Friday, December 23, 2005

Does the penalty fit 2

Depending upon whom you ask, state House Bill 1704 is full of holes, or passable. The legislation is necessary to fight drugs, or it’s just a way for politicians to grandstand.

HB 1704 would punish people for drug delivery resulting in death, requiring a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in jail and a $15,000 fine. The bill has passed the state House and is under review by the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sponsored by state Rep. Jeffrey Pyle (R, Ford City), HB 1704 is a newer version of a bill originally sponsored by state Sen. Jane Orie (R, McCandless). The earlier bill, state Senate Bill 480, provided for a third-degree murder charge against anyone found guilty of giving, selling or administering a drug to a minor 17 or under who later died because of that drug use. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck the murder charge earlier this year in Ludwig vs. Pennsylvania, and the bill has resurfaced in Pyle’s newer, pared down version.

The Supreme Court’s opinion left a lot of wiggle room for legislators, some law experts say. Duquesne Law School professor Bruce Ledewitz, a criminal law specialist and former public defender, says the court’s opinion in Ludwig was written so narrowly that it allowed legislators other opportunities to rewrite the law. “The court said the Legislature must’ve meant to include malice, since they said murder [in the bill]. When you write an opinion that way, you invite the Legislature to rewrite the statute,” he says.

HB 1704 reads:

“A person commits a felony of the first degree if the person intentionally, knowingly or recklessly administers, dispenses, delivers, gives, prescribes, sells or distributes any controlled substance or counterfeit controlled substance in violation of section 13(a)(14) or (30) of the act of April 14, 1972 (P.L.233, No.64), known as The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, and another person dies as a result of using the substance.”

Because HB 1704 is much more narrowly written than SB 480, it appears to stand a good chance of making it through the state Senate and approved as law. “The [Pa.] Supreme Court would uphold this legislation,” Ledewitz says. “Which would make an enormous net for drug dealers.”

But Ledewitz’s colleague, Duquesne Law professor Bruce Antkowiak, said the focus of a challenge to the proposed law would be on whether the person who provided the drugs knew that a death would result. HB 1704 addresses “a random outcome by making it into a greater crime,” Antkowiak says.

There are laws already that do such a thing, such as Aggravated Assault by reason of DUI, Ledewitz says.

It appears that the Legislature will pass this new legislation, if nobody speaks out against it. And while it might seem that such cases as Brandy French and Zach Zion are uncommon, they may be more common then we might want to consider. If approved as law, HB 1704 could affect dozens or possibly hundreds of criminal prosecutions in the state each year, Pyle says.

Pyle wants the proposed law to serve as a big stick to beat back the drug dealers. “I want this penalty stiff and omnipresent,” he says.

But the Legislature is attempting to penalize something that is an accident, Ledewitz notes. “If it weren’t an accident, [the crime] already is murder,” he says.

The big stick that Pyle, Orie and other state politicians want to brandish at drug dealers through HB 1704 may be more for the benefit of the voters, Ledewitz says. "It's a symbolic stick, so they can say they want to do something about drugs."

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Classic “Last Stands” reissued

Hilary Masters’ classic memoir, “Last Stands: Notes from Memory,” has been reissued in a new version by Southern Methodist University Press.

Masters’ memoir originally was published by David R. Godine in 1982. At that time, the Boston Globe called the book “an American classic,” and The New Yorker called it “a model demonstration in the uses of memory.” The new version of the book includes an afterword by the author and a foreword in which essayist Phillip Lopate dubs the book the best memoir written in the past twenty years. Masters is a North Side resident and Carnegie Mellon University writing professor who has authored 13 books.

“Last Stands: Notes from Memory” chronicles the lives of Hilary's parents, the poet Edgar Lee Masters and Ellen Coyne Masters, as well as his maternal grandparents, Tom and Mollie Coyne, who raised him until he was 14. Masters’ desire to tell the stories of his grandfather, Tom Coyne, a veteran cavalryman of the Indian Wars and an Irish immigrant, was the impetus for the book. Mollie Coyne brings the filial bond and a political sensibility to the Kansas City household in which Hilary was reared. Ellen Coyne Masters works to keep the family together and pay its bills. Edgar Lee, who attained his fame early in his writing career with “Spoon River Anthology,” struggles to write new material as his physical powers wane.

The book’s beginning draws the reader in with evocative language:

“We follow the flag-covered casket. The honor guard steps before us in cadence, as the wheels of the wagon spin the light, and the red, white, and blue colors of the flag charge the quiet morning. The undertaker and his assistant walk through the grave plots beside the drive, out of step and detached though yet a part of the event like villagers who follow the route of a parade. It is already warm. I can feel the perspiration on my mother's arm as we walk together; already, heat currents rise from the Potomac River to distort the classic lines of the Lincoln Memorial. The geometric panorama of Washington wavers like a quilt on a laundry line.”

While he patched together the histories and time frames of the book’s characters, the saga took a different approach, Masters explains in the afterword.

“Somewhere along the road… it occurred to me that I was traveling essentially the same route between New York and Kansas City over which I shuttled as a child—back and forth from grandparents to parents and then back again; year after year, summer after summer. It wasn’t a straight line but one that looped and curved back into itself, similar to the roads before the interstate highway system. Detours were frequent, and the Greyhound bus that often carried me would have to pull off onto a smaller road for a bit and then find its way back onto the main highway.”

Such meandering characterizes the stories of most of the book’s main characters, including unspoken story of the author. While Masters says he was trying to make a story out of four narratives, the result is still groundbreaking, others say. The author is "breaking up form" in the book, SMU Press editor Kathryn Lang says. "It's a wonderful non-linear approach, and it works well."

