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Civic Skinny

Mike Whalen wonders about buying Register. Was appointment of Iowa Corrections chief done legally? Bookings of women jump at Polk County jail; Godfrey bills jump.

10/2/2019

An Iowa businessman is poking around to see if he can drum up support from some colleagues to make an offer to buy The Des Moines Register.  

“Iowans have looked on as the newspaper’s owners and managers have attempted to stop the bleeding [in circulation and news coverage] by amputating limb after limb in the form of business, government, and arts coverage and more,” Mike Whalen wrote in a draft of a letter to Gannett Co. headquarters. “Iowans know that’s not the way to save the patient.”

It’s unclear how many colleagues Whalen has approached, but two provided copies to CITYVIEW of the proposed letter, and a third called to chat.

Whalen, who is based in the Quad Cities, owns several hotels in the Des Moines area and spends much time here. While he believes a strong community needs a strong newspaper, he also wants a newspaper that fits his own politics, a newspaper that has not “moved leftward to a point on the spectrum that is often out of touch with a good deal of the business community and mainstream public opinion,” his draft letter states. “This leftward drift has contributed to the Register’s chronic irrelevance as a community thought leader,” it adds. (In fact, the Register now runs few editorials, and seems more adrift than drifting. It appears to have no firm editorial philosophy, having endorsed Mitt Romney over Barack Obama and having twice endorsed Steve King— once while endorsing Tom Harkin in the same election year.)

The likelihood of making a deal seems small. First of all, Whalen would have to find people to join him in the offer, and it’s not exactly a get-rich-quick opportunity. Second, even if the paper could be bought, it’s pretty likely that buyer and seller have a wide difference on the price. Gannett paid about $250 million for the Register when it bought it from the Cowles family in 1985, and today it might not be worth even $5 million. But Gannett executives probably would scoff at that.

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The newspaper has few assets. Its two main assets probably are its list of subscribers and its list of advertisers, but those are dwindling lists. The printing plant near the airport is owned by a separate Gannett division, and the newspaper no longer owns any real-estate downtown; rather, it rents space in Capital Square, and it has been cutting back on that. It has no circulation infrastructure — subscriptions are handled by central offices outside Iowa — and not much of a management structure. The latest statement of circulation required by the Post Office lists as publisher and as editor a man and a woman who work in Virginia.

And, of course, it’s too early to determine if the whole Carson King debacle and the defection of the RAGBRAI management will have a lasting impact on the newspaper, which seems to be operating in crisis mode at the moment.

On top of all that, the paper is in the process of being sold as part of New Media Investment Group’s acquisition of Gannett, which owns about 100 newspapers across the country. If the new owners did want to sell it — and they seem like folks without a passion for newspapers, though they own about 150 of them through the GateHouse division — they probably would want a hefty price. The Gatehouse-Gannett deal could close later this year.

But Whalen is a risk-taker, and he is serious in making the rounds. He thinks local ownership can save a newspaper — and, indeed, it has in Minneapolis and Washington and, in a way, in Philadelphia — and he thinks the Register is worth saving. He writes of setting up, perhaps, a “community-based ownership model,” sort of like the one in Wisconsin that owns the Green Bay Packers. “That may be the only viable path forward,” he writes in the draft.

In fact, it may be too late to find any “viable path” forward. CITYVIEW reported a couple of months ago that daily and Sunday circulation of the Register has fallen 30% to 40% in the last three years, that the daily Register now reaches just 15.6% of the households in Polk County and the Sunday Register just 22.2%. The digital editions aren’t filling the gap.

Meanwhile, the print editions of newspapers across the country are disappearing. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette now prints just three days a week. Many other papers have quit printing Saturday editions. In Cleveland, the Plain-Dealer no longer has home delivery on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. The New Orleans Times-Picayune in effect disappeared as the family-owned Baton Rouge Advocate moved into town….

The Reynolds administration — which can be careless of the law, oblivious of the law or disdainful of the law when it comes to filling government vacancies — is at it again.

In June, the governor named Beth Skinner to head the Department of Corrections. The selection apparently was made from a list of names submitted to the Governor by three members of the Board of Corrections.

The three members of the seven-person board apparently did this on their own. If they did it on their own, that violates the law. If they did it as a board, that also violates the law. If they did it as a subcommittee, that also violates the law.

There is simply no way this appointment was done legally.

There are seven members of the Board of Corrections, and among the duties assigned to them by the Iowa Code (Section 904.105) is to “recommend to the governor the names of individuals qualified for the position of director when a vacancy exists in the office.” To do that, of course, the board would actually have to meet. And to meet and make a decision, the board would need a quorum. And a quorum on a seven-member board is four. Not three.

No quorum. No official meeting. No lawful list of candidates.

Marty Ryan, the (former) longtime legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, looked into this. He filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, a watchdog with neither bark nor bite. The Public Information Board was told by the Board of Corrections lawyer that the board did not meet to select the candidates and that the three members prepared the list.

Ryan said the process invalidates the appointment.

