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Judge sides with ISU in first round of faculty fight

14 Mar

A judge in the U.S. District Court in Pocatello gave an early victory to ISU in a suit by some faculty over First and 14th Amendment rights. (TBA file photo)

by Jamie Hale

Idaho State University scored an early win in their First Amendment fight with a group of faculty Tuesday, after a federal judge denied a temporary restraining order filed by the faculty group.

The fight started when the university blocked access to a previously-used “facultymemos” email listserv from the heads of the Provisional Faculty Senate. The university didn’t want the group circulating their draft of the faculty constitution on an ISU-controlled listserv, so the group sued for what they are calling a violation of their First and 14th Amendment rights.

The temporary restraining order would have forced ISU to return access to the listserv until the full case is heard.

But Judge B. Lynn Winmill said in his decision that the faculty group failed to prove that their speech deserves to be treated as that of private citizens, rather than that of ISU employees.

In the March 2 hearing, the group admitted that the speech at issue is related to their job, an admission that when coupled with the university’s control of the listserv, basically defeats the argument, said Judge Winmill in his ruling.

But the lawyers for the faculty group are staying optimistic, in their minds the ruling actually helped their case quite a bit, thanks to footnote nine.

Footnote nine is buried in the ruling, but it has become the new arguing point against ISU, said Ron Coulter, lawyer for the faculty group. It states:

“As noted, the Court’s findings are not final in the injunction setting. Given defendants’ representations, the Court expects ISU and its IT department to cooperate fully with the plaintiff’s members should they wish to send mass emails through an un-moderated listserv.”

To Coulter, the interpretation is simple. “You may not be able to use the facultymemos listserv, but the real issue here is you need a way to communicate with the faculty that is unmoderated,” he said. “I think [Judge Winmill] is really telling the parties to do something. ‘I expect you to do something.'”

Coulter said while he’s reserving all their legal rights, this footnote now opens the door to finding a solution out of court that allows the Senate to send emails to the rest of the faculty, free from university oversight.

The university, however, issued a one-sentence response to the case, saying they are pleased with the judge’s decision. Beyond that they don’t comment on ongoing litigation, said Kent Tingey, vice president for university advancement.

While the temporary restraining order was denied, Judge Winmill also denied the university’s motions to dismiss the case. Although he has sided with ISU initially, the judge made it clear in his ruling that this case is far from over.

Read the entire ruling here.

Contact Jamie at


Pocatello man charged after shooting dog with gun

13 Mar

A Pocatello man is charged with animal cruelty after shooting this dog, a black and white lab mix, in the neck with a high caliber gun Monday afternoon. (Photo via Pocatello Police Department)

UPDATE: Local News 8 talked to the suspect, who said the dog was a threat to his family. Brock Merrill said the dog, who he believed was a stray, had been frequenting his property over the past week. It got aggressive Monday afternoon, so he shot it. He also said he didn’t realize his property was within city limits.

Pocatello police have charged a man with animal cruelty after he allegedly shot a dog in the neck with a high caliber gun. Interestingly enough, this is right on the heels of legislation to enact harsher penalties on Idahoans convicted of animal cruelty.

Police first responded to the 1100 block of Ceder Hollow, off Bannock Highway, at about 2:30 Monday afternoon after getting a call about an injured dog. Police and animal control arrived at the scene to find the black and white lab mix, who had been shot. The dog was taken to Alta Animal Hospital, where it underwent surgery.

Police followed a trail of blood left by the dog to the 1200 block of Cahina Way, one street over. They identified the suspect, 36-year-old Brock C. Merrill, and charged him with cruelty to animals and discharging a firearm within city limits, both misdemeanor charges. The gun police believe he used is a .357 magnum revolver.

Under Idaho’s current laws, Merrill, if a first-time offender, could face up to six months in jail and a fine of $100 to $5,000. Most people convicted of the crime don’t get anything near the maximum penalty, however.

Despite the veterinarian’s best efforts, the bullet can’t be removed from the dog’s neck, although it is in stable condition and is expected to recover. Pocatello Animal Control is still looking for the owner of the dog, and are asking anybody with information to call 234.6157.

Pocatello doctor accused of botched autopsies

12 Mar

Here's Dr. Steve Skoumal, accused of botching 10 autopsies, including those in high-profile crimes.

