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special report
Councilman Ben Gray does a 180. Now electric scooters could return to Omaha

Electric, dockless scooters are back on the table in Omaha.

The City Council next month will reconsider operating agreements with scooter companies Spin and Bird after rejecting those agreements on a 4-3 vote last week. City officials have spent the last several months preparing to launch a second scooter pilot program this year.

Councilman Ben Gray, who had voted against the agreements, requested that they be reconsidered.

During a previous public hearing on the agreements, Gray said he wanted assurances that the scooters would play a role in his district, which covers much of North Omaha. He apparently had planned to vote in favor, but after listening to Council President Chris Jerram outline concerns about the safety and sanitation of scooters and whether businesses find them to be a nuisance, Gray said he changed course.

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“You’ve effectively changed my mind about it,” Gray said last week shortly before voting against the agreements.

He now appears ready to greenlight the pilot program.

“I didn’t want to hold them up any longer,” Gray told WOWT after Tuesday’s meeting. “Especially if they’ve hired staff and made a commitment to making sure the scooters stayed professionally maintained; that they’re cleaned on a regular basis; that they’re not laying all over the place like they were in some districts in the community.”

Gray did not return several messages from The World-Herald on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Supporters of scooters have said they’re an inexpensive method of transportation that offers an alternative to vehicles.

Council members Brinker Harding, Aimee Melton and Pete Festersen previously voted in favor of the operating agreements. If their votes remain unchanged, a yes vote by Gray would give the agreements the majority they need to pass.

Scooters could then hit the streets soon after. The program has been expected to end sometime in November.

Any council member on the majority side of a vote can request that an item be reconsidered. Another council member must then second the motion to add the item to a future agenda.

Gray on Tuesday also requested that the council suspend the rules to vote on the agreements that day, which would have required five votes to pass. His request failed 4-3, with Councilmen Rich Pahls, Vinny Palermo and Jerram voting no.

The council will reconsider the operating agreements at its July 14 meeting. It will not meet June 30 and July 7.

Our best staff images from June 2020

Look back at our best staff photos from June 2020


Split 3-judge panel orders end to Flynn prosecution

Michael Flynn

WASHINGTON (AP) — A divided federal appeals court on Wednesday ordered the dismissal of the criminal case against President Donald Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, turning back efforts by a judge to scrutinize the Justice Department's extraordinary decision to drop the prosecution.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said in a 2-1 ruling that the Justice Department's move to abandon the case against Flynn settles the matter, even though Flynn pleaded guilty as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation to lying to the FBI.

The ruling, a significant win for both Flynn and the Justice Department, appears to cut short what could have been a protracted legal fight over the basis for the government's dismissal of the case. It came as Democrats question whether the Justice Department has become too politicized and Attorney General William Barr too quick to side with the president, particularly as he vocally criticizes, and even undoes, some of the results of the Russia investigation. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday centered on another unusual move by Barr to overrule his own prosecutors and ask for less prison time for another Trump associate, Roger Stone. Barr has accepted an invitation to testify before the panel July 28, a spokeswoman said Wednesday, and he will almost certainly be pressed about theFlynn case.

Trump tweeted just after the ruling became public: "Great! Appeals Court Upholds Justice Departments Request to Drop Criminal Case Against General Michael Flynn."

Later, at the White House, Trump said he was happy for Flynn.

"He was treated horribly by a group of very bad people," Trump said.

Flynn called into conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh's radio show and said the ruling was a "great boost of confidence for the American people in our justice system."

"That's what this really comes down to is whether or not our justice system is going to have the confidence of the American people."

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan had declined to immediately dismiss the case, seeking instead to evaluate on his own the department's request. He appointed a retired federal judge to argue against the Justice Department's position and to consider whether Flynn could be held in criminal contempt for perjury. He had set a July 16 hearing to formally hear the request to dismiss the case.

Judge Neomi Rao, aT rump nominee who was joined by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, wrote that Sullivan had overstepped his bounds by second-guessing the Justice Department's decision.

This case, she said, "is not the unusual case where a more searching inquiry is justified."

"To begin with," she added, "Flynn agrees with the government's motion to dismiss, and there has been no allegation that the motion reflects prosecutorial harassment. Additionally, the government'smotion includes an extensive discussion of newly discovered evidence casting Flynn's guilt into doubt."

In a dissent, Judge Robert Wilkins said it appeared to be the first time his court had compelled a lower court to rule in a particular way without giving the lower court a "reasonable opportunity to issue its own ruling."

