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Lawmakers propose restitution legislation

Convicted of theft and misconduct in office, Larry Lokken and Kay Onarheim were ordered to pay $681,847 in restitution to their former employer, Eau Claire County.

Onarheim, who worked in the county treasurer’s office for 34 years, agreed to sign over half her monthly retirement benefits to make restitution. Lokken, the county’s elected treasurer for 38 years, did not.

“That just didn’t make sense to us,” said Mark Beckfield, one of two Eau Claire Count supervisors to propose a resolution last year requesting a change in state law that would allow state and local governments to access Wisconsin Retirement System accounts of public employees convicted of stealing money from state or local government employers. The other was Steve Chilson.

In response to that resolution, which was approved 21-1, state Rep. Warren Petryk, R Pleasant Valley, and state Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, Monday announced legislation to change the law.

Their proposal, according to Petryk, would allow a judge to order the Wisconsin Retirement System to withhold up to 25 percent for restitution if all of the following conditions are met:

• The crime for which the restitution is ordered is both theft and misconduct in public office.

• The crime resulted in a loss to the defendant’s employer and the defendant’s employer participates in the Wisconsin Retirement System.

• The crime is a felony.

“What this bill will do is … create a tool for judges to be able to bring fiscal restorative justice for the … taxpayers of Wisconsin,” Petryk said.

“It’s an exciting step for us, and we’re happy that it’s moving forward,” Chilson said.

The proposed legislation was modeled on best practices from 25 other states that have laws allowing for court-ordered restitution from a state pension for cases of theft and misconduct in office.

“This unfortunately is not a new issue,” Bernier said. “(It’s happened in Eau Claire County,) it’s happened in Barron County, and it’s happened in other municipalities.”

While she is hoping the change in law will deter others from similar crimes, the measure will create an opportunity for communities to recoup some of their losses if it becomes law, Bernier said.

The lawmakers will seek co-sponsors in the coming week, Petryk said.

State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, hasn’t seen the bill yet, but he said he supports its concept.

“We need stronger protections in place to protect taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars and to deter future individuals from committing embezzlement,” Smith said in a statement.

State Reps. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, and Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, attended the news conference as did Eau Claire County Board Chairman Nick Smiar, Beckfield and Chilson.

“It’s about time we get some … common-sense laws that will protect the taxpayers,” Beckfield said.

Lokken and Onarheim were convicted in 2016 of stealing $625,758 from Eau Claire County between 2011 and 2013. Further investigation by the Eau Claire Police Department indicated an additional $762,579 was stolen between 2001 and 2010.

Eau Claire County Judge Jon Theisen sentenced Lokken to 9½ years in prison and 11 years of extended supervision for five felony counts of theft and three felony counts of misconduct in office for his role in the theft.

Less than two months later, Theisen sentenced Onarheim to eight years in prison followed by nine years of extended supervision.

The judge also ordered them to pay restitution in full by July 2020 to avoid serving an additional five years each in prison. Payments could be made in any amount by both parties.

As of early March, Lokken and Onarheim have paid almost $70,000 in court-ordered restitution, with $37,357.53 going to Eau Claire County and $32,494.62 going to the Massachusetts Bay Insurance Co., according to the state Department of Corrections.

In late 2016, Eau Claire County agreed to a $1 million settlement with its insurance company. Beginning Jan. 1, 2017, any restitution paid by either defendant was to go to the insurance company.

“It didn’t seem to make any sense that a theft of this magnitude could go on and really there (wasn’t) anything to right the wrong in terms of what was done to taxpayers,” Chilson said.

Chippewa Falls
Industrial hemp to be grown on test field in Chippewa Falls

CHIPPEWA FALLS — Industrial hemp will be grown in Chippewa Falls this year as part of a statewide project with the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Division of Extension.