You would think it isn’t too hard to tell the difference between carbon monoxide inhalation and gunshot wounds to the head, but for one Pocatello doctor, it’s apparently not so easy.

The Idaho Board of Medicine cited that as one of 10 incidents of botched autopsies performed by Pocatello’s Dr. Steve M. Skoumal. The shooting/carbon monoxide inhalation case was from the 2006 Rexburg house fire in which Marc and Amanda Bell, as well as their 3-year-old son Dylan, were found dead. It wasn’t the only high-profile case he botched.

The Idaho Statesmen revealed that another big case is included in the allegation: the 2006 murder of Pocatello High School student Cassie Jo Stoddart.

The Cassie Jo Stoddart case is an especially big deal. She was only 16 when she was stabbed to death, apparently by Brian Draper and Torey Adamcik, who are currently serving life sentences for the murder.

Adamcik unsuccessfully appealed the case to the Idaho Supreme Court, where  lawyers argued that the state failed to prove which of the wounds were fatal, as Skoumal testified that only 12 were “potentially fatal.” The state board said he was unable to identify the length or size of knives that made stab wounds, and couldn’t interpret wound patterns.

They also took issue with Skoumal’s claim he was a board-certified forensic pathologist. As it turns out, he isn’t one.

Skoumal is of course denying much of this. His lawyer is saying that the complaint is a result of confusion over what exactly Skoumal does. In other words, this is all out of the doctor’s control. Still, people aren’t going to be too happy about this, especially the families of the victims of the crimes.

[via IDS]

Hoku to lay off 20 at Pocatello plant

6 Mar

Officials at Hoku Materials announced Tuesday plans to lay off 20 employees at their Pocatello Plant. It’s not the best news for the plant that has yet to fully open.

Amy Burks-Stewart, marketing and public relations coordinator for Hoku Materials, said 20 employees from various departments have been let go. She said each employee was offered a severance package based on their tenure with the company. Hoku is also working with the Department of Labor to help their former employees with outplacement opportunities.

According to Burks-Stewart, the cuts were necessary for the plant to maintain its viability going forward, until the facility can reach desired production levels.

It’s another in a line of bad news for Hoku, who most recently sparred with Idaho Power over unpaid power bills. While the company eventually reached a compromise, the controversy revealed Hoku’s money problems. The lay offs, while small, don’t do the company any favors in that department.

[via KPVI]

Ron Paul rallies 2,000 for ‘liberty’ in Idaho Falls

6 Mar

Ron Paul speaks to nearly 2,000 people at the Civic Auditorium in Idaho Falls on Monday evening. (Jamie Hale/The Bannock Alternative)

by Jamie Hale

Republican Presidential hopeful Ron Paul rallied the troops in Idaho Falls Monday night, through chants of “end the fed” and “Obama sucks.”

Paul spoke for 50 minutes to nearly 2,000 people in Idaho Falls’ Civic Auditorium, giving a speech that was more ideological than it was political. Among his main priorities were ending the federal reserve, reducing international military presence and, the crowd’s favorite, returning personal liberty to the people.

“What we need is less government and more liberty and we will solve our problems,” said Paul, to thunderous applause. “Today our personal liberty is under threat and if there’s just one thing you need to protect it’s personal liberty.”

Standing in the way of that liberty is the government intervention in Americans’ daily lives, he said. “People think if the government doesn’t do it it won’t happen. That’s not the case,” said Paul. “If the government doesn’t do it, we’ll do it for ourselves and maybe we’ll do it much better.”

The crowd gave loud cheers to lines like that, and weren’t afraid to show their support for Paul’s ideas. In fact, the crowd was more raucous than one might expect from a typical political rally. Before Paul took to the podium, supporters started chants while volunteers on stage hyped their candidate and even the rally’s after-party. “This isn’t an AARP convention” shouted a volunteer. “Let’s get rowdy!”

Ron Paul signs and U.S. flags lined the street in front of the Civic Auditorium in Idaho Falls. (Jamie Hale/The Bannock Alternative)

Dustin Ashment is one of those fervent Paul supporters. “[Ron Paul] is the only candidate that really offers anything that’s real change,” he said. Ashment, an Idaho Falls resident, got in line nearly three hours before Paul was scheduled to take the stage.

To him, Paul is the only option. “We’re tired of choosing between the lesser of two evils,” he said.

