The Weekly Churn, Jan 31


New Benton County Health Department Director
Benton County’s Board of Commissioners has selected a new director for the Benton County Health Department. Dawn Emerick, described as a 20-year veteran of the health and human services sector, will replace outgoing director Mitch Anderson, who plans to retire on March 21.

Director Emerick enters a department that has been challenged by public controversy over the past two years.

Last summer, former employees of the mental health division filed Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) complaints against a list of health department and Benton County officials alleging discrimination, misconduct, and retaliation against whistleblowers. After an initial investigation by the county “found [their allegations] to be unsubstantiated,” the former health department employees decided to elevate their complaint to the state level. 

In August 2018, BOLI dismissed the complaint, stating their decision was final. Similar to the county, they stated there was not enough evidence to continue investigating.

Fatal Crashes on Hwy 20 Prompt Safety Questions
On January 7, Brownsville resident Suzanne Durheim was killed after her car slid off an icy stretch of Highway 20 and into the Willamette River. Her truck was found in the river. 

Then, on Monday January 21, Kenneth Leys of Albany was killed after possibly suffering a medical event, which caused him to leave the road and, like Durheim, end up in the Willamette. 

Reports show that the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) recently began conducting a safety study, the first step in improving the highway’s safety, on the section of highway near where Durheim’s crash occurred on January 7. After Leys’ accident on January 21, less than a mile from where Durheim’s accident happened, Angela Beers-Seydel, a spokesperson for ODOT, said the department is “moving ahead with a safety study,” but was not sure whether the second crash would necessarily “speed up” the process. She told reporters ODOT has to examine a variety of factors before installing a new guard rail, and that improvements could be rolled into other road improvement projects.

OSU Student Charged With Rape, College Offers Resources
Roland Richards, an OSU student from Portland, was arrested at a party in Philomath on Saturday January 19 and charged with first-degree rape and sexual abuse. According to court documents, the alleged victim was not capable of giving consent.

Reports cited a probable cause affidavit containing the alleged victim’s account to the police. According to the affidavit, Richards, who had been allowed to share a bed with the alleged victim, propositioned her for sex, which she denied. She then went to sleep and awoke to Richards sexually assaulting her. The alleged victim told the police she had been assaulted previously, and was afraid to resist. 

On Friday January 25, Richards filed with the court asking the judge to reduce his current bail amount of $525,000 down to $50,000. 

OSU responded to this incident by saying “they want to make sure the community knows there are resources on campus for survivors of sexual assault.” They detailed the services they offer for survivors like the Survivor Advocacy and Resource Center (SARC), as well as specialized nursing and counseling services. 

The university has not responded directly to the facts of Richards’ case.


Douglas County Judge Halts Gas Pipeline Plans
Kathleen Johnson, a circuit court judge in Douglas County, issued a ruling on Friday January 25 which set back plans for the Jordan Cove LNG Export Terminal, a 230 mile natural gas pipeline crossing Oregon, from Malin to Coos Bay.

Johnson reversed a county decision to extend a conditional land use permit to Pembina Pipeline Corp., a Calgary-based company contracted to build the pipeline. The permit was granted in 2009, and Douglas county resident Sally McLaughlin, who owns a mile of land through which Pembina wants to build, has been opposing it since then. She led the legal challenge that resulted in the decision, and remarked to reporters that the opposition has become significant over the last ten years.

McLaughlin’s observation is largely correct, as state environmental advocacy groups like Rogue Riverkeeper oppose the pipeline and new organizations like No LNG Exports have formed to combat this specific issue. 

Pembina plans to build the pipeline to Jordan Cove in the interest of securing a west coast export location for the sale of natural gas to Asian markets. A statement from No LNG Exports claims “[this] project would trample the rights of landowners through use of eminent domain, disturb tribal territories and burial grounds, threaten 400 waterways, put existing jobs in fishing, tourism, and other sectors at risk, drive up energy prices, and create a major new source of climate pollution.”

The Oregon Department of State Lands is taking public comment on the pipeline until Sunday, February 3. 

Owner of Five Oregon Newspapers Declares Bankruptcy Again
Western Communications, a family-owned newspaper publisher which owns five papers in Oregon and two in northern California, announced on Tuesday January 22 that it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections. 

Western previously filed for bankruptcy in 2011, re-emerging in 2012 after restructuring and laying off 10% of its staff. 

While potential layoffs are unclear, Western’s president John Costa stated in their announcement that they are seeking time under Chapter 11 to restructure the company once again. 

Reports say court records show Western has about $7 million in unsecured debt and owes around $1 million in federal taxes. Recent reporting from OPB revealed that Western also owes approximately $1 million in “local property taxes and interest.”

The publications owned by Western Communications include their Bend flagship The Bulletin, Baker City Herald, Brookings’ Curry Coastal Pilot, La Grande’s Observer, The Redmond Spokesman, Crescent City CA’s The Daily Triplicate, and The Union Democrat of Sonora, CA.

Saudi Disappearances Stretch Across Country and Decades, OR Senators Respond
Further investigation into the mysterious disappearances of five Saudi nationals, all college students, who vanished before being brought to trial for violent crimes, including rape and manslaughter, has revealed a pattern that extends back decades and beyond state lines.

The Oregonian found a case strikingly similar to those on which they reported last week, only it occurred in 1988, in the small town of Xenia, Ohio.

Abdulrahman Ali Al-Plaies (also Al-Bleeis and Al-Blis in court records), then enrolled at Central State University, hit another vehicle while speeding, killing one and seriously injuring another. The Saudi consulate was informed of his case and “took an immediate interest.” Shortly afterwards, a Saudi Air Force officer identified as Major A. Al-Selimy arrived in Xenia to “act as an interpreter and advocate” for Al-Plaies. After posting bail, Al-Plaies disappeared like the others.

Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are reacting to this news with a bill designed to investigate the disappearances, prevent further escapes, and expel any who are proven to have assisted in these escapes from the country. The two Senators have proposed a second bill that, among other actions, would impose tax penalties on any country that helps their citizens evade the U.S. justice system. Their legislation specifically cites Ali Hussain Alhamoud, who lived in Corvallis and was arrested in 2012 on multiple sex crimes, including first-degree rape. After being bailed out of Lincoln County Jail by the Saudi government, he boarded a plane back to Saudi Arabia the same day. 

Senator Wyden sent formal inquiries to both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker at the end of December 2018, but neither has responded.

By Ian MacRonald