The author writes in the book’s afterword: “if I came to an obstruction, a hole in the facts or a psychological dead-end, I would simply go around, making sure the reader would understand the deviation. I could hear the bus driver say, ‘Folks the road up ahead is washed out and we’re just going down here through Coal Bluff and be back on the main road in no time.”

Masters says that while he was writing the book he realized that he had been “what some would call abandoned” by his mother, who left him with his with his grandparents when he was 1. He made another discovery from writing the book: "I learned to appreciate my mother as someone who kept things together.” The book is no love poem, he explains. "My mother almost kept me from publishing the it. She felt that I was making fun of my grandparents.”

The unconventional approach used by Masters in his tale has deeply affected other writers. One of those who lobbied for his recognition by The American Academy of Arts and Letters was William Jay Smith, former Poet Laureate of the United States.

"I consider ‘Last Stands’ to be a masterpiece," Smith says. "It's told with a great objectivity, but also with a great warmth and even passion. I think that what is extraordinary is that as he points out in the book, his childhood was very difficult, being separated from his parents. In his essays he writes about himself, but never with self-pity."

Others say the book was on the forefront of the popular creative nonfiction genre. Author Lee Gutkind, a University of Pittsburgh writing professor and publisher of the Creative Nonfiction literary journal, says “Last Stands” helped other writers to break into the nonfiction form.

"He was one of the first fiction writers to take the plunge into Creative Nonfiction," Gutkind says. "’Last Stands’ is terrific and really made an impact."

Masters continues to affect the genre, widely publishing his essays. His newest nonfiction book “Shadows on the wall” is about the relationship between Edgar Kaufman and the Mexican architect and muralist Juan O-Gorman. The University of Pittsburgh Press published book this past year. “I describe it as a book-length essay,” Masters says.

A married man's best friend

Richard unwrapped the two small rings from a bundle of tissue paper. In the bright overhead lighting of his downtown Pittsburgh jewelry store, the diamonds in my wife’s engagement ring and wedding band gleamed like new.

My heart beat faster, something like it did when I’d first bought the engagement ring. I felt a little giddy, like somehow I was going to be giving that ring to my wife once again.

“Something sparkly for Christmas,” Richard said, turning the rings to catch the light in the stones. “You need to come in about every three months, to have [the rings] checked.”

It occurred to me that if I went to the jewelry store that often, I’d likely buy more jewelry, which would in turn make my wife happier. Once again Richard, my jeweler, was schooling me in the ways of being a married guy, and he didn’t even know it. I realized then that while diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, a good jeweler is a married man’s best friend.

I thought of how excited Anne would be to see her fixed wedding band and fixed wedding ring. A while back she’d lost a stone from the wedding ring, which is now close to three years old, and had to have it replaced. When we brought the ring in, Richard also checked her engagement ring and noticed that a stone in it was loose and needed to be repaired. So a couple weeks ago we left both of her rings at the jewelry store for a week or so to be fixed.

“She’s going to be without a ring for a little while,” Richard teased me at the time as Anne looked at other wedding bands, considering backups.

“I’ll take my chances,” I said. I couldn’t afford to buy her a backup ring right then, but it didn’t bother me, because I knew I’d made the right choice for her engagement ring, which would be back and good as new soon.

Still, I couldn’t have gotten Anne just the right ring without Richard’s patient help. I mentioned this to him the other day when I picked up the rings.

“You didn’t know anything about diamonds then, right?” he said.

I agreed, but that wasn’t it. What I was talking about was not just his salesmanship, but rather, his ability to work with me to help me get a ring that my girl would really be happy with. If I had gone with my first notions about what kind of ring to get Anne, I probably would have bought something that wasn’t exactly right. Richard didn’t let me do that, because being a jeweler, he knows how important a nice engagement ring is to a woman. Of course, he also wanted to sell me a more expensive ring, which is his job.

I paid off much of the cost of the ring in payments. For part of that time I was working downtown, and during my lunch hour once a month or so I would walk a few blocks up from my office in Gateway Center to make a payment at Grafner’s, Richard’s family-owned jewelry store. After I paid off a fair amount of the ring, I felt comfortable to take it home and give it to Anne. Richard had offered to let me take the ring long before that, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so at the time.

When I finally did take the ring, it was several weeks before Christmas. I felt like that Christmas I’d be, in a way, legitimate. Anne loved the ring and said yes to my proposal.

For the wedding rings, Anne chose what she wanted. I chose a plain, wide, gold band for myself. When I went to Grafner’s to pick up the wedding bands, I again tried on my ring. It felt bulky and unwieldy, like something strange had been attached to my finger, because I never wore rings before being married. I told Richard at the time that the ring felt weird on my hand.

“You get used to it after a couple years,” he said.

He was right. After a couple of years of marriage I not only got used to the ring, but I've felt strange without it on my finger. That feeling is similar to the weirdness I initially felt when Anne’s rings were gone recently.

Back when I was shopping for Anne’s engagement ring, I knew that the choice of the ring was of the utmost importance, far more important than where I proposed to her. In the past I’d heard some of my female relatives, who’d been married young, complain a bit about their rings. They seemed to wish they’d gotten something better, or at least something different. I didn’t want that to happen with Anne’s ring. Thanks to my jeweler, it didn’t.

It’s been more than three years since I gave Anne that engagement ring, and she still loves that little piece of metal and stone.

We were watching “Sex and the city” on TV the other day, and one of the characters was given an engagement ring that she hated. The shape of the diamond was all wrong, and the yellow gold band was wrong for her skin, or some such thing that I, being a man, don’t really understand.

Anne looked over at me and smiled, then patted me on the leg.

“Did I do all right with the ring?” I asked.

She glanced at her ring, now once again safe on her finger, and smiled.

“You did well,” she said, and kissed me.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Does the penalty fit?

