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Community members urge caution during US-Iran tensions

CHARLESTON — About 35 community members and state figures met Friday morning in Charleston for a roundtable discussion on recent U.S. military involvement in the Middle East and Iran.

The event was organized and hosted by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Those present included local and state faith leaders, active-duty service members and combat veterans, citizens who were born in the Middle East, academic professors and high school students.

The roundtable was closed to reporters, but afterward some attendees spoke about the potential dangers that could arise from the conflict, including nationalist fervor and retaliation against people of color in their communities.

Among the participants was a woman who was born in Iran but has been an American citizen for more than 25 years. She said the increasing tension between the two countries has made her very nervous.

“Right now, honestly, it’s the first time in 26 years I’m worried,” said the woman, who requested anonymity to protect herself and her children.

Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States skyrocketed from 28 total incidents in 2000, to 481 incidents in 2001, according to FBI data. Some attendees said they hope another spike won’t follow these events like they did after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorist attack.

Victor Urecki, rabbi at B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston, who participated in the roundtable, said that whenever there’s growing tension between racial or religious communities, the most important thing is to reach out and communicate with each other.

“I remember prior to 9/11, everybody (went) to their respective corners, but we learned that’s not the way to bring people together,” he said.

After the recent photos surfaced of a class of West Virginia correctional officers making a Nazi salute, Urecki said the Muslim community in Charleston was immediately there for the Jewish community.

“When we had the anti-Semitic incident … the very first people to respond (were) from the Muslim community. They just wanted to let us know, ‘We’re thinking about you,’” Urecki said. “So when there’s a conflict, there are not Muslims and Jews in separate corners; there’s Muslims and Jews together.”

Lawrence Mullins Jr., who enlisted in the U.S. Army in the early 1990s and is former president of the West Virginia chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said the perspectives shared by Muslim residents at the discussion affected his thoughts on the situation.

“This (roundtable) today actually opened my mind to a lot of different perspectives I never thought of before,” Mullins said. “How they spoke of the (Muslim) people; (they) do not hate us. It’s the government that hates Western ideals and societies. I’ve never heard that before, and I’ve never been able to speak to someone from those countries; so that really stopped and made me think twice about the way I think about the situation.”

He said it would be smart for younger enlistees to reach out and talk to people from these backgrounds as well.

Ryan Atassi, a senior at Charleston Catholic High School and a member of the Charleston Youth Council, said it’s important for young people to research the situation and not let bias control their thinking.

“I think young people want to see all the sides of the conflict, and they want to see it from a lot of different perspectives,” he said. “You’ve got to see both sides of an argument in order to make a complete and total decision.”

Atassi said Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was a “horrible person,” but it’s still necessary for students to know whether President Donald Trump acted in compliance with federal law and the U.S. Constitution when he carried out the drone strike that killed the Iranian general.

In a statement following a briefing from top U.S. officials Wednesday, Manchin said the Constitution makes it “clear that before the president commits United States Armed Forces to war against Iran, the American people’s representation in Congress must authorize the use of military force.”

“There was not an imminent threat to the United States’ homeland and the citizens within our borders. But there was a threat to our service members and American personnel in the region,” Manchin said in the release about the briefing. “Make no mistake, Soleimani was a terrorist who killed many Americans troops, and his death brings a measure of justice to those Gold Star Families.”


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With union talks ignored, Cabell EMS director defends Mountain Health deal

HUNTINGTON — Cabell County EMS Director Gordon Merry said he has to come up with new ways to generate revenue to address a nearly $12 million difference in what the ambulance service receives from the county each year.

That’s why Merry said he signed a $1.5 million deal with Mountain Health Network to provide two ambulances for their hospitals.

This comes as EMS employees are seeking to gain representation from the United Mine Workers of America to form a union. Employees said they are concerned for safety as the service’s emergency division continually picks up the slack on nonemergency transports because those ambulances are making long-distance transports out of state. Employees work 24-hour shifts, which they said leads to little to no sleep during a shift following one of those transports.

They criticized the decision to provide two ambulances to the hospitals, which they feared could lead to gaps in coverage in the county.

However, Merry said he is taking steps to address safety concerns, including switching to 12-hour workdays. Only those working 12-hour shifts are making trips out of state now, he said.

He said the contract deal with Mountain Health was necessary to help sustain the ambulance service.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan ended the federal government’s practice of revenue sharing. That resulted in about 400,000 cities, towns and counties being unable to claim a share of federal tax revenues, which saved the government billions of dollars.

The Cabell County Commission at the time told Merry he needed to help get a levy passed and then live on that money or he would be out of a job, he said. The levy went on to pass, bringing in approximately $3 million each year to the ambulance service.

That levy amount hasn’t increased since it was passed nearly 37 years ago, despite the expenditures at the ambulance service rising to about $15 million annually, he said. That leaves the ambulance service on the hook for about $12 million each year.