Jerry Clark, Chippewa County UW-Extension agriculture agent, said he’s excited to take part in the project, where three to five varieties of industrial hemp will be grown on a parcel on county-owned farmland in the northeast corner of the city. It will probably be one or two acres total.

“Any time you can be part of a new crop, we’re going to try it,” Clark said. “We’re excited to see how this crop grows.”

The Chippewa County site is among four trial field sites across the state. Another trial site is on a private field in Buffalo County.

“Much of the research will be done at the Arlington research station, which is about 15 miles north of Madison,” he said.

Clark said he anticipates the hemp will be planted in late May.

“It’s an annual crop, so it should be ready for harvest in late August or September,” Clark said. “We’ll be doing some basic agronomy measurements. We’ll take data on yield and on some of the treatments, and if there are any diseases.”

Last year, the Legislature approved a measure that made it legal to grow industrial hemp, and about 200 Wisconsin farmers tried growing it. While it was legal to grow it, Clark isn’t aware of any local farmer who attempted it.

“We used to grow it here,” Clark said. “We’re optimistic we should be able to grow it without much trouble.”

Among the work the researchers will do is to determine the best soil and conditions for the plant.

“It doesn’t like to sit in water,” Clark said. “It likes lighter, sandier soils, but it should grow in heavier soils.”

Rodrigo Werle, a UW-Madison assistant professor and agriculture extension specialist, said there are three potential markets for industrial hemp: oil, grains and fiber.

“It’s really exciting times,” Werle said. “There is a lot of interest in this potential miracle crop. Everything is happening really quickly.”

Werle said the studies done on the four test fields will evaluate if hemp can become a regular rotation crop on farms across the state.

“There hasn’t been any research in Wisconsin since the 1960s,” Werle said. “So, it’s really exciting, but we’re telling people to be patient. This research is expensive.”

The state law requires that any industrial hemp must remain below 0.3 percent of THC level, and Werle said that is one of the challenges, making sure whatever is grown doesn’t contain too much THC potency.

Clark stressed that a 0.3 percent THC level is far below what is seen in marijuana.

“These varieties, while in the same species, it is a different family than marijuana,” Clark said.

Clark said there isn’t a market for the grain at this time, and in all likelihood, the plant will be tilled under at the end of the summer.

Buffalo County agricultural agent Carl Duley said the test field there also will be just 1 to 2 acres. While the field in Chippewa Falls will focus on hemp varieties that should create quality oil byproducts, the hemp planted in Buffalo County will be targeted for quality fibers and grains, Duley said. Duley said he’s excited to be part of the new project, but he’s frustrated right now as they have run into problems obtaining the seeds.

Wisconsin was once a leading producer of industrial hemp, primarily for rope production, until it was prohibited in 1938, a news release states. The Legislature reclassified industrial hemp from a narcotic to a commodity crop in December, making it legal to grow at both the state and federal level.

US measles cases top 700, with many illnesses among kids

NEW YORK (AP) — Quarantines in California. Fines in New York City. Orders for some people to avoid public places in Rockland County, N.Y.

As an outbreak of measles surges across the United States — with 704 cases this year and counting — some local health officials are trying to deal with contagion in unvaccinated communities by turning to extraordinary police powers from the past.

“Unfortunately, we are revisiting diseases from another generation,” said Jason Schwartz, an assistant professor of health policy at the Yale School of Public Health.

“And now we are revisiting public health responses from another generation” in instances where vaccination programs have fallen short, he said.

Not long ago, measles was thought to be a problem that was mostly solved. The once-common disease became increasingly rare after a vaccine became available in the 1960s. In 2000, health officials declared the disease eliminated in the U.S., meaning that all new cases stemmed from infected travelers and not from homegrown transmission.

A decade ago, the cases numbered fewer than 100 a year. But they have been jumping since then, with the worst happening right now.

On Monday, U.S. health officials said the national tally already has eclipsed the total for any full year since 1994, when 963 cases were reported.