The Public Information Board responded that the complaint doesn’t come under its jurisdiction. Jurisdiction of the Public Information Board “is limited to matters arising” under the Open Meetings and Open Records Law, the board’s executive director ruled, and since no meeting was held, “the validity of the appointment…is beyond IPIB jurisdiction.”

That’s nuts.

“Iowa’s public meetings law clearly states that ambiguity in the law should be resolved in favor of openness,” says Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “It would be very unfortunate if the Public Information Board shrugs off legitimate concerns raised by Marty Ryan.”

Ryan has asked the board to investigate further and to turn down the dismissal order from executive director Margaret Johnson. “An investigation (by the Public Information Board), if one was truly conducted, was not thorough enough….There is no evidence…of facts such as who called the gathering and discussion of a minority, who led the gathering and other questions of fact. How can anyone determine that a meeting did occur, or did not occur?”

Meantime, Skinner has taken office, just as Jacob Besler sits on the district court bench even though his appointment seems to have been made after the deadline for the appointment had expired. Just as the nine-member Board of Regents has only one Democrat on it, with the Governor being able to skirt the rule that no party can have more than half-plus-one members on a board by appointing three independents along with five Republicans. …

The number of women being booked into Polk County Jail has been steadily rising for the past 10 years. The number of men being booked has held about even.

The main reason: Drugs.

Ten years ago, 3,770 females were booked into the Polk County jail, according to figures provided by the office of Sheriff Kevin Schneider. Last year, the number was 4,572 — an increase of 21 percent. Ten years ago, 14,198 males were booked. Last year, the number was 14,088 — a decrease of just under one percent.

Women now account for 25 percent of the inmates at the jail, up from 21 percent 10 years ago. The biggest increase has come in bookings for drug offenses — from 437 bookings of women in 2009 to 738 in 2018. (In 2017, there were 780.) So-called property offenses — including burglary, car theft, vandalism, shoplifting, theft and the like — also have jumped. In 2009, 764 women were booked into the jail for property crimes; last year, the number was 1,186.

“The illicit use of drugs, whether methamphetamine, crack, opioids, etc., often prompts the user to commit property crimes to finance their addiction,” Des Moines police spokesman Paul Parizek says.

“Assaults are often part of the erratic behavior that comes with the mind-altering effects of drug use,” he adds. And, indeed, the number of women jailed for non-domestic assault has more than doubled in the decade, to 268 last year from 118 in 2009.

The average age of the women being booked this year is 33.7 years, up from 31.6 years in 2009. The average age of males being booked has climbed to 34.9 from 32.5 years old. …

Lawyers for J.B. Conlin have moved to dismiss the criminal charges filed against him in the bizarre case where he was arrested for entering an empty courtroom in the Polk County Courthouse with air-monitoring equipment. His mother, lawyer Roxanne Conlin, had fallen ill with breathing difficulties while representing Chris Godfrey in that courtroom in his years-long discrimination and retaliation case against former Gov. Terry Branstad, and J.B. Conlin apparently was trying to prove that the air was indeed bad.

Sheriff’s deputies stopped him, and when he refused to leave he was charged with “interference with official acts.” But J.B. Conlin’s lawyer, Monty Brown, says there is “no rule, regulation or ordinance” barring a person from entering an empty courtroom during business hours, so, he argues in his motion to dismiss, there was no crime.

Meantime, motions keep flying in the Godfrey case following the jury’s unanimous verdict awarding him $1.5 million in damages and following Roxanne Conlin’s request for $4.1 million in fees, which the state opposes. Judge Brad McCall has set a hearing on the fee request for Oct. 16. If the jury verdict is not appealed or is upheld, the state will be responsible for Conlin’s fees as well as those of the state’s lawyers, at first George LaMarca and then Frank Harty. So far, those fees total $1,919,162.30, though bills for the trial itself and post-trial activities have not yet reached the Executive Council, which approves such costs. …

UPDATE: The Executive Council has approved another $488,545.40 in billings from the Nyemaster Law Firm for representing Gov. Terry Branstad and the state in the Godfrey case. What’s more, the firm has submitted requests for another $363,529.08. The LaMarca firm, long out of the case but still cleaning up its books, has asked for another $108.  When all those are approved, total billing from the Governor’s lawyers in the case will stand at $2,771,344.78 — that’s taxpayer dollars — by Cityview’s reckoning. The seven-year-old case ended with a $1.5 million jury verdict for Chris Godfrey, who had accused the former governor and his staff of discrimination and retaliation in its attempts to force him out of his job as Iowa Workers Compensation director. If the verdict holds, taxpayers will also be responsible for the fees of his lawyer, Roxanne Conlin, who is asking for more than $4 million. If the verdict is appealed, bills from both sets of lawyers will jump….

Real estate note: Tim Urban — businessman, former Des Moines city council member, real-estate developer — and his wife, Toni, last month purchased a top-floor unit at the Park Fleur apartments for $1.1 million, according to records in the county assessor’s office. That’s among the highest-priced condos ever sold in the city. The 2,855-square-foot, two-bedroom and two-and-a-half bath apartment comes with three indoor parking spaces.