The rally came one day before Super Tuesday, when 10 states, including Idaho, will have to choose one of the Republican candidates to represent the party in the Presidential race in the fall. Idaho, which overwhelmingly voted for Paul in the unofficial January straw poll, has 32 delegates to give in the Tuesday night caucus.

Despite his fervent supporters, Paul has come in third and fourth place in the primaries so far, relegating him to a position of influential libertarian guru, rather than a serious Presidential candidate.

Paul has excited a sizable support base with his primarily libertarian positions that focus on individual liberties, U.S. isolationism and low tax rates. His politics put him squarely on the outskirts of the Republican party, making him unique, but unappealing to many in the party.

One thing he has going for him is the age of his supporters. Ashment, 28, came to the rally with his 21-year-old brother. They weren’t the only youth in attendance. Several hand-painted signs read “Youth for Ron Paul” and many young kids held signs in the audience.

“A lot of the older generation doesn’t listen to what we, the younger generation, has to say,” said Ashment. While older voters get their news from traditional TV and print media, the young Paul fans use the internet–and that makes a difference, he said.

Voters in Idaho will get a chance to show their solidarity for Paul on Tuesday. It would be a huge upset for Mitt Romney, who toured the Gem State last week to rally support, and would mark the first statewide victory for Paul in the primary race.

Both Ashment and his brother voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, but said they’re voting for Paul this year, even if he isn’t the Republican nominee. “I think most Ron Paul supporters will only vote for Ron Paul,” he said, even if they have to write his name in on election day.

Contact Jamie at

Rocky Mountain Power won’t increase rates after all

5 Mar

It’s another twist in the strangely dramatic story of Rocky Mountain Power’s proposed rate hike.They might! They will! They won’t! Get it together, Rocky Mountain Power!

The Utah-based company already increased rates by 6.78 percent last year, but had planned on increasing residential rates by another 5.5 percent on the first of 2012, with another 5.1 increase planned for 2013. In January, they announced an Idaho Public Utilities Commission-approved plan to increase rates of 11.28 percent by 2013, more than they had planned.

But although it claimed it isn’t collecting enough money from eastern Idaho customers to cover its power supply expenses, the company said it isn’t seeking a future rate increase after all. They think the power supply costs will actually decrease significantly next year.

Instead, Rocky Mountain Power is looking to collect about $2.6 million in power supply expense from two large industrial customers, Onsanto and Agrium. The IPUC said the total amount to be collected from the two companies totals about $7.7 million, but that amount would be spread over three years.

it’s good news for residential users, but bad news for Onsanto and Agrium. The IPUC will take public comment on the adjustment proposal through March 13.

[via LN8]

No decision, plenty of debate in ISU motion hearing

2 Mar

The U.S. District Court in Pocatello was the setting Friday of a motion hearing between Idaho State University and a group of faculty members. (Jamie Hale/The Bannock Alternative)

by Jamie Hale

There’s no decision just yet, but federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill heard arguments Friday from lawyers representing the Idaho State University administration and a group of faculty in their First Amendment suit against the university.

Judge Winmill said he would release a decision “in due time” over whether or not ISU must allow the group, The Idaho State Faculty Association of the First Amendment, to use the “facultymemos” email listserv (technically it’s a Mailman), until the full case is decided later.

But the debate at the U.S. District Court in Pocatello turned from ISU and faculty into Pickering and  Perry, two previous cases that each side is trying to use to determine who is in the right.

The Pickering test, ISU lawyer John Bailey argued, involves employer vs. employee speech rights, and should be applied. Pickering was used as recently as 2011 in a case that ruled in favor of a high school that pressured a teacher to remove religious banners from his classroom. If used, it could mean a win for ISU.

But Ron Coulter, the lawyer for the faculty group, argued that the Perry test should be used, as it dealt directly with a school district disallowing speech in what the courts decided were “non-public forums,” similar to the listserv in question. If used, it could be an advantage for the faculty group.

Judge Winmill seemed to lean more to the side of Pickering, as it was used most recently in a similar case, he said, but that doesn’t mean he has made any kind of decision in the matter.

Winmill asked a lot of Coulter and his legal team during the nearly hour-and-a-half-long hearing. Most notably, Winmill wanted to know why the group couldn’t—and still can’t—use alternate methods of communication, other than the university-sanctioned facultymemos listserv.

