Nation roundup for February 16


Man convicted in babysitter’s death

OGDEN, Utah (AP) — It took a Utah jury just two hours to find a man guilty of killing a teenage babysitter and dumping her body in the woods after prosecutors say he gave her a lethal dose of drugs during a night of sex that also included the man’s wife.

Eric Millerberg, 38, faces up to life in prison after being convicted Friday of child abuse homicide, unlawful sexual contact with a minor, obstruction of justice and desecration of a dead body in the 2011 death of 16-year-old Alexis Rasmussen. Sentencing was set for March 18.

During a three-day trial, prosecutors brought detectives, medical examiners, prisoners and Millerberg’s wife, Dea Millerberg, to the stand to show that he recklessly injected Rasmussen with lethal doses of heroin and methamphetamine.

Prosecutors told jurors that Eric Millerberg and his wife then dumped Rasmussen’s body in the woods of northern Utah and lied to police as the girl’s mother desperately searched for her for more than a month. Dea Millerberg, 40, is awaiting her own trial in April on charges of desecration of a body.

VW workers opt not to join union

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — The failure of the United Auto Workers to unionize employees at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee underscores a cultural disconnect between a labor-friendly German company and anti-union sentiment in the South.

The multiyear effort to organize Volkswagen’s only U.S. plant was defeated on a 712-626 vote Friday night amid heavy campaigning.

Workers voting against the union said while they remain open to the creation of a German-style “works council” at the plant, they were unwilling to risk the future of the Volkswagen factory that opened to great fanfare on the site of a former Army ammunition plant in 2011.

“Come on, this is Chattanooga, Tennessee,” said worker Mike Jarvis, who was among the group in the plant that organized to fight the UAW. “It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to us.”

Record harvest for Calif. grapes

MODESTO, Calif. (AP) — California agriculture officials reported good news for wine lovers and vineyard operators alike: a record harvest of wine grapes.

Growers in the nation’s premier wine region brought in a bumper crop last year, thanks to expanded acreage and overall favorable weather.

Wine brokers said two back-to-back years of large harvests will mean wine aficionados should find plenty of bargain bottles on grocery store shelves.

“Consumers are in a great position,” said Erica Moyer of Riverbank, a grape and wine broker in Novato.

Wine grapes are one of California’s top commodities, a crop worth $3.16 billion last year, according to the California Association of Winegrape Growers. The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s preliminary figures show that the crop of red and white varieties combined weighed in at 4.23 million tons in 2013.

, up 5 percent from 4.02 million tons in 2012.

The industry is well positioned to take advantage of the large crops, said Heidi Scheid, chairwoman of the winegrape growers’ association.

“After short crops in 2010 and 2011, growers delivered two remarkable vintages, with record-sized harvests and exceptional quality,” she said.

While Napa County’s vineyards carry international cache, the San Joaquin Valley, stretching for 220 miles from Stockton to Bakersfield, is the U.S.’s most prolific grape-growing region and home to 44 percent of the state’s crop.

Along with raisins and table grapes, vast tracts of wine grapes are mechanically harvested for popular labels such as Gallo’s economy brands and Bronco’s popular Charles Shaw, aka Two Buck Chuck, and blended into higher end wines.

Large growers in the valley are poised to profit from the higher volumes, analysts said.

“We had a good-quality harvest, and heavier than expected,” Fred Franzia, CEO of Bronco, said in an email. Bronco is California’s largest vineyard owner.

Federal guidance on pot business leaves banks wary

SEATTLE (AP) — For marijuana dispensaries around the country, the days of doing business in cash — driving around with bill-stuffed envelopes to pay the rent, or showing up at a state revenue office with $20,000 in paper bags for the tax man — can’t end soon enough.

It’s not clear that the Obama administration’s new guidance on pot-related banking is going to end them.

The Justice and Treasury Departments on Friday issued banks a road map for doing business with marijuana firms. The security-wary pot industry, including recreational shops in Colorado and medical marijuana operators elsewhere, welcomed the long-awaited news, but banking industry groups made clear that the administration’s tone didn’t make them feel much easier about taking pot money.

The banks were hoping the announcement would relieve them of the threat of prosecution should they open accounts for marijuana businesses, Don Childears, president of the Colorado Bankers Association, said in a written statement. It doesn’t.

“After a series of red lights, we expected this guidance to be a yellow one,” Childears said. “At best, this amounts to ‘serve these customers at your own risk’ and it emphasizes all of the risks. This light is red.”

Some dispensaries have managed to open accounts, sometimes by being less than forthcoming about their business, but for the most part banking has long been a headache for the cannabis industry. Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, banks haven’t been able to accept pot business without risking prosecution for money laundering or racketeering.

But 20 states now have medical marijuana laws on the books; two, Washington and Colorado, have legalized marijuana sales to adults; and Alaska voters this summer will consider a similar recreational pot law.

With the industry emerging from the underground, states want to track marijuana sales and collect taxes. It’s a lot easier to do that when the businesses have bank accounts.

It’s easier on the businesses, as well. For Seattle’s Conscious Care Cooperative, a medical marijuana dispensary with three branches and 11,000 members, the guidance “definitely looks exciting,” said Trek Hollnagel, a business consultant there.

The dispensary started operating on a cash basis after bouncing from bank to bank. Hollnagel said Conscious Care was always up front with banks about their business, and some, including Bank of America, would let them open accounts — only to freeze or close them later on.

“From one day to the next they changed their policies,” Hollnagel said. “If all your funds are frozen for two weeks it makes it difficult to run a business. You write a rent check on a Monday, get a call from the bank Tuesday saying the account’s frozen, then a call from your landlord on Wednesday saying the check bounced.”

Instead, Hollnagel or others at the dispensary wound up driving around with $10,000 in a bank envelope to pay their bills. And when they showed up at the state Department of Revenue to pay their taxes, it would take half an hour for an agent to count the money, Hollnagel said.

“Hopefully with these changes we’ll be able to go back to being a real business,” he said.

Maybe, maybe not.

Under the guidance, banks must review state license applications for marijuana customers, request information about the business, develop an understanding of the types of products to be sold and monitor publicly available sources for any negative information about the business.

The guidance provided the banks with more than 20 “red flags” that may indicate a violation of state law. Among them: if a business receives substantially more revenue than its local competitors, deposits more cash than is in line with the amount of marijuana-related revenue it is reporting for federal and state tax purposes, or experiences a surge in activity by third parties offering goods or services such as equipment suppliers or shipping services.

If a marijuana-related business is seen engaging in international or interstate activity, such as the receipt of cash deposits from locations outside the state, that’s problematic, too.

The banks need to file “suspicious activity reports” on their pot customers — designated either “marijuana limited,” for those believed to be complying with the federal government’s law-enforcement priorities, such as keeping pot away from children; “marijuana priority,” for those the banks have questions about; or “marijuana termination,” for those believed to be engaging in criminal activity.

“They’ll have to have a real awareness of the activities of their customers,” said Denny Eliason, a lobbyist for the Washington Bankers Association.

The American Bankers Association said banks will only be comfortable serving marijuana businesses if federal prohibitions on the drug are changed in law.

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., wrote on Twitter that the announcement makes it “significantly safer to regulate and operate the voter-approved legitimate marijuana market in our state,” but agreed the only way to truly solve the problem is to change federal law. He and Colorado Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter have introduced a bill that would allow banks and credit unions to work with marijuana businesses.

“We’re constantly facing the threat that banks will shut us down,” said Todd Mitchem of OpenVape, a Denver company that sells electronic devices to consume marijuana. “It makes it very difficult to do business.”

 

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