Twenty-two states have reported cases, but the vast majority have been in New York — mainly in New York City and in nearby Rockland County. Most of the New York cases have been unvaccinated people in Orthodox Jewish communities.

Three-quarters of those who caught the extremely contagious disease are children or teenagers.

No deaths have been reported this year, but 66 patients were hospitalized.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this year’s count includes 44 people who caught the disease while traveling in another country. Some of them triggered U.S. outbreaks, mostly among unvaccinated people. That includes the largest outbreaks in New York.

Measles in most people causes fever, a runny nose, cough and a rash all over the body. A very small fraction of those infected can suffer complications such as pneumonia and a dangerous swelling of the brain. According to the CDC, for every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it.

Worrisome signs

The return of measles may be an early warning sign of a resurgences of other vaccine-preventable diseases such as rubella, chickenpox and bacterial meningitis, some experts say.

In recent decades, health officials have relied on doctors to prod families to vaccinate their children against measles and other diseases. That push has been bolstered by requirements in every state that children be vaccinated to attend public schools.

But as vaccination rates have fallen in some communities and cases exploded, officials recently have taken more dramatic steps. In Rockland County, officials last month banned all unvaccinated children from indoor public places.

In New York City this month, officials ordered mandatory vaccinations in four Brooklyn ZIP codes, threatening possible fines of up to $1,000 for noncompliance. City officials said 57 unvaccinated people have received summonses. The city also has shut down seven religious schools that failed to exclude unvaccinated children, though five were later allowed to reopen after submitting a corrective plan.

Last week in California, more than 1,000 students and staff at two Los Angeles universities were quarantined on campus or sent home after cases began to appear. It was a limited order, and half already are out of quarantine, officials said Monday.

Dr. Umair Shah, the head of Houston’s county health department, said “we don’t know” if these kinds of measures will become more common.

Health officials have had such measures available and have been prepared to use them in case of unusual and even exotic outbreaks — like a new flu pandemic or Ebola — “but here we are implementing them for measles,” he said.

It’s been more than 25 years since those kinds of measures were taken against measles, Schwartz said. The last similar instance occurred during a bad outbreak in Philadelphia in the early 1990s, when the city recorded more than 900 cases, most of them members of two fundamentalist church groups that did not accept vaccination or other kinds of modern medical care.

The use of quarantines and other orders are driven in part by a growing concern that outbreaks of measles and other diseases could get worse, despite the availability of effective vaccines, some health experts said.

“I think there’s a sense of anxiety and even a little panic in the public health community” as officials see high levels of mistrust of government and science from a surprising number of people, said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University public health law expert.

Responses criticized

That anxiety has led to what Gostin believes are missteps by officials.

It’s one thing to isolate someone with measles or to quarantine someone who has been exposed, he said. Those people are infection risks, and short-term limitations of where they can go and who they can meet are legally and medically appropriate, Gostin said.

But it’s another thing to take the kind of step Rockland County initially did, in which unvaccinated kids were placed under house arrest — not because they were infection risks, but because their parents weren’t listening to public health officials, he said.

“That’s overly punitive,” he said.

Indeed, a judge struck down the initial emergency order.

One community had success without taking such measures. Officials in Vancouver, Washington, declared an end Monday to a measles outbreak that began in January but apparently stopped at 71 cases a month ago. It was a much smaller community than New York City or Los Angeles and was tamed by an intense investigation and vaccination campaign that involved 230 health workers tracking down infected people and those they had contact with, at a cost of about $865,000.

Meanwhile, there is a new wave of efforts in state legislatures to end philosophical and religious exemptions to vaccination requirements in schools.

Ed Day, a Republican who is the top elected official in Rockland County, on Monday joined Democratic state lawmakers to urge quick passage of a measure to eliminate religious exemptions for required vaccinations.

“This bill would be a godsend,” Day said at a news conference in Albany. “To wait is a recipe for medical disaster.”