If a bill that’s in the state congress becomes law, Pennsylvanians charged with drug delivery resulting in death could face a minimum penalty equal to the penalty for third-degree murder. But that’s a far cry from third-degree murder, which is the penalty legislators first sought for the crime.

A bill that some say originally was meant to protect young people from drug overdose has morphed into a proposed law that would prosecute a person for the drug-influenced death of a person of any age. These days, the state Senate Judiciary Committee is trying to decide if the punishment for breaking this proposed law fits the crime.

Pennsylvania legislators say they want to deal harshly with drug dealers and others who they say are responsible for people dying from drug use. Politicians have been using the legislative process to address the issue, and judging from the voting success that they’ve had so far, it seems that a new law could be on the books as soon as early next year. House Bill 1704 overwhelmingly passed the state House by a vote of 194-0, with nine absent members not voting on the resolution.

Some critics of the proposed law say legislators are taking a cookie-cutter approach to a complex issue, while other skeptics question why more laws are needed to address a wrong that already is covered by several statutes.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, (R, Willow Grove), who chairs the senate judiciary committee and also is a lawyer, says the committee is scrutinizing HB 1704. He notes that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a person couldn’t be charged with murder without all of the other elements of murder being present, such as malice and intent.

“Now we’re talking about someone who doesn’t necessarily have malice or intent,” Greenleaf says. Legislators must decide whether the punishment fits the crime, or whether it should be modified, or left to the court’s discretion.

Pennsylvania House Bill 1704 began as state Senate Bill 480 and was sponsored by state Sen. Jane Orie (R, McCandless). The bill originally provided for a third-degree murder charge against anyone found guilty of giving, selling or administering a drug to a minor 17 or under who later died in part because of that drug use.

Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the would-be law unconstitutional. Now legislators are taking another swing at the issue in HB 1704, sponsored by state Rep. Jeffrey Pyle (R, Ford City). While the possibility of a third-degree murder charge for drug delivery resulting in death is no longer on the table, the bill now would make the crime a first-degree felony, with the same mandatory minimum as in the previous version of the bill—five years in jail and a $15,000 fine.

One caveat, which was removed from the original bill, was in the mandatory minimum penalty of $15,000, “or such larger amount as is sufficient to exhaust the assets utilized in and the proceeds from the illegal activity,” SB 480 reads.

The bill went even further, attempting to preclude certain criminal defenses:

“It shall not be a defense to a prosecution under this section that the decedent contributed to his own death by his purposeful, knowing, reckless or negligent injection, inhalation or ingestion of the substance, or by his consenting to the administration of the substance by another.”

In other words, forget about that defense strategy that seemed like a no-brainer. If you were accused of this crime under the earlier version of this law, you wouldn’t have been able to argue that the person who died willingly took the drug.

It is ironic that this section of the original bill was patently unconstitutional, attempting to strip due process rights from defendants. It’s ironic because Sen. Orie is a lawyer and she should know that such wording is unquestionably wrong.

Knowing the history of this legislation allows a reader to see where some of these legislators have been coming from. Understanding the evolution of this would-be law also clarifies the issue of what legislators are trying to do, and what such a law might accomplish.

HB 1704 offers far less to argue with than its predecessor. The bill is stripped down to its essence, and reads:

“A person commits a felony of the first degree if the person intentionally, knowingly or recklessly administers, dispenses, delivers, gives, prescribes, sells or distributes any controlled substance or counterfeit controlled substance in violation of section 13(a)(14) or (30) of the act of April 14, 1972 (P.L.233, No.64), known as The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, and another person dies as a result of using the substance.”

What about personal responsibility, one might ask. Shouldn’t people be responsible for taking drugs that lead to their deaths?

On the federal level, people are being made to take responsibility, at least minimally, for their eating habits. Fast food companies have been able to get legislation passed that disallows lawsuits by people for wrongful death from eating the fatty foods that fast food joints sell. And kids are taught from kindergarten on that drugs are bad, and that street drugs are unsafe. Supporters of HB 1704 don’t see any discrepancy in prosecuting people for the deaths of folks who should’ve known that there are risks to taking illegal drugs.

Even though the provision allowing prosecution for murder for the death of a minor is not in HB 1704, the same mandatory minimum penalty of a first-degree felony, five years in jail and a $15,000 fine, applies to anyone found guilty of drug delivery resulting in the death of a person of any age—whether she’s seventeen, 45 or 95. Despite this fact, it is clear that both of the bills were inspired by the much-publicized deaths of young western Pennsylvanians who were involved in drug use.

Many Pittsburghers may recall Brandy French, a Sewickley 16-year-old who died on May 20, 2001, after taking some Ecstasy pills. The girl’s death galvanized the opinion of legislators, who wanted to do something about the issue even as the courts were deciding the case.

Gregory Ludwig, 23, was charged with homicide on the recommendation of Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht. Ludwig was charged with drug delivery resulting in death because he sold the Ecstasy to a friend who gave it to French. But the state Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors lacked evidence that Ludwig sold the drug maliciously, or that he knew that French’s death would result from the sale of the drugs, or that he intended for her to die from using the drug.

SB 480 would have eliminated the need to prove malice in order to get a third-degree murder conviction, if the drug was sold to a person 17 or younger.

HB 1704 seems to be a way for irate legislators to attempt an end-run around the state Supreme Court’s ruling that you can’t charge a person with murder for selling drugs to another person who later died from the drugs. The outcome of the Ludwig case earlier this year prompted Pyle to write HB 1704, he says. He makes no bones about his reasons for wanting the new law.

“I’m about as fancy as a brick,” Pyle explains. “I want threat of reprisal to anyone who dares to bring poison into my back yard. If they do it and some kid dies, they’re going to be held accountable. I want this penalty stiff and omnipresent.”

