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Cop convicted of raping mentally disabled woman could be out in 20 years, instead of 36

INDIANAPOLIS — A former Michigan City police officer convicted of repeatedly raping an intellectually disabled woman appealed his 36-year prison sentence and had it reduced.

Thomas K. Jackson, now 54, was convicted in La Porte Superior Court 1 in 2018 of three counts of rape when the victim is mentally disabled or deficient.

Despite the prosecution’s request that he be sentenced to the advisory 27 years – 9 years per count, Judge Michael Bergerson imposed an enhanced sentence of 36 years – 12 years per count.

And although the state deferred to the court’s decision as to how much of Jackson’s sentence should be served on probation, Bergerson ordered it be fully executed in prison.

But the Indiana Supreme Court said in its May 19 decision: “… [We] find that exceeding the 27-year sentence the prosecutor recommended, absent more significant aggravating factors is inappropriate under the circumstances of this case.”

In an unsigned 4-1 opinion, the high court reduced Jackson’s sentence to 27 years, with the last 7 to be served on probation.

Justice Geoffrey Slaughter dissented from the ruling, saying the case never should have been transferred to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals decision should stand.

Jackson initially appealed his sentence and convictions to the Indiana Court of Appeals, which upheld both.

When he petitioned the Supreme Court, Jackson asked only that his sentence be reviewed.

The court acknowledged that Jackson, who worked in law enforcement for 28 years, had led a “law-abiding” life prior to the rapes and that he was considered a “low-risk” offender with no prior criminal history.

Under his original sentence, Jackson’s earliest possible release date would have been Dec. 3, 2045, when he will be 79 years old.

Jackson’s release under the amended sentence could have him out of prison in 2033 at age 67.

According to court documents, Jackson engaged the woman in vaginal, oral and anal sex on multiple occasions when she was between the ages of 21 and 23.

However, because the state claimed the woman has an IQ of 8 and the mental and emotional capabilities of a child between the ages of 10 and 12, a jury found that she could not legally consent to sex.

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Petition wants NIPSCO to wait out COVID-19 before transporting coal ash from Michigan City

MICHIGAN CITY — Environmental groups won a small victory Friday – gaining an extension of time for public comment on NIPSCO’s plan to remove coal ash from its Michigan City Generating Station.

Hundreds of people have signed a petition asking the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to postpone removal of the toxic ash until after the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, IDEM agreed to extend the public comment period by 30 days until June 22.

“Studies show that an increase in air pollution, which may result from the movement of the hazardous ash, increases mortality from COVID-19,” according to La’Tonya Troutman, Environmental Climate Justice Chair of the NAACP La Porte County Branch

“When the time is right for the important removal process, the petition also asks the state and NIPSCO for much stronger safety measures than NIPSCO is proposing.”

She urges people to sign the change.org petition, created by Just Transition NWI, the Hoosier Environmental Council, Earthjustice and the NAACP chapter.

NIPSCO plans to permanently close five coal ash ponds at its MC station as part of a plan to close all remaining coal-fired power plants by 2028.

NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said the process of moving coal ash is safe, and has been part of normal operations at the Michigan City plant.

“These pond closures, combined with our plans to retire 100 percent of our remaining coal-fired generating stations by 2028, is an important step toward the future,” he said.

“Protecting human health and the environment is vital, and the practice of transporting ash from NIPSCO’s Michigan City Generating Station to the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station property has been in place for decades and are part of the company’s normal operations.

“The additional work that is being proposed is intended to remove remnant material from 5 ash ponds at Michigan City and replace it with clean fill, which is consistent with the requirements outlined in the EPA’s Coal Combustion Residual.”

That rule, he said, is designed to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash.

The organizations are calling on NIPSCO to add more public safety protections in their draft plan, Troutman said.

“Everyone wants to see the toxic coal ash moved out of Michigan City, but it needs to be done safely. Now is not the time,” she said.

“Part of putting safety first is to avoid the risk of the toxic dust in the air when people are already in danger from coronavirus. Toxic dust and COVID-19 are a bad combination.”

According to the petition, “Excavation, transportation, and landfilling of coal ash can raise levels of particulate matter in the air. Particulate matter is a dangerous air pollutant linked to respiratory and cardiovascular health effects, and to a higher risk of mortality from COVID-19 that puts Michigan City, Jasper County, and the communities along the transportation route at higher risk ...”

Ashley Williams of Just Transition NWI said the plan has “plenty of room” for improvement.

“When moving a toxic waste like coal ash, every precaution must be taken,” she said. “Particles of coal ash can contain heavy metals, silica, and radioactivity. Inhaling coal ash particles can damage your lungs, cause cancer, and bring on other health problems. We ask the government of Indiana to make the health of the people who live in Michigan City and Wheatfield their top priority.”

