Black or Latino – will now be eligible for a reduction in their sentences.

“This amendment [to the guidelines] received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the commission. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”

The Sentencing Commission is an independent agency in the federal court system tasked with creating federal prison sentencing policy. Though the amendment is aimed at reducing overcrowding (another of the agency’s responsibilities), there are also implications for the legacy of the war on drugs. The Commission reports that federal prisons are over capacity by 32 percent. In the long run, the amendment could save nearly 80,000 “bed years.”

“We think [the amendment] represents really an historic step forward in terms of making changes to the war on drugs, which has been waged for three decades – and hasn’t really reduced the amount of drugs that are available, and hasn’t done that much about drug abuse, but has filled half our federal prison cells with people with drug offenses,” says Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project, a national incarceration research, reform, and advocacy organization.

“It’s been a particularly devastating blow—the war on drugs—to communities of color. So even though people of all races use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates, Blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses.”

The amendment works by raising the drug quantity thresholds that trigger mandatory minimum sentences. Sentencing for federal drug offenses moving forward will use this new threshold, but the amendment is also retroactive. Many offenders’ cases would no longer meet those thresholds.

Offenders must meet seven criteria to be eligible for a revised (and likely reduced) sentence, including: an original sentence longer than the mandatory minimum; no convictions under career criminal guidelines; and no alterations to the original mandatory-minimum sentence through special leniency or assisting authorities.

Starting now, eligible offenders can file a motion to have their cases reviewed and sentences reduced. The courts will review to determine whether reducing the sentence poses a public threat. Motions will be decided on a rolling basis—but actual releases won’t begin until November 1, 2015.

The time allows for a smooth transition. Judges will be able to carefully review each of the eligible 46,290 cases, and prosecutors will have time to object, if desired. Federal probation professionals will have time to prepare to supervise those being released earlier than expected, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons will have time to set-up reentry provisions for them.

The commission estimates that those approved will receive a reduction of about two years, on average. Because the eligible cases span a few decades, these early releases will take place over many years. There are a few thousand offenders whose resentencing would allow them to be released immediately on the November date.

This amendment is another step in a slow, but sweeping effort to get a handle on ineffective drug policy. In 2010, the Obama administration released its first plan for drug policy reform, a holistic strategy to address drugs as an international and public health issue. And according to independent political fact-checking project, Politifact, President Barack Obama has kept most of his drug reform promises.

In 2010, he signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines that had created a decades-long 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine offenses. Funding to state drug courts, which funnel low-level drug offenders to treatment as opposed to incarceration, has increased each year since 2012.

Additionally, there has been some traction and effective collaboration on drug reform in recent years. In 2008, for example, President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act into law, which gave subsidies to companies that hired ex-offenders. Even the Commission’s vote has been a collaborative process, eliciting more than 60,000 mostly-favorable letters from elected officials, organizations, citizens, and legal professionals during a public comment period.

However, social, executive, and judicial interventions alone are not enough to address the lingering effects of the drug war. For example, the scope of the Sentencing Commission’s vote only affects those serving time in federal facilities; meanwhile, the bulk of the nation’s drug offenders are convicted at the state level.

Without Congressional action, some drug policy problems—particularly the mandatory minimum guidelines that impose sentences based on the amount and drug involved, regardless of the case facts and/or judge’s assessment—will remain in effect. Several elected officials have made attempts at legislation to address these issues. Most recently, the Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced in the Senate last year, and again in March, seeks to allow the court to disregard the mandatory minimum guidelines in cases involving low-level, nonviolent offenders.

“The Sentencing Commission did about as well as it could, given the constraints with mandatory minimum [sentencing guidelines], which can only be repealed or reduced by Congress,” says Haile. “Some people might be tempted to think that…this [vote] means the problem is solved, but really it’s going to continue to be a problem even when all these reforms are carried out. We’ll still need to heal the problems from mandatory minimums, and we’ll still need Congressional action.”

Disabled Americans Seek More Consumer Protection

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By Jazelle Hunt
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – In a popular TV advertisement, ordinary citizens loudly declare to the world, “It’s my money, and I need it now!” It seems like a reasonable request. But this instant-gratification, through a process called structured settlement factoring, may not be in a person’s best interest.