Pyle says that when he came up with the legislation he immediately received the support of 108 co-sponsors to the bill, as well as the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police, the District Attorneys association and other law enforcement groups. Pyle expects HB 1704 to be approved by the senate. “It’s going to pass, it’s just a matter of when,” he says.

Orie also points to the Ludwig case as the catalyst for her legislation.

"When Gregory Ludwig was arrested for supplying the drugs that resulted in the death of Brandy French and the court dismissed the case a year later, in 2002, I introduced legislation to amend Pennsylvania law to address the court's concerns. I introduced SB 1537 at that time to ensure that a person who provided drugs to another which resulted in death was harshly punished. My legislation could not advance because the Common Pleas Court decision was appealed and was being litigated in the courts.

It is unconscionable that drug dealers like Gregory Ludwig are not being held responsible for the deaths of victims like Brandy, and I am committed to ensuring that a state law is enacted to provide swift and harsh punishment.”

Pyle is looking for such punishment, as well, partly for personal reasons. The legislator, a former high school teacher, was moved by the Aug. 3, 2002 death of Zachary Joseph Zion, 17, of Ford City. Zion died of a heroin overdose after snorting the drug with friends in a Kittanning hotel room.

“That hit me personally because he was one of my students at school,” Pyle explains. “He was an athlete, he was involved in the community. This kid used to go to the public library with me and read to the younger kids. It really, really bothered me.”

Orie is clearly annoyed by the outcome of the Ludwig case, but she hopes that Pyle’s bill will be enacted.

This summer, the Pennsylvania Supreme issued its opinion, striking down existing state law holding drug dealers responsible for overdose deaths. The court found Pennsylvania law deficient because the law required that ‘malice’ be proven in order to convict the drug dealer of third-degree murder. And, the Supreme Court found that supplying drugs does not support a finding of ‘malice,’” Orie explains. “As a result of the ruling, I and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have been working to develop a new law that will withstand court challenge and will put these drug dealers behind bars, punishing them for the crimes they committed.”

“I and other members of the Committee are poised to act on a proposed new law that will ensure that those who supply drugs that result in death are severely punished. This legislation, HB 1704, has already passed the House of Representatives and I will work for its swift passage in the Senate, “ she says.

But some legislators are wondering if HB 1704 is attempting to punish people twice for the same crime.

“There already is a mandatory minimum [sentence] for selling drugs. That sentence depends upon the drug and the amount of the drug,” Greenleaf says.

The mandatory minimum sentence prescribed in HB 1704 is assailable for other reasons, Greenleaf notes. “The question is, we still have the same penalty for a crime that no longer amounts to murder. Should we apply the same penalty, when the offense wasn’t actual murder?” he says.

In cases where people overdose on drugs, there can be very aggravating facts, but there also can be facts that amount to negligence, Greenleaf notes. "There should be a difference in punishment here."

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sins of the brothers

A Penn State fraternity has lost its university recognition due to a hazing incident. Additionally, Delta Sigma’s alumni board has decided to close the fraternity's house.

I mention this because it reminds me of similar incidents in the past at Pittsburgh colleges, and it reminds me of my fraternity experiences.

Several years ago I was cleaning out the attic of my mom's old house and I pulled out a box and found my old fraternity paddle. Pulling the 20-inch-long wooden paddle out of the box, I was swept over by a mix of emotions I didn't quite understand -- surprise, nostalgia and embarrassment, mainly. As I held the hacked-up paddle in my hands, I looked at the gouges that I'd made in it by banging it off of the front porch wall of the old ATO house at Carnegie Mellon -- it was a ritual whereby one proved the sturdiness of his paddle -- and I shook my head, still feeling embarrassed. The whole servile nature of pledging a fraternity, the masochistic tinge to it and the near homo-eroticism of the paddling aspect of the initiation ceremony, looking at it years later, made me feel like a chump.

I recently admitted to a friend that I was ashamed that I'd been in a frat. "You shouldn't be embarrassed," he said. Having never been in a fraternity, he doesn't know. And since I've been in one, I know that these places of social activity and charitable work can be magnets for shameful behavior.

Sharing a common wall with Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Alpha Tau Omega was not nearly so egregious in its hazing as was SAE, which had a notorious "Hell Week," when pledges were abused and made to do chores and kept up at all hours while trying to not flunk out of college. I know this because I had friends there, while I was a pledge and after I joined ATO.

But ATO did have its own hazing, and maybe that was its downfall. Several years ago I went to an ATO reunion party during Homecoming Weekend at CMU -- it was held in the University Center because the "house" no longer exists. The chapter lost its charter with the university and its university-owned house several years ago. The reunion was in a room overlooking the football stadium during a football game -- many ATOs at CMU were football players -- and there was a good turnout of brothers from the 1950s up through the last generations of the 1990s, but the feeling was strange. Without a house to go back to, we just had the old glory days to BS about and some catching up to do.

I was talking with a younger guy about the old days and I mentioned that a conservative Jewish fraternity that reportedly doesn’t drink now occupies the house. And the old oak bar, which the brothers made in the 1960s, had supposedly been sold off to Pi Kappa Alpha. It seemed the ultimate insult to CMU's former "Animal House," which was known more than any other frat on campus for the crazy partying and irreverent attitude of its brothers. I asked him why they lost their charter.

"You guys were the ones that ended up killing it," he said to me with an annoyed look.

"You remember how you had the ritual of taking the pledges out to steal a Christmas tree? Well, you brothers took us pledges out and had us cut down this tree."

"Yeah, I remember," I said, laughing at the thought.

"Well, it was the wrong tree, because some rich person owned it and they were pissed, and they complained to the university, and the university started getting on our backs to pay for this tree."

"Why didn't you guys just pay for it?"