The ruling from the threejudge panel means that at least for now Sullivan cannot hold a hearing set for July 16 to formally consider the government's request to dismiss Flynn's case.

Some critics of the Justice Department's dismissal urged the full appeals court to take up the case and reverse the decision of the three-judge panel, as it is empowered to do.

Flynn was the only White House official charged in Mueller's investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Half a dozen other associates of Trump were convicted in the probe.

Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI days after the president's January 2017 inauguration about conversations he had had during the presidential transition period with the Russian ambassador, in which the two men discussed sanctions that had been imposed on Russia by the Obama administration for election interference.

The Justice Department moved to dismiss the case in May as part of a broader effort by Barr to revisit some of the decisions reached during the Russia investigation, which he has increasingly disparaged.

In its motion, the department argued that Flynn's calls with the Russian ambassador were entirely appropriate and not material to the underlying counterintelligence investigation.

Did Ricketts shortchange Nebraska's local governments on COVID aid?

LINCOLN — When Hall County Board member Pamela Lancaster looks around her central Nebraska county, she sees a lot of COVID-19 related costs piling up.

Expenses include the private security guards hired to enforce social-distancing standards at the county courthouse, remodeling an old federal building for temporary use for county court trials, erecting clear-plastic barriers at service counters to protect employees and patrons, and the purchase of hand sanitizer and masks.

So far, she guessed that Hall County had spent upward of $175,000 on materials and manpower to keep the coronavirus at bay in her hard-hit county.

How her county will cover the virus-related costs is a concern, Lancaster said.

The federal government, through its $150 billion CARES Act relief fund, sent Nebraska $1.25 billion in aid to help cover such expenses. But Gov. Pete Ricketts allocated only about one-fourth of the amount suggested by the federal Treasury Department for reimbursing Nebraska counties, cities and public utility districts.

Ricketts set aside $100 million for those local governments; a federal guidance document suggested $425 million.

Lancaster said she wasn’t aware of the wide discrepancy.

“That makes me even more concerned,” she said. “I have great respect for our governor, but I am very concerned if there will be enough money for cities and counties.”

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The situation is even more dire for the City of Omaha, which estimates that it may have $90 million to $100 million in virus-related costs by the end of the year. The bulk of that is to finance the entire budgets for the Police and Fire Departments, which the city maintains — though others disagree — are expenses eligible for CARES Act aid.

Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Ricketts, said the federal guidance on how to allocate the money was just that: guidance.

“The federal government has given states the flexibility to each develop a plan for CARES Act resources that works best for them,” Gage said in an email.

Ricketts laid out his allocations on May 28. The biggest were for stabilizing the state’s unemployment insurance fund ($427 million), grants to struggling small businesses and livestock producers ($392 million) and reimbursing state and local governments for their COVID-19 expenses ($180 million). He later generated controversy when he told counties that they won’t get any CARES Act money if they mandated that members of the public wear face masks in county buildings.

A total of $100 million of the $180 million was set aside for county and city governments, and public utilities, based on estimates of their expenses, Gage said.

Nebraska wasn’t the only state that didn’t follow the federal guidance.

The neighboring states of Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming and Kansas — which also got $1.25 billion in CARES Act money to dole out — all provided less than the $425 million recommended for their local governments. Kansas came the closest, allocating $400 million. Iowa provided $125 million for distribution to local governments.

States were “all over the place” in their allocations, said Lynn Rex of the League of Nebraska Municipalities. Some states, she said, didn’t set aside any money for cities and counties.

She and other city and county officials said that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about local expenses for battling COVID-19, including whether there will be a “second wave” of infections that will require more spending.

Larry Dix of the Nebraska Association of County Officials said costs varied widely among the 93 counties across the state. Some hard-hit counties, with courthouses with narrow hallways or costs for setting up meetings over the Internet, had more health-related expenses than some rural counties that had few COVID-19 cases and had few expenses.

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“Based on information we’re hearing, the amount that’s allocated to counties is probably sufficient to cover our costs,” Dix said.

Omaha, however, is pleading for more money. The state’s largest city is in a unique situation in that it is eligible not only for CARES Act money handed out by the governor, but also part of the $166 million granted to Douglas County to distribute.

So far, Douglas County has said it will allocate $25 million to the City of Omaha, and it appears that Ricketts will match that amount.

That $50 million would still leave Omaha confronting some difficult questions about whether to keep libraries closed and expand layoffs, which have already cost 800 part-timers their jobs, according to Stephen Curtiss, the city finance director.