As part of commemorating the 24th anniversary of the American Disabilities Act, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) turned its attention to consumer protections, particularly as relates to settlement factoring.

Incidents and accidents that result in disability often come with “make whole” cash settlements from the responsible party. Structuring the settlement allows the money to be safeguarded and split into uniform, tax-free, market-independent monthly payments for life, even if one is able to, and does, work.

“[T]he factoring of structured settlements…it is an important issue to many people with disabilities. On average, there are about five to six thousand people a year who factor their structured settlements, so it’s something that’s really critical for us to look at,” says Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the AAPD.

“So when we talk about structured settlements and the factoring of structured settlements, we really need to think of the broader context with which this is all occurring, and I think some of the numbers really paint a powerful picture.”

People with disabilities usually rely heavily on their disability settlements and/or social assistance for all or most of their income. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans with disabilities live below the poverty line. The poverty rate is even higher for Black Americans (20 percent of whom have disabilities, according to Census data collected in 2012)—36 percent of Black people with disabilities are poor, compared to the overall rate of 21 percent among all people with disabilities.

When financial emergencies arise, beneficiaries in a bind can’t simply draw funds from their settlements (outside of the established monthly payments). Factoring allows people to draw against their settlement by selling the rights to some or all of the monthly payments in exchange for an immediate lump sum of cash. In many cases, factoring also cuts future monthly payment amount to stretch the remaining funds across the lifetime. Of course, this reduction can set the stage for future factorings.

“There is a component of poverty that we need to consider; there’s a component of financial literacy that we need to consider as well,” Perriello explains. “There’s a reason why so many people with structured settlements decide to factor. It’s a perfectly legal practice in the United States, and we believe it needs to remain a legal practice. But there needs to be regulation.”

Decades of inadequate regulation have allowed predatory practices, such as charging steep fees or underpaying beneficiaries for their settlement rights,  to seep into the factoring industry. To address this, the federal government installed structured settlement consumer protections into the tax code.

As of July 2002, all transactions to transfer settlement rights from a beneficiary to a third party have to be court-approved. Also under this tax code amendment, any person or entity purchasing settlement payments without court approval must pay a punitive tax. And almost every state has passed legislation (known as SSPA laws) to provide its own version of these protections. For a while, these provisions worked—until courts were inundated with requests to approve transactions.

“The theory is that a state court judge who now has to approve one of these structured settlement sales is not going to allow a plaintiff to get ripped off,” says Martin Jacobson, vice president and general counsel at Creative Capital, Inc., a law firm that specializes in structured settlements. “Unfortunately, it’s become a rubber stamp. [The tax code amendment] and SSPA have become ineffective, and we need something better.”

Enter Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.), who introduced the SAFER Structured Settlements Act at the start of this year. It would eliminate rip-offs by preventing companies from taking any more than 5 percentage points higher than the current ideal interest rate, and would limit administrative fees to 2 percent of the lump sum’s value. Finally, companies would be required to disclose information to help payees understand the process in general, and their transaction in particular.

“This bill acts as a backstop,” says Shelby Boxenbaum, legislative aid to Rep. Cartwright. “We live in a capitalist society, and people should be able to do what they want with their money, to an extent. But there’s a difference between having freedom and being completely taken advantage of.”

The sustained advocacy and legislative efforts toward consumer protections for all have been generally praised, but they have also been tempered by socioeconomic realities. Ideally, Jacobson advises his clients to have a bulk of their settlement structured; negotiate a Life Care Plan that accounts for emergencies and life events; and receive the remaining portion in cash to invest, with the help of a qualified adviser.

More commonly, beneficiaries are unaware that such a safety net could have been created at the time of their settlement. Now, living on economic edge, settlement factoring presents the only personal finance safety net they can access.

“We all have expenses that come up that are unexpected. But I think it goes back to the financial literacy question and I think what we need to do is really educate consumers on what factored structure settlements are,” Perriello says. “Because if [a settlement] is done right, and if your spending is right, you should be able to plan for unexpected needs just as you can plan for expected needs as well.”

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