"It was a huge, fully mature blue spruce, and the owner wanted like $2,000 or something. We were just college students -- we didn't have any money. So when we didn't pay it back, the university was pissed, and that was the beginning of the end."

"You guys screwed up. No wonder you lost your charter," I said.

"You guys, the brothers in your pledge class, are the ones who led us to it," he said, laughing cynically and shaking his head at me. "You yourself," he said, pointing at me. "You and a few others picked out this huge tree and told us, 'Cut down that tree,' even though it was obviously on the lawn of some Squirrel Hill bigwig's house. We didn't want to, but you guys insisted. And cutting down that tree was the beginning of the end."

It could be that some of what he said is right. Perhaps the sins of the brothers are visited upon the pledges, unto the third generation, when they lose the charter. Maybe we deserved to lose the house, and maybe my generation of brothers helped it happen through our hazing. Ironically, I had taken a stand against hazing just after becoming a full-fledged brother, writing an essay explaining why I felt we should end one particular type of hazing that was an unofficial part of the initiation ceremony: the Walk of Abuse.

The Walk of Abuse was when a string of blindfolded pledges, one steadying himself with a hand on the shoulder of the one in front, walked around the basement of the house while the brothers punched and slapped them and hurled curses, eggs, beer, cold water and spit on them. Part of the later initiation also involved having sex with a chicken -- a ruse kept up to the last moment by brothers who actually brought a live chicken and tormented it and put it in the girl's bathroom, with a pile of condoms, and took the pledges in there, one by one, to see how much they could freak them out.

I wrote my little essay against hazing because during my Walk of Abuse, one of the brothers surprised me when he punched me in the balls -- I happened to see who it was and the spiteful look on his face as he was low-blowing me, as my blindfold had fallen enough to one side for me to see him through the corner of my eye. It disgusted me, and I wrote the essay, which was considered by the membership but not acted upon.

Alpha Tau Omega fraternity is a charitable and worthy organization, but like many of the other original American fraternities founded to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood after the Civil War, it has lost some of its chapters because of the poor decisions of its members. Virtue, truth and love are the three watchwords of this fraternity, whose emblem features a Christian cross, and yet things like the Walk of Abuse, forced Christmas tree cutting and far worse abuses likely still occur in some chapters. Peer-pressuring your suggestible younger fraternity "brother" into drinking far too much might separate the men from the boys, but it also too often ends with young people dying from alcohol poisoning.

In my fraternity, many were known to cheat with each other's girlfriends -- both their friends within the fraternity and those not in it. The behavior was instilled in us, to a large, degree by the older "brothers" who did the same thing. As soon as a friend's back was turned or the opportunity presented itself, they'd sleep with his girl. This sort of behavior might not have been hazing, but it wasn't helpful.

I quit after a couple of years as an active member and stayed on as a "social" member for another year or so.

Finding my paddle years back, I felt myself blush at the thought of what that stupid hunk of wood represented to me. I turned it over and over in my hands, feeling the weight of it and tracing a finger through one of the gouges. I inspected the signatures on it from the brothers, which I had been required to get before I could be initiated, and noticed how some were cursory, others warm, some referred to me by a nickname, others not at all, reflecting my rapport with the individuals. Shaped like an old-style wooden cutting board, my oak paddle had fractured during one test-hit on the front wall, shearing off one side of it and giving it the appearance of a meat-cleaver. Holding it by the handle, my fingers comfortable in the grip, I brandished it to myself for a second. I remembered being proud of that thing when I was a pledge, and now it made me cringe. I wasn't quite sure if I wanted to take it home, because of all it represented, even if others didn't realize what it represented to me. So, knowing that it would be tossed out by someone else if I put it back into the box, I did just that. Thankfully, I haven't seen that paddle since.

A version of this story was previously published in Pulp.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Way Back East

When I started Barnestormin, I hoped to inform and entertain readers. I also hoped that through my writing here I would be able to bring to light some of the less-publicized issues in Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh region. I think that to some extent I have succeeded in these goals.

I believe my stories on lobbyists in this state have brought more mainstream media attention to the issue. Some of the other issues I have been writing about are not really addressed elsewhere online or in newspapers, and I think that because of that fact, those stories are serving a good purpose. Forgive me for tooting my own horn, but I am my own best PR flack.

Still, when I started this blog I thought I’d receive a more positive reception to it in my hometown. I’ve made my career in journalism mostly here in Pittsburgh, and people here know me and my work, so I thought more folks would give me a plug or two in a good faith effort to help me out. Some of those I expected to help have done so and I’m thankful for that. But strangely to me, some of those who I expected to help spread the word have not. Others, who I never heard of before, have let more readers know about Barnestormin.

So I never thought that the first newspaper to mention my web log would be on the other side of the state, particularly since many of my stories are based in Pittsburgh. Oddly, that is what has happened. And it happened because of one kind writer.

A sharp-eyed blogger in the Philadelphia area recently picked up on Barnestormin and blurbed it for others to know about. I want to put a Barnestormin holler out to Above Average Jane, who was kind enough to let readers know about my blog. Thanks to Jane, the Allentown Morning Call on Dec. 12 became the first newspaper in the state to mention my Pittsburgh-based blog. The newspaper mentioned my little web site in the following excerpt:

“In The Blogosphere:
Keystone Politics on a simmering veto showdown between Gov. Ed and the Legislature; GrassrootsPa rounds up some, but not all, of the Pennsylvania Society coverage; Young Philly Politics on legislation that would restrict voting rights for ex-cons; A Smoke-Filled Room on who Gov. Ed might appoint to the state Supreme Court; Above Average Jane picks up some PA Society coverage as well; PennPatriot is a new find; Barnestormin' is also another new-ish 'blog…”

I want to holler out to the Morning Call, and to folks in Allentown, the Lehigh Valley and the greater Philly area. Thanks for checking out my blog; I am flattered and gratified. This Internet thing is amazing—you never can tell exactly who is reading.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

More of my favorites

Since I started this blog close to six months ago, I’ve been gratified by the responses I’ve received from local bloggers, most of whom I don’t personally know.