“If we’re not going to get any federal money, we’re going to have to take some fairly drastic, draconian moves,” Curtiss said.

Curtiss said the “plain English” of federal guidance on the use of CARES Act money in late April stated that cities can “presume” that all costs of police and fire are COVID-19 related and will be covered. So the city plans to submit two requests for CARES Act money, he said, one that reflects the broader, federal guidance, and one that follows the narrower qualifications laid out by the state.

Douglas County has already said it is not going to grant CARES Act money to cover the city’s entire police and fire costs, and the Ricketts administration has adopted the same stance. Later federal guidance says that only expenses that were “substantially dedicated” to mitigating or responding to the coronavirus are eligible.

Rex, of the League of Municipalities, said that it would have been helpful to get the federal guidance earlier about the $425 million, before Ricketts made CARES Act decisions, but that overall, the Governor’s Office has been helpful.

A bigger question for cities and counties, though, is how they will deal with the loss of tax revenue caused by people staying home and not generating sales tax revenue, a major source of money for cities. Lincoln recently reported that sales tax revenue was down 13% in April, and Curtiss said Omaha projects a revenue loss of $98 million this year.

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., has co-sponsored a bill to allow the use of the existing CARES Act money to help the state and local governments offset their revenue losses. There’s also been talk nationally of additional federal aid being sent, though Ricketts is opposed to that.

Rex said that she hopes that the $100 million in CARES Act money set aside for direct expenses for counties and cities in Nebraska will cover those expenses but said it won’t come close to covering the expected loss of tax revenue.

“It’s a work in progress,” she said of covering the costs of local government. “There are more unknowns than knowns.”

Photos: Nebraska's coronavirus helpers

special report
Mayor Stothert calls for investigation into protests that prompted closure of 11-Worth Cafe

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert has launched an investigation into protests that sparked the closure of the 11-Worth Cafe.

Stothert said on Wednesday that she doesn’t want the longtime restaurant to go out of business.

The business shut down after protests on June 13 and 14. The protests were prompted by a Facebook post by the restaurant owner’s son, as well as a menu item named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.


Mayor Stothert said on Wednesday that she doesn’t want the longtime restaurant to go out of business.

The cafe, near 24th and Leavenworth Streets, closed June 15. Days later, the owners released a statement saying that they had received threats and that the noisy protests took a toll.

Tony Caniglia declined to comment when reached by a reporter Wednesday.

Stothert — along with Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse — met with the cafe owners on Tuesday.

“We wanted to make sure we heard their side of the story,” Stothert said.

The investigation will look into any criminal activity, including reports that protesters pounded on restaurant windows and blocked traffic, Stothert said. Those acts could be considered misdemeanors.

Rumors also have swirled about protesters attempting to extort a monetary donation from cafe owners. Stothert said that also will be looked into.

Schmaderer will review video from the cafe as well as body camera video from officers who were at the scene.

There was some confusion as to whether Omaha police responded to the protests, Stothert said. But officers were there both days. Off-duty state troopers were hired by the cafe on June 14, a Sunday, to act as security, she said.

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“The message I wanted to give to them — and I wanted them to hear it from me — is we don’t want them to go out of business. We don’t want them to close,” Stothert said.

In the meeting, the restaurant owner’s son, who is also named Tony, addressed the comments he made on social media. Stothert said that those comments were “not very acceptable” and that the younger Caniglia understood why they caused anger.

The since-deleted Facebook post, made in response to recent protests nationally that had turned violent, said, “Get rid of the rubber bullets and it’s time to go lethal.”

The post also referred to using rioters “as target practice.”

David Mitchell, one of the organizers of the protests, declined to comment on Wednesday.

In a previous interview with The World-Herald, Mitchell said he wasn’t the one asking for a monetary donation. His ultimate goal was to receive a public apology and have the menu item’s name changed.

In a video posted to his Facebook page, Mitchell can be heard off camera mentioning the protesters’ demands. He addresses the desire for a public apology and also a fellow protester’s demand for a donation to the Malcolm X Memorial. At another point, while Mitchell talks with the restaurant representatives, they tell him they were asked for a $500,000 donation.

Stothert said that it’s important to support peaceful protests but that sometimes protesters cross the line.

“We don’t want to let this one incident that was a few hours on a Saturday and Sunday to close a long-standing business that people enjoyed,” Stothert said.

Solidarity rally in Omaha

Photos: Solidarity rally in Omaha