Top 7 Tales of Greed and Abuse In 2009
Tales of misspent funds and greedy fiends.
Air Pork One
On his congressional website, Texas Republican Pete Sessions called earmarks “a symbol to the American people of a broken Washington.” So how does Sessions explain the $1.6 million budget earmark for dirigible research that he steered to an Illinois company represented by one of his former aides? As politico.com reported in July, Sessions directed the money to Jim G. Ferguson & Associates, which is not located in the congressman’s district—and whose founders have no experience in aviation or engineering, let alone blimp building. Sessions’s office denied that the role of former aide Adrian Plesha, who made nearly $450,000 lobbying for the company, had anything to do with Sessions’s support for the earmark. If you believe that, I’ve got a blimp to sell you.
Air Pork Two
Waste is, as we know, bipartisan. Democratic congressman Jack Murtha won $800,000 in federal stimulus funds to repave a backup runway at an airport in his rural Pennsylvania district, two hours east of Pittsburgh. Over the years, Murtha has been credited with landing some $150 million in federal money for the airport—which is named after him. It’s not exactly O’Hare. Although its huge runway was built to handle jumbo jets, the only commercial planes that use it are commuter planes bound for Washington, D.C., where Murtha works. In April, one flight reportedly had just four passengers, who were screened by seven federal airport workers. Federal officials say the $800,000 runway project was approved solely because it was a good idea and was “shovel ready.” There’s a shovel in there all right, but it’s not the kind they mean.
Hit by Car, Lawsuit
One night in March, Christine Speliotis, 42, was driving on a quiet road near her home in Salem, Massachusetts, when a Ford Mustang slammed into her Honda van. Speliotis suffered multiple fractures that required surgery to insert metal rods and screws. The driver of the other car, 18-year-old Timothy Pereira, escaped with relatively minor injuries; the passenger, his cousin Brandon Pereira, 17, was thrown from the car and was so severely injured that he had to be placed in a medically induced coma. Police said that Timothy had been driving at 81 miles per hour—more than 50 miles over the speed limit—and charged him with drag racing. In August, Brandon Pereira’s father filed a $450,000 lawsuit against Speliotis, who, authorities say, had done nothing wrong. Speliotis, the lawsuit states, “carelessly and negligent [sic] failed to avoid the collision with the other vehicle head-on.” Pereira’s lawyer explained the rationale: “Under Massachusetts law, I’m trying to get compensation for my client anywhere I can.”
Last February, San Francisco–area resident Melissa Evans got word that her mother was close to death. Evans rushed to the airport with her boyfriend, Michael Golaszewski, arriving just 30 minutes before her 7:50 p.m. United Airlines flight was scheduled to depart for Portland, Oregon. Customers in line allowed the couple to move to the front to buy tickets. But just as they reached the desk, the only available ticket agent announced that she was taking her break. Golaszewski pleaded with her to stay, explaining that Evans’s mother was about to die. “If you have a problem with [my leaving], you need to talk to my supervisor,” the agent responded.
“I was absolutely horrified,” Golaszewski said. After more than ten minutes of back-and-forth with the agent, the couple finally got their tickets and sprinted to the gate, arriving moments after the doors were shut. The gate agent refused to let them board and defended the ticket agent, adding that “management really makes us work some unreasonable schedules.” The couple were booked on another flight leaving three hours later. By the time Evans made it to the hospital, her mother was unconscious, and it was too late to say goodbye. United apologized later, but little good that did Evans, who had spent hours sitting in an airport lounge rather than at her mother’s bedside.
Fight Club at School
Many parents complain that schools have gone too far with no-contact rules banning tag or even high fives in the hallway. But the staff at one high school near Dallas took things to the other extreme when they made students settle their disputes with bare-knuckle “cage fights” in a locker room enclosure, according to a school district report disclosed last March. One former school employee called it “gladiator-style entertainment for the staff.” Investigators documented one case in which a school administrator allegedly told a security guard to take two arguing students and put them “in the cage and let ’em duke it out.” Although investigators suggested that the staff’s conduct “may constitute a criminal violation,” no criminal charges were ever filed—and some of the accused staffers were still working the same jobs at the beginning of the last school year.
One of 2009’s more outrageous court settlements came from Staten Island, New York. A few years ago, 12-year-old Little Leaguer Martin Gonzalez slid into second base, suffering serious knee damage in the process. It was an unfortunate accident. The team had used Little League–approved detachable bases designed to prevent injury, and the manager said he’d taught the boy how to slide properly, according to court papers. Nevertheless, Martin’s mother, Jean Gonzalez, promptly sued the manager, the first base coach (who had waved her son on to second), and the local and national Little League organizations. Last summer, Gonzalez finally settled for $125,000. Afterward, her lawyer told ESPN The Magazine he was being inundated with calls from other parents who wanted him to represent their kids. How long before lawyers are negotiating baseball contracts for the tykes?
Now they tell us? The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) just held a two-day summit about the hazards of “distracted driving,” which includes texting and talking on a cell phone while at the wheel. But researchers knew the dangers back in 2003, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) collected data showing that cell phone use had caused 240,000 accidents the previous year.
Today, the government estimates that more than 500,000 people were injured and 5,870 were killed last year in crashes involving driver distraction, in many cases because of cell phone use. “Years went by when lives could have been saved,” one California legislator said.
It took a Freedom of Information Act request by nonprofit watchdog groups to uncover the NHTSA’s findings. Turns out that more than six years ago, the agency’s researchers drafted a letter warning that a crackdown on vehicular cell phone use was necessary to prevent future deaths. But DOT officials convinced them not to mail it and to bury the findings instead. Congress had warned the DOT not to lobby for new laws, and department officials worried that releasing the report could antagonize powerful lawmakers and jeopardize the DOT’s funding.
Utah and Alaska recently became the first states to pass laws threatening prison time for texting motorists who cause a fatality. Six states now ban handheld phone use by drivers altogether, and the number is growing. But why did so many people have to die before the message was received?