One of the first people to announce Barnestormin to the world was local blogger and political candidate Mark Rauterkus. He and some friends post on his blog, which is updated frequently and is a must-read for anyone interested in politics in Pittsburgh.

Wayne over at PSoTD (Political Site of The Day) was kind enough to blurb my blog and mention the lobbyists stories I’ve been doing. Check out his site, please.

I disagree with Mike at Pittsblog fairly often, but I think his heart is in the right place, even for a custard-eater.

Richie Engle has kindly mentioned my work on his blog on a few occasions.

Showing my age

Sometimes I show my age in my writing, as I do in my latest story in TPQ Online.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Pa. contractors employ lobbyists

In Pennsylvania, gambling interests are being scrutinized because of the recent law legalizing slots machines in the state. But the $1.16 million spent by gambling lobbyists dealing with the Pennsylvania Senate from 2003-2004 is a fraction of the amount spent by construction/manufacturing lobbyists, who forked out $4.52 million on lobbyists during that period.

Pennsylvania has no law requiring registration of lobbyists dealing with state officials, but the state senate does requires lobbyists dealing with its members to register annually. A bill in the state legislature would require registration of all lobbyists dealing with state officials. For now, though, hiring of lobbyists seems to be one difference between the companies that get large state contracts and those that don’t.

The two most prominent engineering/design/construction companies with lobbyists dealing with the Pennsylvania state congress are Pittsburgh-based Michael Baker Corp. and DMJM+Harris. Michael Baker Corp. has 16 lobbyists registered to work with state legislators, and DMJM+Harris is served by 13 lobbyists. The close contact that these companies are afforded by having so many lobbyists haunting the halls of Harrisburg may be paying off.

In August 2004, Michael Baker Jr., Inc., the engineering unit of the corporation, was awarded an $1.8 billion contract by the National Guard Bureau to provide architectural and engineering services for the first phase of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s program to transition the Pennsylvania 56th Brigade to a Stryker Bridge Combat Team. In June of this year, Michael Baker Jr., Inc., received a contract from the Allegheny County Airport Authority to provide On-Call Planning and Environmental Services for Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport. Additionally, Baker has received federal contracts since 2004 from the U.S. Air Force, FEMA, and other federal groups, totaling more than $4 billion, including a $1.2 billion contract for reconstruction in Iraq.

Michael Baker Corp. spokesman David Higie says his company does not engage lobbyists “to do lobbying on our behalf for legislation.” The company might use a lobbyist to facilitate a meeting with a state official, adds Higie. “Technically, we do not hire lobbying firms,” he said.

DMJM+Harris is the project manager of Pittsburgh’s North Shore Connector project. The project is in the design and planning phase. About $35 million has been spent so far on preliminary work on the project.

Pennsylvania does not track the total annual spending by all lobyists in the state. The state is ranked last on a state-by-state comparison list on lobbyist regulations compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity. Pennsylvania has 579 state senate-registered lobbyists who work for 1,111 employers, including construction and engineering firms, hospitals, universities, other branches of government and many other groups.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

We're not foolin'

Lately I might sound like some kind of Post-Gazette advertising guy, with the way I’ve been touting some of the work in that newspaper. My regular readers will know that hyping the P-G is not the focus of this web log. But in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I’ve been a freelancer for the P-G for five years, and I’ve written more than 800 stories for them.

I’ve also written hundreds of stories for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Butler Eagle. But when the P-G editorial board gets its Irish up the way it recently has over lobbyist disclosure in Pennsylvania, I can’t help but feel a bit giddy about it.

Let’s face it, the market penetration of the Trib in this area is nothing compared to that of the Post-Gazette, and most people in this area who read a paper read the P-G. Post-Gazette readers also tend to have views that generally are in line with those that the P-G espouses. So when they write an editorial, people often notice.

The Post-Gazette couldn’t have come out in stronger terms about lobbyist disclosure than they did in this editorial today. The editorial blasted Speaker John Perzel for impeding legislation that would bring lobbyist disclosure to Pennsylvania. It also stated that money and politics have made for bad news on the national level:

“Anyone paying attention to the investigations and indictments unfolding in Washington knows there is no greater poison in government than the free-flowing cash and gifts of lobbyists. It has reached toxic levels in some congressional offices and is a constant threat in state capitals, too. However, any normal state has laws that -- far from banning lobbyists -- simply require that they report on their spending to influence government officials.”

Some of the strongest language in the editorial referred to the reality of the situation in this state, where legislators are regularly being influenced by people spending money on them:

“In John Perzel's state there is no need to keep track of who is wining, dining and golfing with legislators for votes because our House and Senate members, unlike others in the country, vote strictly on what their conscience or constituents tell them.”

Sound familiar?
Reading such an editorial is very gratifying for me, since on Nov. 29 I was moaning and groaning about this lobbyist issue, which I’ve been writing and reporting on for this web log. In that late-November rant, I wrote:

“Politicians are burning the taxpayers, and they think people don’t care who’s buying them dinner, giving them plane tickets, or picking up the tab for their vacations. From what I can tell, state politicos are right to not worry, because people don’t care if their legislators are crooked…

Two hundred million dollars, and that’s not all that is spent on lobbying efforts in this state. I can’t tell you exactly how much more is spent by lobbyists in this state, because our state is so slack in its governance of lobbyists that all lobbyists dealing with state legislators aren’t even required to register with the state. If you don’t think the lack of regulation of lobbyists in Pennsylvania is a problem, consider that every other state in the nation has a law requiring registration and disclosure by lobbyists. Either they are all fools, or we are.”