Coulter argued that the issue is not about whether or not they could create another system of communication, but about the fact that access was revoked to the system of communication they had already been using.

“Even if you have school-sponsored speech, it cannot be prohibited based on viewpoint, it just can’t,” said Coulter.

Bailey countered that the group could have created their own listserv, despite the admittedly “antiquated” university policy of discouraging email groups of more than 100 addresses.

He argued that ISU had the right to censor the emails because sending them over a university-sanctioned listserv implied the content was university-sanctioned, which it was not.

“Everybody knows [facultymemos] is monitored by the administration,” said Bailey. “At least that risk is there.”

But one of the most basic necessities for this so-called “temporary restraining order” motion against ISU is that the issue is in the public’s interest. Judge Winmill seemed to side more with the faculty group on the issue, as a public university has more public interest than, say, an environmental quality agency, he said.

Bailey begged to differ. “It is uniquely an internal debate, it is uniquely an internal issue,” he said. “An individual off the street could not walk in and participate in a faculty Senate meeting.”

But if Coulter and the group of ISU faculty can’t prove that the issue is of public interest, or that ISU might have violated the First Amendment rights of the Provisional Faculty Senate, they won’t get the temporary restraining order.

For now, Judge Winmill has called a recess, and is giving Coulter and his team a chance to give a sur-reply, or a chance to offer arguments after the initial hearing. Winmill asked Coulter to consider another case, 1994’s United States v. National Treasury Employees Union, a case neither side addressed, but one that Winmill said could be important here. He is also allowing Bailey’s team a chance to sur-sur-reply to give their input.

We probably won’t hear the decision for about a week, so the issue of the listserv will remain up in the air for now. Pickering, Perry and public interest will all play into the judge’s ultimate ruling.

Since this initial hearing considers some of the most basic details of the whole case, Judge Winmill’s decision could say a lot about how this suit will be decided in the end. No matter which way he rules, it’s important to remember that this hearing is just the beginning of a long road ahead.

Contact Jamie at

Mitt Romney woos over 1,000 in Idaho Falls

1 Mar

A crowd of about 1,000 cheers Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during a rally at Skyline High School in Idaho Falls. (Jamie Hale/The Bannock Alternative)

by Jamie Hale

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wooed a crowd of over 1,000 in Idaho Falls today, in a rally that comes less than a week ahead of Idaho’s Super Tuesday primary.

Romney fired up a crowd of hundreds in one gym at Skyline High School, then gave the same speech to a group of about 1,000 in another gym in the school.

The former Massachusetts Governor ran the gamut of Republican talking points, touching on energy, jobs and taxes. But his primary message was a trio of “More jobs, less debt, smaller government,” a message that resonated well with the rambunctious crowd.

Idaho Falls local Nancy Archibald said she came to the rally as a “Mitt supporter, 100 percent.” For her, the decision to nominate Romney is clear.

“I can’t think of a better person,” she said. “I don’t trust Washington [D.C.] insiders anymore.” In fact, Romney’s status as a D.C. outsider, as well as his record as a businessman, makes him the best person to help America out of an economic bind, said Archibald. As a realtor, she said she just wants people to be able to afford homes again.

Romney also touted his background in business, saying it makes him uniquely qualified to run the country. “I know how business works, I want to use that experience,” he said. “It helps to have a president that’s had a good job and I have.”

Mitt Romney spoke about jobs and freedom from government at his Idaho Falls rally. (Jamie Hale/The Bannock Alternative)

Through his promises of a strong military, lower tax rates and more jobs, he also got in a few jabs at President Barack Obama. “This president is out of ideas, he’s out of excuses and in 2012 he’ll be out of office,” said Romney. The crowd, who held signs with slogans like “Mitt’s way or the highway” and “Mitt’s bringing sexy back,” cheered at every line.

With the Super Tuesday primaries less than a week away, Romney called on supporters to get out the vote and help him win the nomination. Idaho’s Tuesday primary has 32 delegates at stake, and with a constant surge of Republican opponents stalling him at every turn, the win in Idaho is important to his campaign.

Romney has long been considered a frontrunner in the contest, but he’s had to fight back against challenger after challenger in the seemingly never-ending race for the Republican nomination.

Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and even Donald Trump all challenged Romney, but ultimately faltered against his deep pockets and perceived electability.

In recent weeks, his main challenger has been former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, but it was another opponent, libertarian candidate Ron Paul, who won January’s Idaho straw poll by a huge margin. This Tuesday, Idahoans will get a chance to throw their support behind a candidate once and for all. Romney’s supporters at the rally seemed up to the job.

“You seem more than slightly inclined to support my candidacy, is that right?” he asked one cheering mass of people. “I don’t need a lot, I just need you to go out and vote. Will you do that for me?”

Archibald said Romney already had her vote. “He’s very generous, you can tell. He’s had to work for a dollar,” she said. So what’s wrong with Obama? Archibald twisted her face in disgust and rattled off a few popular Republican buzz words for the President: marxist, socialist and communist.

In southeast Idaho, where several large businesses have recently announced layoffs, and people like a hands-off government, Romney’s rally really came down to one promise: “I will make my job making jobs for you.”

Contact Jamie at

County Commissioners debate use of ballot counting security cameras

1 Mar

by Chantelle Roy

A proposed video camera installation for ballot counting was put on hold after a lengthy discussion during Wednesday morning’s Bannock County Commissioners’ meeting.

An issue stemming back to the 2010 elections, the installation of video cameras to record activity of volunteers has been a recent topic of discussion. Many concerned citizens, as well as political groups, have asked for the placement of video cameras where ballots are to be counted in order to avoid future errors.

According to Tori Hall, from the Bannock County elections office, the elections of 2010 have caused an uproar after 25 absentee ballots were mysteriously found after counting was finished. The whole issue stems from human error, according to Hall. She assured the those gathered that several new procedures have been set in place for future elections to prevent any other problems.

“We don’t want to look at the names on the ballots,” said Ralph Lillig, a concerned citizen, citing that voting is the back bone of American society as we know it. Lillig prompted those in attendance of the importance the cameras held. He said he hoped to be able to video record the vault, where the ballots were kept, as well as the opening of the ballots to make sure no ballots were tampered with.

But according to Jay Bingham, Bannock County elections administrator, to film the opening of the ballots would be a blatant violation of privacy. Bingham said that the Secretary of State’s office recommended not placing the cameras where ballots could be viewed because personal information is sometimes revealed. And while it is clear that recording the opening of the ballots is probably not going to happen, the consensus was that something was needed to ensure accuracy in the future.

After the prospect of filming the ballots was taken off the table it was then suggested that any path the ballots were to take should be recorded so that there were no inconsistencies later. “Our nation is at a crossroads,” said Lillig, “people are angry and scared,” and he thinks a little more transparency is needed to put people at ease.

The final decision was to install a video camera facing the vault to track people’s comings and goings and to install a portable video camera in the County Commissioners’ chamber that would be used whenever the ballot counting machines were to be used. The camera in the commissioners’ chambers must be portable because it cannot be used to record any other activities held within the chamber.

A man currently in charge of courthouse security and video recording said the total cost of the installation of both cameras would cost between $800 to $1,000 which will need to be payed for. Lillig said private citizens, as well as several organizations, were “lined up” and have already volunteered to pay for the installation of the cameras but the three commissioners, Howard Manwaring, Karl Anderson and Steve Hadley agreed it would be unethical for the commissioners office not to pay for the cameras themselves.

The discussion was ended with talk of future meetings to discuss the budgeting and placement of the cameras.

Contact Chantelle at

Ron Paul coming to Idaho Falls next week

29 Feb

Ron Paul will bring all his libertarian ideas with him to Idaho Falls next week in an attempt to sway voters ahead of the Super Tuesday primary. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Not to be outdone by Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul will also be traveling to Idaho Falls for a rally. It looks like Idaho might be a battleground state after all!

Paul will hold a rally on Monday at 7 p.m. at the Civic Auditorium. The event, like Romney’s, is free and open to the public. While Paul is campaigning as part of the Republican party, his support base is much wider than that. Many of Paul’s fan are self-described libertarians, who follow his more radical (as many in the Republican party say) political views.

So how do you like that, southeast Idaho Republicans? You have not one but TWO presidential candidates stopping through, now! Now your American flag-patterned, elephant-shaped lapel pins can come out and outshine all those American flag-patterned, donkey-shaped lapel pins. Politics!