Printed on: December 30, 2012

The Top Ten Local Stories for 2012


POST REGISTER

With a pinch of politics, a dash of crime and a healthy serving of lawyers, 2012 served up its share of intriguing Post Register headlines.

The key state issue in the November election -- education reform through Propositions 1, 2 and 3 -- not only failed, but failed spectacularly.

The city of Idaho Falls took its lumps, first losing a lawsuit that could hamper construction of Idaho Falls Power's North Loop project, then with the messy resignation of longtime city attorney Dale Storer over billing discrepancies.

One murderer was convicted, another was executed and central Idaho forests burned all summer long.

The following are the Post Register's top 10 stories of 2012, as voted by the newspaper's staff.

Key roles in Students Come First debate

The fierce debate over Idaho's Students Come First laws and their eventual repeal Nov. 6 topped the state's news cycle for most of 2012. 

Several eastern Idahoans played key roles in the debate.

The YES! For Idaho Education campaign, a major backer of the laws, was co-chaired by Wendy Horman, a school board trustee from Bonneville Joint School District 93, and retiring state lawmaker Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg.

Idaho Falls businessman Frank VanderSloot was the reform's biggest financial supporter, donating more than $1 million to the cause.

Bonneville Joint School District 93 was the only school district in the state to endorse State Superintendent Tom Luna's education reforms, much to the chagrin of its teachers union.

Local teachers unions supported the Idaho Education Association campaign by manning call centers advocating repeal of all three propositions.

After the repeal of Proposition 2, local districts were uncertain about distributing pay-for-performance bonuses to teachers. But the Idaho Attorney General's Office ruled that the money could be distributed.

In Madison School District 321, 100 percent of teachers received bonuses.

In District 93, 97 percent of teachers received bonuses, while 87 percent of teachers in Idaho Falls School District 91 were awarded extra pay.

After an outcry from teachers, District 91 and the Idaho Falls Education Foundation raised money for 100 percent of its teachers to receive a small pay-for-performance bonus.

Historic wildfire season

Idaho's wilderness areas experience wildfires every summer, but the 2012 fire season was one of the worst on record.

More than 1,000 fires combined to burn more than 1.7 million acres, the most since fires ravaged 2.3 million acres in 2007.

The biggest fire -- the 361,000-acre Mustang Complex fire -- disrupted summer in Lemhi County by forcing road closures and home evacuations as it chewed through the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

Unlike several small communities to the north up U.S. Highway 93, Salmon never was threatened by the flames. But smoke shrouded the city, raining ash like snow and prompting the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to declare Salmon's air quality unhealthy for 17 days -- and very unhealthy for 13 days.

Idaho forests were ripe to burn. A mild 2011 fire season meant forests were laden with tinder-dry fuels because of the dry summer.

Salmonites and firefighters are fond of saying that Idaho wildfires "burn until the snow flies." The Mustang Complex, Halstead and Trinity Ridge wildfires consumed nearly 700,000 acres before snow and rain squelched them in October and November.

Blackfoot School board's secret agreement

Former Blackfoot schoolteacher Joyce Bingham and the Post Register successfully sued Blackfoot School District 55 to release documents regarding a separation agreement it made with former Superintendent Scott Crane.

The documents revealed the school board agreed to pay Crane a $220,000 settlement upon his June 30 retirement. The agreement included a nondisclosure clause that allowed the board to hide the transaction in Crane's personnel records, which are protected by state statute.

Sixth District Judge David Nye ordered the release of the documents.

"Everything about this case smacks of a public agency trying to hide its decision-making from the public," Nye said.

District 55 also admitted to violating Idaho sunshine laws following a petition by the Post Register. The breach occurred while the separation agreement was drafted during board executive sessions March 13 and April 24.

As per Idaho code, the agreement between Crane and the board is void. The board could reinstitute the agreement in open meeting or possibly seek to have Crane repay the money to the district.

Board Chairman Scott Reese maintained that the board made the right decision. He said Crane's settlement would head off a potential lawsuit that could have cost the district more than $300,000.

Crane has refused to comment.

North Loop lawsuit

A loss in court could delay -- or derail -- a project that planners for Idaho Falls and Idaho Falls Power contend is crucial to support future development.

The city planned to add capacity to its overtaxed power grid that would support growth for 30 years, utility General Manager Jackie Flowers said.

But the project ran into problems because the proposed route runs outside of city limits.

A group of Bonneville County residents along the proposed route sued, arguing that the city lacked jurisdiction to acquire easements on their property through eminent domain. The easements were needed to place the power poles.

A U.S. District Court ruled via summary judgment in favor of the property owners, known as the Alliance for Property Rights and Fiscal Responsibility.

Flowers said the utility was negotiating easement purchases with landowners and always viewed exercising eminent domain as a last resort.

If Alliance members won't sell -- as they've repeatedly stated -- or the utility can't negotiate an alternate route with landowners, the North Loop's fate rests in the city's appeal, which will be heard by either the Idaho Supreme Court or the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Storer resigns over billing errors

The Sept. 5 resignation of longtime Idaho Falls City Attorney Dale Storer sent shock waves rippling through City Hall after city records revealed a systemic pattern of billing discrepancies.