Maybe we Pennsylvanians aren’t such fools, after all.

Season of giving

The other day I had a couple of stories in the Post-Gazette that I didn’t link here.
One of the stories is on Petra Ministries, which is in the old East Hills Shopping Center. The church nonprofit had a Senior Entrepreneur Day, where folks fifty and older sold mostly handcrafted items. I went and did a story on it for the Post-Gazette East zone sction.
I also did a story the other day on gift-wrapping fundraisers in the North Hills. You might be surprised how much money is raised through these types of volunteer efforts. These charities, and these fundraisers, should be supported in this giving season.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

P-G favors lobbyist disclosure

Lately the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has been hitting the nail square on the head regarding lobbyist disclosure and reform of Pennsylvania state government. I don’t say this because I do some work for the Post-Gazette; I say it because I believe it’s true.

As my regular readers know, I have done some coverage recently of a legislative move afoot to create a lobbyist disclosure law in Pennsylvania. The legislation is state Senate Bill 1.

On Friday, the Post-Gazette endorsed lobbyist disclosure in Pennsylvania in a creatively written editorial. The editorial called for Pennsylvanians to fight for a more representative government.

In more than one way, the editorial reminded me of a rant I wrote a while back. In that rant I spouted about how everyone should be angry about influence peddling in Pennsylvania.

By this time next year, we might know who all of the folks are that are attempting to monopolize our legislators' time.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The agreeably social ritual of walking a dog in winter

The wind whipped the snow at my dog Max and me as we walked down a street in our neighborhood the other night. Max was in his glory, dusted with a half-inch of snow.

A stranger walked up to us, reaching to pet the dog.

"I know somebody who doesn't mind the cold," she said through a tightly wrapped scarf while she patted Max on the head. "Yes, you like the snow, don't you?" she cooed.

She had been walking home from her bus stop when she stopped to greet us. She didn't seem to mind the cold, either.

There's stillness and inevitability to any good snowfall that can deeply affect a person. The harsh conditions can close a person up, or they can put a person in an expansive mood.

As Max and I headed up the hill, the tree branches were topped with an inch of snow, giving a quiet appearance. The snow blowing in my face reminded me of earlier in the day, when I was in rush-hour traffic, taking an hour to travel three miles. In the midst of the gridlock, it occurred to me that nature was doing her thing, without regard for how it inconvenienced us. It almost seemed that she was not particularly pleased with our constant rushing about.

"Slow down," nature says to us in the wintertime.

Men shoveling their walks said "Hi" to Max and me as we passed. Max walked up to one older man as the man was finishing his driveway.

"He wants to say 'Hi,' " I said to the man. Max smiled charmingly at him.

"Hello, pup," the man said as he reached to pet Max. "You're all wet."

People know Max, and they know me by extension. He's easy to pick out, with the black, white and gray coat of an Australian cattle dog that he shows off, and his size and curly tail, which make him appear to be part Akita. My wife adopted him from the pound before I came along, and he has brought me some respectability in my neighborhood. Max is OK with people in the neighborhood, and so I'm OK, too.

But it's not just Max's impression on these folks that make them more sociable -- it's the season.

The combination of the snow, the cold, and Max has become an icebreaker with some of my neighbors.

Even in the cold and steady snow of a late winter storm, some of my lesser-known neighbors found time to chat a bit.

As the dog and I strolled at the neighborhood park on a Saturday afternoon, shrieks of laughter echoed up the valley from the nearby golf course.

Parents stood barehanded and grinning as they watched their young children sled shrieking down a hill. I thought about how when I was growing up, we would toboggan on the Highland Country Club golf course. It reminded me that some things are timeless.

The untrammeled snow in the park crunched satisfyingly under my boots. In the bright sunlight, the shadows from the bare trees in the woods that ring the park had a sharpened, charcoal-sketch look. The path through the woods was still packed with snow, though it is well traveled. Patches of moss poked through a few bare spots.

Nature is serene, knowing her time is always right. People are not always so tolerant.

A while back, during one of the first snowstorms of this winter, I was riding an elevator in a Downtown office building with a well-dressed businessman. Seeing the snow on my coat, he mentioned that it was coming down pretty hard.

"I like the snow -- it kind of makes everything slow down," I said.

"I hate it," the businessman said with a grimace as he got off at his floor.

In the wintertime, snow squalls shake us and hiss, "Easy there." Hailstorms say: "Watch your step."

Snow is physical, tangible, natural change. It reminds us of the season and promises that spring is coming. The layer of snow covering everything acts like a muffler, insulating and muting at the same time.

And when nature is dressed in her winter white, we sometimes approach her, and each other, a bit more respectfully.

This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It also was published in Gist Blackridge.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Credit where it's due

I was glad when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette brought back the Goodfellows features some years back. I like the fundraiser and I enjoy reading about the folks who are helped by it. I also like the old Goodfellows logo, which is quaint and takes me back to when I delivered the paper as a boy.

Some of the Goodfellows stories are better than others. Of course not every interview is the same, and some people have better stories to tell. Others are simply better at telling their stories. Still, when a P-G writer nails a Goodfellows piece, the story sings. Ervin Dyer had a nice one in the P-G today. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Pennsylvanians want a lobbyist law

A story in the Post-Gazette today cheered me a bit. At first blush, it almost seems that a groundswell has developed in support of lobbyist disclosure in Pennsylvania. This makes me happy because I wrote about the need for lobbyist disclosure in our state recently. But I had so little response from my story that it seemed no one was listening. The mainstream media wasn’t writing about the issue at the time.

Things have changed for the better, if just a bit.

