Archive for April 13, 2011
Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how a seven-year-old drug federal trafficking case brought good news to law enforcement agencies in Idaho on Wednesday. That's because all appeals and asset forfeiture proceedings in the case have been completed, so the Idaho State Police got a check for $456,446 and the Coeur d'Alene Police Department is getting $18,630 as its share.
Former Coeur d'Alene gold and coin dealer Robert Leon Mertens was convicted in 2004 on 11 federal charges, including selling cocaine, marijuana and heroin at locations including a Sagle flea market, and laundering the money through his Coeur d'Alene business, Northwest Coin and Jewelry.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed a tax incentive bill into law Wednesday for new hires that's winning bipartisan praise as a bright spot in addressing Idaho's biggest issue this year - job creation - but there were few others in this year's legislative session. “I don't think as long as you've got one person in the state of Idaho out of work, we're ever doing enough,” said Otter, who noted that 74,000 Idahoans are now unemployed. “We're doing what we can.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
The bill, HB 297a, passed during the same legislative session in which lawmakers killed the state's major tax incentive for alternative energy development in a spat over neighbors' objections to wind turbines, and cut hundreds of public- and private-sector jobs through budget cuts in education and Medicaid. In this year's Boise State University public policy survey, Idahoans listed jobs as by far the most important issue facing the state.
Freshman Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador appeared on CNN's “Situation Room” program just now, in a panel along with three other tea party-backed freshman Republicans, Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle of New York, Tom Graves of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona. CNN said it picked “one from each corner of the country,” and was surprised to find the four split on tomorrow's budget-cuts vote: Two plan to vote in favor, one against, and Labrador is leaning against.
Labrador agreed with the others that the freshmen have made a difference, and helped bump up the level of cuts that now is being contemplated - though they want more. “When we started the debate, the initial offer was $31 billion in cuts. Some of us spoke up and said that it needed to be more,” he told the program. “So we actually got it to $61 billion in cuts. And now we're getting $38, $39 billion in cuts. We're going to vote against these things, but I think we would have had much less.”
At the close of the interview, the four were asked, “So are you crazy, or are you really the sanest people in America?” Labrador responded, “If being fiscally responsible is extreme and crazy, then I think I am.”
Trace levels of radioactive iodine-131 have now been detected in air, drinking water, rainwater and milk in Idaho, the state DEQ, Department of Agriculture and Department of Health & Welfare report in a joint news release, but “the levels detected are far below levels of public health concern.” The I-131, from the nuclear disaster in Japan, first was detected on March 21 in an air sample in Boise. Mark Dietrich, the Idaho DEQ's emergency response program coordinator, said, “At no point have detected levels come close to levels of concern.” You can read more here.
Gov. Butch Otter has signed HB 297a into law, his “Hire One Act” to give a tax credit to employers who make new hires. “This was a bipartisan effort, and for as much of the things that we had disagreement on, we had a lot of agreement on this,” Otter declared. Among those joining him as he signed the bill were GOP floor sponsors Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell; and Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star; Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, who said, “I think it enjoyed very broad bipartisan support - the need is obvious … Hopefuly this bill can make a difference;” Chamber of Commerce representatives; and Reps. Julie Ellsworth and Mitch Toryanski, Boise Boise Republicans who were among the bill's co-sponsors, and both targets of a recall effort launched yesterday over their votes on school reform legislation; neither Ellsworth nor Toryanski spoke during the bill-signing.
McGee said when he and Otter campaigned together last fall, “Across the state of Idaho, one thing that kept coming up over and over was jobs - and this legislation directly takes on that issue and improves the situation. I think it's going to be very successful.”
Otter said, “I don't think as long as you've got one person in the state of Idaho of work we're doing enough. We're doing what we can. We're doing what we believe. We know it's going to cost the state a little over $7.5 million, but we think the result of that is going to be about a $25 million income to the state,” as those newly employed workers pay taxes.
Under the bill, for-profit Idaho employers who make new hires on or after April 15 - this Friday - would be eligible for a tax credit if the jobs include health benefits and pay at least $12 an hour in counties where employment is above 10 percent, or $15 an hour in counties where it's below 10 percent. The amount of the credit would vary from 2 to 6 percent of the new worker's gross wages, based on the employer's rating in the state unemployment insurance program; that's to ensure that employers who laid off workers during the recession and are just now hiring them back aren't rewarded as much as those who kept their workers on, and now are expanding.
The refundable tax credit expires on Jan. 1, 2014. Otter said Idaho could have done more to promote job-creation. But, he said, “What we were looking for was something that was either revenue-positive or revenue-neutral, and this is what we came up with.” He said he's confident the “Hire One Act” will come out “revenue-positive” for the state.
Robert Mertens is serving a 37-year term in federal prison for drug trafficking, firearms violations and money laundering - he's been behind bars since 2004 - but it's taken until now for all appeals and asset forfeiture proceedings in the case to be completed. As a result, today the Idaho State Police got a check for $456,446, and the Coeur d'Alene Police Department will get one for $18,630.
“The investigation, prosecution and conviction of Robert Mertens was a success on many levels,” said U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy J. Olson. “A drug trafficker who was harming Idahoans was removed from the community and received a lengthy prison sentence; through the financial investigation and forfeiture proceedings he was stripped of his ill-gotten gains, and through today's equitable sharing of the proceeds of the forfeiture, we are able to financially reimburse and reinvigorate our state and local law enforcement partners. I am very proud of the patience and cooperation that all of the involved agencies displayed throughout this process.”
Mertens was convicted of 11 federal counts including conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana, distribution of cocaine, and possession with intent to distribute heroin; a federal jury found that from 1995 to 2003, he regularly sold drugs from his Coeur d'Alene business, Northwest Coin & Jewelry, his homes in Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint, and a flea market in Sagle. Among the assets seized in the case were $1.2 million in gold and silver coins and precious metals; those were taken by armored truck to Southern California and auctioned off by federal authorities as part of the asset forfeiture process, drawing interest from collectors around the world.
For the ISP, which is facing a big budget crunch, the long-awaited payment will be enough to replace aging radios for its investigations division; the current system is more than 20 years old. “It'll be extremely helpful,” said Col. Jerry Russell, ISP director. Still awaiting funding: radio replacements for the patrol division, which would cost $2.3 million, and for which there's still no funding source. But Russell said getting the investigations radios is “certainly a good start,” and said, “It couldn't come at a better time.”
Olson and Russell joined officials from the FBI and the IRS at a ceremony today to present the money to ISP. “This is yet another shining example of the quality investigations conducted by joint efforts of local, state, and federal agencies,” Russell said. “Due to the collaboration with our local and federal partners we were able to dismantle a long-term narcotics trafficking organization and make a positive impact to the citizens of these communities.”