Merry said he’s studied the amount the ambulance service takes in collections and payments from insurance companies and knows he has to come up with additional ways to close that $12 million gap.

“I’m doing the big picture,” Merry said. “I have to do the Mountain Health (deal). I have to think outside the box to sustain the service.”

He said he’s gained a reputation for being frugal, but that mentality has led to the ambulance service’s continual growth during a time many EMS services across the country are becoming more cash-strapped.

Each new ambulance station that has been built in the county was bought and paid for with cash in the past 18 months. The EMS service also replaced ambulances in the past 18 months to the tune of $2.1 million, he said.

When the county switched from providing private insurance to insurance provided through the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency, it saved the ambulance service about $1.5 million in insurance costs. Merry said he took that savings and gave employees an 11% raise.

County commissioners declined to recognize the EMS employees’ demands for union recognition during a meeting Thursday. Commissioners said they do not have the authority to do so because state law prohibits public employees from unionizing, collective bargaining or striking.

They suggested employees take the matter up with state legislators, who could pass a law giving them the right.


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Kentucky governor releases public records linked to Braidy Industries

FRANKFORT, Ky. — In the interest of transparency, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Friday released documents related to the state’s investment in Braidy Industries.

Braidy Industries plans to be an advanced manufacturer of metals for the global transportation and defense industries. The company broke ground on the proposed mill in June 2018 and says it remains on schedule to meet its anticipated target of bringing its new aluminum rolling mill at EastPark Industrial Center in Ashland to full commercial operation in 2021.

The documents include a letter of intent regarding Kentucky’s $15 million investment, stock purchase agreement, voting agreement and investors’ rights agreement. The documents reveal the names of those invested in Braidy Industries.

“In releasing these documents, we are showing Kentuckians that we are committed to transparency and open government,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in a news release.

“Braidy Industries believes in transparency as well as in the privacy of its shareholders,” CEO and Chairman of Braidy Industries Craig Bouchard said in the release. “The state asked for the release of these documents, and we were happy to support this request. The Commonwealth Seed Fund is a valued shareholder. Braidy strongly supports the governor, the bipartisan leadership of the state of Kentucky and all of its agencies.”

The previous administration refused to release the documents requested by The Courier-Journal despite an attorney general’s open records decision and multiple court rulings holding that they are public records.

By following the court orders and releasing the documents, the Beshear administration has ended years of court battles by the previous administration, the release said.

The letter of intent includes the formalization of the initial mutual understanding between the commonwealth and Braidy Industries regarding the commonwealth’s $15 million investment. The stock purchase agreement details the initial investors in Braidy Industries following the letter of intent.

Kentuckians can learn about the structure of governance of Braidy Industries by reading the voting agreement. The investors’ rights agreement contains the rights of the initial investors to inspect the company, cause stock to be issued and purchase future sales of stock.

The documents include minimal redactions of personal addresses in accordance with state open records laws and the circuit court’s order.


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Opioid-dependent kids’ guardians seek to form class in suit

CLEVELAND — Guardians caring for hundreds of thousands of children born dependent on opioids since 2000 should be grouped together as part of the class-action lawsuit filed by local governments and others against the manufacturers, distributors and sellers of prescription pain medication, lawyers argued in a motion filed in federal court in Cleveland.

In addition to certifying the guardians as a class, the attorneys who filed the motion Tuesday want U.S. District Judge Dan Polster to create a national registry to identify children diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome, form a medical panel to recommend the best ways to treat such children, and provide money for those efforts as quickly as possible.

“The urgency of this is, the longer we wait, the more difficult it is to help these children,” said Cleveland attorney Marc Dann, who filed the motion along with attorneys from Texas and Louisiana.

There currently are about 400 guardians for children born dependent on opioids who have filed individual claims in the pending lawsuit that Dann said could be folded into the larger group. The motion filed this week was made initially on behalf of a handful of guardians in Ohio and California and seeks to include guardians from across the country, he said.

The total number of children born dependent on opioids since 2000 is around 400,000, with between 20,000 and 30,000 NAS babies born each year, Dann said.

Some states have created registries for children diagnosed with NAS, while others have not, Dann said. In most cases, the children’s guardians are grandparents or someone who has been appointed to that role.

A national registry would allow scientists to accumulate more data to refine how best to treat these children at each stage of their development, Dann said.

Research has found that children born dependent on opioids suffer from developmental delays, medical problems and are susceptible to becoming addicts themselves as they grow older, Dann said.

“We haven’t started this process as a society to figure this out,” he said. “It’s a large effort, no question, to get there.”

As do other plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, attorneys for the guardians seeking to be certified as a group allege the pharmaceutical industry engaged in a conspiracy to increase the number of people addicted to prescription painkillers, a claim the industry has denied in court and in motions.

“Over time, as science disproved the claims of the pharmaceutical industry, those parents were driven to the streets to buy manufactured opioids or heroin,” Dann said. “They went from being customers of doctors to customers of the cartels.”