Part of the Post-Gazette story, which is titled “Reform groups want legislative action on lobbying disclosure,” follows:

“Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Democracy Rising, the Commonwealth Foundation and other citizens groups that fought to repeal the legislative pay raise have moved on to another issue -- requiring lobbyists to register publicly and list how much they spend yearly to influence state government.

‘Pennsylvania is at the bottom on lobbying regulation compared to other states, and this is unacceptable,’ said Common Cause leader Barry Kauffman at a press conference held by the groups today.

He urged House Speaker John Perzel to permit a vote on Senate Bill 1, which passed the Senate in April but has languished in the House…”

Maybe there is hope for Pennsylvania, after all. I always believed there was hope for a more truly representative government in this state, which is why I address the issue of lobbyist disclosure. More and more people need to speak out in favor of lobbyist disclosure.

Can any bloggers say Amen?

Monday, December 05, 2005

I told you so

A while back I wrote an angry commentary about how it seemed that few people cared about lobbyist disclosure in Pennsylvania. I was particularly miffed about this issue because I’d written an investigative story about it, but few people seemed to notice the story. It turns out I was wrong about the seeming lack of interest in this issue.

Thankfully, some of our state legislators are getting the message that they should be more accountable to voters, according to a Post-Gazette story. Seven Republican state lawmakers recently banded together to promote passage of the Lobbying Accountability Act. The group also would like the state General Assembly to consider significant changes, including possibly decreasing the number of representatives in state government.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Some of my favorite blogs

The other day Bob, of the cheekily titled Subdivided We Stand, very kindly mentioned Barnestormin on his blog. Bob’s blog is well worth a read, given his tongue-in-cheek perspective. He adds graphics and other colorful images to dice it up a bit, too.

Sherry is a frequent commenter here. She also mentioned me on her blog the other day. Sherry’s blog is After The Bridge, and it includes a lot of her poetry, which is reflective and often gentle as a whisper. Check her out.

Jason Togyer writes the long-running Tube City Almanac, which may well be the best Internet resource for learning about McKeesport and the Mon Valley. The site includes deep archives and historical pieces by Togyer, who currently is writing a history of the G.C. Murphy store chain.

Jonathan Potts presents mostly political commentary in his blog, The Conversation. I don’t always agree with him, but I agree with him enough to amaze myself sometimes.

Rounding out the bunch is Sam of AntiRust. Sam provides thought-provoking commentary on urban redevelopment and other issues. Good stuff.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Talking Past Tense

I recently saw an advertisement in the paper for the sale of the Original Hot Dog Shop. The ad specified that the name of the venerable institution—which years ago we college students called the “Dirty O”—was not for sale, just the business.

I shuddered at the thought. Given the trend in entrepreneurs naming establishments in Pittsburgh after things they once were, we might one day be eating at a Strip District restaurant called the Original Hot Dog Shop Sushi House. Or Pittsburgh might one day be graced with a Dirty O Strip Club.

Why not? Stranger things have happened.

When I was a kid growing up in Bellevue, we’d head across the bridge to West View Park, in West View. One of my buddies had an older sister who worked at the park, so we had an unlimited supply of tickets. We’d ride the rides all day, and we particularly enjoyed throwing up our arms as the roller coaster went around Horseshoe Bend.

Now, kids in North Hills have only an outdoor mall known as West View Park Shopping Center, which is located on the land that once was the park, to compare to what was a sweet amusement park. The shopping center’s greatest attraction now is its Giant Eagle.

This line of thinking was spurred when I read about Paint & Body, a new art and performance space opening up down the hill from my neighborhood, in downtown Wilkinsburg. The new venue is named after the former Earl Scheib Auto Body that the Penn Avenue building once housed. But I must admit that I find this trend of naming places after what they once were to be postmodern and boring.

Before you start calling me a player-hater, let me say that I know one of the curators of Paint & Body. I went to college with Laurie Mancuso, and she’s cool and I’m sure her place will be great. Also, I’ve written about redevelopment efforts in Wilkinsburg and other parts of Pittsburgh, and I support such efforts. But this trend of naming new businesses after things that once were has got to stop. Though it may be reassuring to some natives, such names just confuse the transplants to Pittsburgh.

A while back I was interviewing with an editor of a local publication. During the course of our conversation, she mentioned how when she first came to Pittsburgh, she didn’t understand the meaning of the name of one of the local redevelopments.

“I thought that Southside Works was a promotional statement about the neighborhood. I didn’t know it was a mill site,” she said.

I was incredulous. But not more so than when I heard that the former G.C. Murphy building in Bellevue was to be renamed the 517521” building. That’s the new name because the place has the addresses of 517 and 521 Lincoln Avenue, don’t you know?

I’m tempted to say that this trend started when the Mattress Factory art museum opened in a building that once housed a mattress factory in the North Side. I personally like the Mattress Factory, and I’ve written about it in the past. Still, I find that naming places after what they once were, regardless of their current use, is a bit disingenuous. Such naming practices are almost a way of trading on the reputation of what once was, without having earned the right to do so.

The artistes hanging out at the Mattress Factory may never have set foot inside a real factory, but still, how can you cast a pall on the brilliance of the installations? College boys hanging out in the Church Brew Works might never have attended a mass, but hey, they like the beer. After a while, the names begin to lose meaning.

I expect that soon we will have the Cookie Factory Condos in the old Nabisco plant in East Liberty. And who knows, if we’re lucky, Oakland may some day have the Schenley High School Business Development Center.

Given this trend, folks in the image gap committee might want to consider a new slogan: “Pittsburgh: It was here.”

There’s an old joke among those who aren’t Pittsburgh natives. If you ask for directions to somewhere in Pittsburgh, the joke goes, a Pittsburgher will give you directions using landmarks of places that no longer exist. For a while now, people in Pittsburgh have been naming their businesses after places or things that no longer exist. I just wish they’d be a little more original.