The plan calls for moving up to 170,600 tons of coal ash to be landfilled at Wheatfield, Meyer said, from the 5 ponds in MC, 4 ponds at the retired Bailly Generating Station and 4 at the Schahfer station.

“Approximately 50,000 tons of ash are already being sent from the Michigan City Generating Station and being landfilled on the Schahfer property.”

That will require more than 6,000 truck trips along a 41-mile route, according to Williams.

“Such hazardous material transport can place workers and multiple communities in jeopardy if the waste is not securely controlled during excavation, loading, hauling, and final disposal,” she said.

Meyer said the closure and removal plan includes transporting the ash in enclosed trucks.

“A formal dust control plan is being finalized as part of the process and it will also be made available to the public. Regular monitoring occurs at the Schahfer site today, and ongoing monitoring will continue for the life of the landfill plus an additional 30 years beyond that timeframe at a minimum.”

Dr. Indra Frank, director of Environmental Health and Water Policy at the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the goal is more than just safety.

“We are also focused on the protection of water resources. As it has at all of the state’s power plants, the coal ash at Michigan City has contaminated the underlying groundwater,” she said.

“It is good that NIPSCO will be starting the cleanup by removing their ash ponds and taking the ash to a lined landfill. Since some of the contaminated groundwater is seeping into Trail Creek, we are also asking IDEM and NIPSCO to test the fish in Trail Creek.”

Meyer said those concerns have been addressed.

“While there are known groundwater impacts – which are being addressed under this new rule – the data collected to date indicates there is no risk to human health or the environment, no impacts to drinking water supplied to neighboring communities and nothing to indicate that the state’s waterways are affected.”

He said the CCR “outlines a prescriptive, multi-phased process” for monitoring groundwater, identifying and reporting concerns, and addressing any issues.

“Closing coal ash ponds is an important first step to addressing the groundwater impacts and the rule outlines more than one acceptable method for closure. Once the ponds are closed, additional monitoring and assessment with IDEM oversight will determine what additional corrective steps are needed...”

He called the closure by removal method “the most protective option in the rule.”

Lisa Evans, former EPA official and senior counsel for Earthjustice, said NIPSCO’s plan is a good one, if done correctly.

“The removal of coal ash ponds at the Michigan City plant is a step in the right direction after decades of pollution of air and water, but it needs to be done right.”

She called coal ash part of a long legacy of pollution at the site.

“It really gets to the fact that this site has not been investigated fully to determine all the pathways, all the contaminants,” Evans said. “What we need to do is arrive at a cleanup plan that’s fully comprehensive.”

The rule calls for the process to be complete by November 2023 for Michigan City, Meyer said, but the permit request outlines work starting later this year and being completed by the end of 2021.

“The requirements for the other ponds vary, but we expect to complete the closure and removal work for remaining ponds at our other sites between 2023 and 2028.”

More than 400 people had signed the petition as of Thursday, and the groups are hoping to reach 1,000 over the holiday weekend.

It can be viewed and signed at change.org/NoCoalAsh NWI or the Just Transitions NWI Facebook page. Comments can also be sent to IDEM permit manager Alyssa Hopkins at Ahopkins@idem.in.gov.

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La Porte County Commissioners oppose 'outrageous' proposed utility rate hike

La PORTE — La Porte County officials are pushing back against a potential rate hike that several Indiana power companies – including NIPSCO – want to impose on customers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, the La Porte County Board of Commissioners authorized attorney Shaw Friedman to formally file an intervention with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission opposing a possible rate increase from NIPSCO, Indiana Michigan Power Company and several other utilities, which are looking to recoup revenue lost due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The board is responding to a petition the group of 10 investor-owned power companies submitted to the IURC on May 8.

In the document, the companies requested a deferral of COVID-related expenses, which include the loss of revenue from lower electric demand and suspension of disconnects for customers who are delinquent on payments.

To make up these costs, the utilities are seeking permission from the IURC to impose additional costs on customers.

Commissioner Vidya Kora said it was “outrageous” that the utilities would consider placing the burden of recouping their lost revenue on customers, many of whom are already having trouble paying for rent and other bills due to the ongoing economic crisis the pandemic has created.

Instead, the companies should consider making up the shortfall by reducing dividends for shareholders, who reap the rewards during good times but never bear any responsibility during a crisis, Kora said.

“Their first instinct should not be to stick it to the ratepayers in the middle of the worst economic crisis we have had since the Great Depression,” Kora said.

Commission President Sheila Matias joined her colleague in condemning the companies, saying it was hard to imagine why they would choose to take advantage of their customers in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime emergency.