Toni Urban is a businesswoman and former chair of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

The Urbans bought the apartment from the Delores Kalainov revocable trust; Lori Kalainov is the widow of Sam Kalainov, a longtime Des Moines insurance executive.

The unit is assessed at $742,500. ♦

The complicated lives of John and Katherine Sears

It has been an interesting couple of years at the household of Des Moines criminal-defense lawyers John and Katherine Sears.

John lost his law license for at least two years, Katherine filed a potential class-action lawsuit against the brothel in Nevada where she was working part-time, John pleaded guilty of assaulting his ex-wife, Kelsey Sears, and John and Katherine sued Kelsey for the return of a crockpot and two vibrators. Meantime, Katherine has kept busy tweeting under the nom-de-prostituee Morrigan Eris.

John Sears has had a lot of woe since he was admitted to the Iowa bar two years ago. In February of last year, he was arrested for drunk driving after police saw him pushing his damaged Ford Focus along the highway. The Iowa Supreme Court, in its disciplinary order, quoted the police report saying that “he did not understand where he was or where the accident took place” and noted that officers found an open bottle of vodka in his car. He blew 0.181 on the breath test — 0.08 is enough to get you convicted — and he was then arrested. In June, he pleaded guilty of first offense of OWI.

The Searses were kind of occupied at the time, and John didn’t follow the terms of his probation. Then, in October, Kelsey Sears called the West Des Moines police and said John was trying to break in to her apartment. It got mean, and a court document says John grabbed Kelsey’s hair and threw her down, slamming her head to the ground four or five times. Also there was a gun involved somehow. While this was going on, John texted Katherine saying, “Ive assaulted her” and “I’m drunk as fuck,” which probably didn’t help his case any.

A few days later, John, who is 27, pleaded guilty to a charge of domestic abuse assault causing bodily injury and was sentenced to a year of probation, again, and was barred from contacting Kelsey until 2023. All this came to the attention of the Iowa Attorney Disciplinary Board, which said he violated the Rule of Professional Conduct for lawyers by getting that OWI and the assault charge. The board also said he violated that no-contact order six times. Last month, the Iowa Supreme Court suspended him from practicing law indefinitely with no possibility of reinstatement for two years, twice the penalty recommended by the disciplinary board.

The whole thing with Kelsey Sears is kind of complicated. After four years of marriage, John and Kelsey divorced in May of last year, but they “remained intimate,” the Supreme Court noted in the disciplinary order. As the assault charge implies, the friendship frazzled. Then, on Dec. 31 of last year, John and Katherine — classmates in the Drake Law School class of 2017 — sued Kelsey in small-claims court seeking return of a laptop, a webcam, a wedding band, a card collection and a “Bad Dragon Dildos – ‘Davis’ — medium firmness, medium [with as the Supreme Court edict noted, additional “shocking detail”]” as well as “Bad Dragon Dildos – ‘Echo’ — soft, extra large.” And a crockpot.

The case apparently was settled out of court and was dismissed on June 10 at the request of John and Katherine Sears.

Meantime, Katherine, who is 30, wasn’t shy about her part-time work as a prostitute at Sheri’s Ranch, a legal brothel in Pahrump, Nevada. In September, she gave an interview on her sideline job to Channel 8, which added some spicy photos of her with the warning that “some of the topics and photos may not be appropriate for all viewers.” In the interview, her husband — who was shown on camera along with their 4-month-old son — was asked what he thought of her job as a legal prostitute. “I don’t really care that much,” he said.

Among other things, she said that she earned $55,000 for one three-week stint at the ranch. But what she didn’t say is that in March of this year she and another prostitute sued the ranch in federal district court in Nevada, claiming that they were paid less than the minimum wage, that they were not paid overtime, and that the ranch illegally kept half of the tips given to the prostitutes.

The suit says Sears was employed “as a courtesan” from July 25, 2016, to September of 2018. The Nevada minimum wage is $8.15 an hour and the federal rate is $7.25 an hour, but if a “courtesan” worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for three weeks, that’s 504 hours. At $55,000, that works out to $109.12 an hour.

Asked by CITYVIEW in an email how that jibed with the below-minimum wage allegation — and what fees she charged, what was the average tip she got and how many customers she would see in a three-week period to get that $55,000 — she replied: “Dude, seriously? I don’t know you; this is not how to approach people with questions.”

She referred that and other questions about the lawsuit to her lawyers in New Jersey, who replied, “No comment from us.”

The brothel has moved for summary judgment, saying that Sears and the other part-time prostitutes are “independent contractors” and not subject to the wage laws. It also denied that the brothel was engaged in interstate commerce and was thus exempt from certain laws. No trial date has been set.

Katherine Sears, meantime, continues to tweet and offer pornographic videos of herself (from $12 to $225) under the name Morrigan Eris. Example: “Best-friend-for-hire. Compensated emotional wellness companion, relationship-skills educator, temporarily retired prostitute, occasional attorney.”

Asked by CITYVIEW why she didn’t use her real name, she responded: “Are you asking why sex workers have stage names? Really?” ♦

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