Storer, a 30-year City Hall veteran, wrote in his resignation letter that he and his firm had, at times, charged the city the firm's normal hourly rate of $160 per hour rather than the agreed upon contractual rate of $90 per hour.

On the day Storer resigned, Mayor Jared Fuhriman said it appeared Storer underbilled the city more than he overcharged, and that the city owed Storer about $800.

A Post Register review of five years' worth of invoices found Storer overbilled the city $12,603, including $6,612.50 during the 2011-12 budget year.

Over the past five years, the Post Register discovered 70 invoices that appeared to contain significant billing irregularities.

Bonneville County Prosecutor Bruce Pickett appointed special prosecutor Jay Rosenthal to investigate Storer's errant billing. As of Friday, the results of that investigation had not been made public.

INL workers exposed to radiation

Idaho National Laboratory officials announced Oct. 3 that 16 workers exposed to plutonium in November 2011 would suffer no adverse health effects.

But lab officials refused to release the specific internal radiological dosage numbers for the employees.

The exposure occurred Nov. 8, 2011, when workers came across four small boxes containing plutonium fuel plates from the building that once housed the Zero Power Physics Reactor at INL's Materials and Fuels Complex.

After opening one of the boxes, workers found a fuel plate inside wrapped in plastic and tape. A black powder -- plutonium-239 -- spilled out. At least one of the 16 workers inhaled the radioactive substance.

The incident -- coupled with another in August 2011 in which an operator received an elevated radiation dose to his right hand while processing fuel samples at the Materials and Fuels Complex's Hot Fuel Examination Facility -- led to a $412,500 fine to Battelle Energy Alliance.

Battelle is the contractor in charge of Idaho National Laboratory.

A Department of Energy letter said both incidents involved deficient work control documents and failure to perform work consistent with approved procedures.

Sentences in Christmas Day murder

Seven Idaho Falls men involved in the Christmas Day 2011 murder of 20-year-old Buck Garner were sentenced one by one throughout 2012.

District Judge Dane Watkins Jr. sentenced Joseph "Joey" Manuel Chavez on Oct. 30 to 30 years in prison for second-degree murder.

The 20-year-old Chavez, who stabbed Garner twice in the heart, could be eligible for parole after 10 years.

The other six men involved -- Adan Cisneros, Brent Pongyan, Josh Cortez, Derek Perez, Ryan Morgan and Alexis "Alex" Gonzalez -- entered guilty pleas to charges ranging from aggravated assault to aggravated battery to harboring a fugitive.

Watkins ordered a range of sentences for the six, from probation to rider treatment programs to prison.

Principal sentenced in sex case

The 38-year-old former principal of Snake River Junior High School was sentenced Aug. 27 for having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old female student.

Christopher Cox of Blackfoot pleaded guilty to one count of sexual abuse of a minor younger than 16. District Judge Gregory Moeller sentenced Cox to serve 18 years in prison.

Cox will be eligible for parole after three years.

In exchange for Cox's guilty plea, Bingham County prosecutors agreed to dismiss two additional sex charges he faced.

Cox's sexual relationship with the girl was ongoing from January 2011 to August 2011.

At sentencing, Moeller said he received more than 40 letters from friends, family and community members speaking on behalf of Cox.

But Moeller said he could not ignore the fact that Cox abused his authority as a principal and said Cox placed too much blame on the victim.

According to court documents, the girl told of multiple encounters, many of which involved simulated sex that happened on school grounds, including in the auditorium, choir room, school basement, principal's office and teachers' lounge.

Cox resigned Feb. 22 after the charges against him were filed.

Execution of Richard Leavitt

After more than a quarter-century on death row, Richard "Rick" Leavitt was executed by lethal injection June 12 for the murder and mutilation of a Blackfoot woman.

Despite persistent claims of innocence, Leavitt was convicted of the July 1984 murder of Danette Elg, 31. Elg was stabbed 15 times and mutilated in her home.

Randy Blades, warden of the Idaho Maximum Security Institution, led the execution.

Despite maintaining his innocence for decades, the 53-year-old Leavitt made no statement at his execution.

When Blades asked Leavitt, "Would you like to make a final statement?" Leavitt made no eye contact and said nothing. He simply shook his head left to right, twice.

Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg pronounced Leavitt dead at 10:25 a.m., 18 minutes after the injection.

VanderSloot backs Romney, Students Come First

Although Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot didn't run for any office, he spent millions through his company this campaign season.

Melaleuca contributed more than $2 million to political campaigns, including more than $1 million each to support Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the failed Students Come First education reform package.

VanderSloot served as a national finance co-chairman for Romney. Melaleuca spent $1 million on a political action committee, known as Restore our Future, that backed Romney.

Additionally, Melaleuca spent big on ads backing the Students Come First laws. Campaign finance reports show Melaleuca spent $604,500 with Vote Yes for Idaho Education and another $332,000 with the Idaho Federation of Republican Women, another group that backed Students Come First.

Finally, Melaleuca spent more than $315,871 on a series of advertisements supporting Students Come First.

VanderSloot said the company made the donations to counterbalance well-funded groups on the other side of the issues and candidates he supported.