“Writing off revenues is just a cost of doing business when you’re in the utility business,” she said. “Trying to stick taxpayers with any costs relevant to the pandemic is not fair, it’s not right, it’s not ethical.”

The commissioners are the latest to join a growing chorus denouncing the utility companies’ request, with organizations such as the Citizens Action Coalition and NAACP also issuing statements attacking the petition.

Wednesday’s vote marks the second time in two years La Porte County has intervened against a proposed rate hike from NIPSCO. The county was among the many entities across the region who fought against an 11 percent increase the utility had requested from the IURC, which the commission lowered to a little less than 7 percent in a decision last winter.

Speaking to the board remotely on Wednesday, state Sen. Mike Bohacek clarified that the companies will again need IURC approval before enacting any new rate hikes. The public will have a chance to remonstrate or provide other comments about the proposal throughout the process, something the lawmaker encouraged residents to take advantage of, he said.

“We just need to make sure that we have all of our citizens weigh in on this,” the Michiana Shores Republican said. “It’s a united effort.”

La Porte Hospital construction delayed after workers test positive for COVID-19

La PORTE — Work has been suspended on construction of the new La Porte Hospital after several workers tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

“Robins & Morton, our general contractor, has made us aware that individuals who work at the new La Porte hospital construction site have tested positive for COVID-19,” Kelly Credit, hospital spokeswoman said.

That includes a total of 10 workers so far, according to Joe Forsthoffer, spokesman for Robins & Morton.

“We temporarily suspended work on the project after 10 workers tested positive among the crew. We are still testing all of the other workers so we expect that number to go up.”

The site will be cleaned and sanitized, and all workers tested before work resumes, Forsthoffer said.

“We’ll return to work as soon as we know we can do it safely,” he said.

“We are having a third party come in and clean the building under CDC guidelines, and La Porte Hospital has offered to test all of the workers.”

There are about 200 workers during the current phase of the project, scheduled for completion late this year.

Robins & Morton has also all the trade contractors on the project and “asked them to call all employees who have worked on the project recently to be tested.”

After a cleaning service is hired, it will take “a matter of days” to clean the entire site, Forsthoffer said. “And then we will need time to have all the screening done before we restart work.”

There is no timetable for work to begin, but it is “not a long-term issue,” he said.

“We don’t see this as anything that will have a significant impact on the completion date of the project.

“We know that people want to get back to work, and we want to get back to work do, but we want to do so safely.”

Getting back to work has become an issue for hundreds of thousands of people in Indiana.

The state saw about 30,000 more people file for unemployment benefits last week as business struggles continue despite the easing of restrictions.

Job losses have slowed in recent weeks, but roughly 670,000 people have sought jobless aid in Indiana over the past nine weeks, U.S. Department of Labor statistics announced Thursday showed.

The number of initial unemployment applications submitted in Indiana last week was about the same as the week before and well below the 100,000-plus received for three straight weeks in late March and early April.

Indiana has also processed nearly 69,000 applications for a separate federal program set up for self-employed and gig workers.

Federal statistics show Indiana was paying unemployment benefits to about 285,000 people during the week ending May 2, while only about 13,000 people received those payments a year earlier.

Nationally, more than 2.4 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits last week as April’s unemployment rate reached 14.7 percent, the highest since the Depression.

Gov. Eric Holcomb said because health indicators remain positive, most of the state will advance to phase 3 of the Back On Track Indiana plan on Friday, though local governments may impose more restrictive guidelines.

“We continue to remain vigilant about protecting Hoosiers’ health while taking responsible steps to further open our state’s economy,” Holcomb said. “Moving to stage 3 is possible because Hoosiers across the state have worked together and made sacrifices to slow the spread.”

The governor said he has used data to drive decisions since the state’s first case of the novel coronavirus in early March and will continue to do so as the state contemplates a sector-by-sector reset.

The state will move to reopen while monitoring and responding to four guiding principles:

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide has decreased for 14 days

The state retains its surge capacity for critical care beds and ventilators

The state retains its ability to test all Hoosiers who are COVID-19 symptomatic as well as health care workers, first responders, and frontline employees

Health officials have systems in place to contact all individuals who test positive and expand contact tracing

As more people return to work, visit stores or restaurants, and participate in more activities, “the number of COVID-19 cases will increase,” Holcomb said.

“If these principles cannot be met, all or portions of the state may need to pause on moving forward, or may need to return to an earlier phase of the stay-at-home order.”

If health indicators do remain positive, the state will move to phase 4 in mid-June, Holcomb said.

Until then, he reiterated that those 65 and over, and those with high-risk health conditions should remain home as much as possible.

Face coverings in public places are recommended; and Hoosiers who can work from home are encouraged to continue to do so.