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The S/V Denis Sullivan is seen near the entry to the Duluth harbor in 2010. The tall ships return today. Duluth News Tribune file photo.

Majority of state's House members oppose NSA surveillance; Senators split on student loan vote; plus 11 more state stories

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Majority of state's House members oppose NSA surveillance; Senators split on student loan vote; plus 11 more state stories
New Richmond Wisconsin 127 South Knowles Avenue 54017

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Six of Wisconsin’s eight U.S. House members voted to end the National Security Agency’s collection of Americans’ phone records and e-mails.

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That effort fell short, when the House voted 217-to-205 Wednesday to spare the massive surveillance project.

Janesville Republican Paul Ryan and La Crosse Democrat Ron Kind were the only Wisconsin members voting to preserve the NSA program. They sided with House Speaker John Boehner, who wanted to preserve what he called “critical intelligence tools that have proven successful in preventing terrorist attacks and keeping America safe.”

Menomonee Falls Republican Jim Sensenbrenner said “the time has come” to stop collections of phone records that go way beyond what he envisioned when he helped write the USA Patriot Act after 9-11.

Liberals, libertarian-conservatives, and tea party lawmakers all say they’ll keep fighting to undo a program they call an unconstitutional intrusion on people’s rights.

Michigan Democrat John Conyers said the slim vote assures that a vigorous debate on the surveillance program will continue. The effort to end the NSA project was an amendment to a defense spending bill for the next fiscal year.

That package was approved 315-to-109. All five Republicans voted to pass the defense budget, and all three of the state’s Democrats voted no.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin was one of 18 senators to vote no Wednesday, when the Senate overwhelmingly approved a compromise on student loan interest rates. Wisconsin's other senator, Republican Ron Johnson, was among the 81 voting yes.

Undergraduate students would have a 3.9 percent interest rate this fall on federally-subsidized Stafford loans. Grad students would borrow at 5.4 percent, and parents at 6.4 percent.

Those rates could go up every year, in line with the economy and the government’s borrowing costs. Democrats were able to get caps ranging from 8.25 percent for undergrads to 10.5 percent percent for parents.

The Congressional Budget Office said it would be 10 years before the rates get that high. Even so, Baldwin told her colleagues it would put the biggest burdens on the students who could least afford it. She said college should be “a path to prosperity … not a path to indebtedness.”

The bill now goes to the House, which approved a student loan bill that links interest to the financial markets. Supporters say there are relatively small differences between the two versions, and they hope House leaders can get those matters worked out quickly so the new interest rates can take effect for this fall’s college classes.

'Solidarity Singers' hit with $200 fines

MADISON -- Twenty-two protestors received 25 citations Wednesday as police began to crack down on the Solidarity Singers who’ve refused to get State Capitol permits for their almost-daily noon-time sing-alongs.

The tickets carry fines of just over $200 and some vowed to challenge them in court.

Liberal Madison radio hosts Dominic Salvia and Mike Crute were among those cited. Media reports some were as old as 85. Another person was cited for disorderly conduct, for spitting on one of the singers.

The Solidarity Singers have sung protest songs ever since the massive Capitol protests in 2011 over the law that virtually ended most public union bargaining. On July 9th, Federal Judge William Conley upheld most of the Walker administration’s permit requirements that were challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union.

He increased the size of groups that don’t need permits from 3 to 20.

Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said Conley’s ruling gave the state permission to crack down.

Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder said most people would welcome it but Democrats condemned it. Senator Bob Jauch of Poplar said Wisconsin is telling the rest of the world that people cannot come to their own State Capitol and express themselves.

Law revision would make 'Do Not Call' easier for consumers

MADISON -- State lawmakers are considering a modified bill to let folks stay on the popular do-not-call list for telemarketers, without having to re-register every two years.

A committee is reviewing a new measure from Assembly Republican Keith Ripp of Lodi. It would merge the state’s no-call list with a national list from the Federal Trade Commission.

The bill had a Senate hearing earlier this year, where consumer officials pointed out administrative problems. The new bill seeks to eliminate those problems. Phone numbers would stay on the list as long as they’re tied to their current customers – and new people would only have to register once. Meanwhile, the state could still enforce its own consumer protection laws.

Ripp says his bill would save about $190,000 now spent to administer the state’s no-call list. He says the money can be used on stricter enforcement for violators.

The previous bill would have also banned automated political campaign ads.

Thompson joins effort to find new ways to cut health care costs

Former Governor Tommy Thompson will help look for ways to control health care costs that both major parties can support.

Thompson has joined the Bipartisan Policy Center, which calls itself the only Washington think tank that actively promotes cooperation between the parties.

The center says the Republican Thompson will work on the health care project along with former U.S. Senate Democrat Tom Daschle and ex-Republican Senators Bill Frist and Pete Domenici.

Thompson says he believes there’s common ground on ways to provide quality health care at affordable costs. Thompson favored a national cost-containment effort when he was George W. Bush’s health secretary.

When he ran for the U.S. Senate last year, Thompson vowed to repeal the Democratic health reform law – much of which takes effect next year. Thompson lost his Senate contest to Democrat Tammy Baldwin.

Legionnaire’s disease continues to surface in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE -- The city has recorded five more cases of Legionnaire’s disease, bringing the total number to 19 since June 1st.

At least three dozen people in southeast Wisconsin are confirmed to have had the legionella bacterium, after inhaling some type of infected mist or water vapor.

The new total raises the number of Wisconsin cases to over 40 for the year.

At first, Milwaukee health officials thought they identified clusters of Legionnaire’s cases – but disease control director Paul Biedrzycki now says the cases involve different strains.

Also, as the number of cases grew, he said geographic connections disappeared – all of which points to multiple sources of the disease. Biedrzycki has still not figured out what those sources are. He says the most likely explanation is that water for cooling towers became infected, while the owners of large buildings waited longer than usual to use those towers for their air conditioning. The late start to summer has reduced the demand for A-C this year, compared to the extremely hot summer of 2012.

Harley-Davidson posts 10 percent YOY gain

MILWAUKEE -- Wisconsin’s Harley-Davidson reports a 10 percent increase in its quarterly profits from a year ago.

The company says more riders are buying new Harleys – and it resulted in a profit of $272 million or $1.21 per share, for April through June.

Investors earned 14 cents more per share. Harley dealers sold just over 90,000 new bikes in the second quarter of this year, up from almost 86,000 thousand at the same time the previous year.

As a result, Harley’s world-wide revenues totaled just under $1.8 billion – about $60 million more than the previous year.

Harley CEO Keith Wandell said the company has added 104 new dealerships outside the U.S. since late 2009 – and its goal is to add up to 150 foreign dealers by the end of 2014.

Harley-Davidson is based in Milwaukee, with a northern Wisconsin plant in Tomahawk.

Waukesha County man accused of threatening church youth group

A Waukesha County man accused of threatening a church youth group in northern Wisconsin is due back in court Aug.15th for pre-trial matters.

Jesse Rutherford, 28, of Big Bend has waived the state’s time limit for a preliminary hearing. He faces eight criminal charges in Price County, after he allegedly approached a group of young people with a gun, told them to get on their knees, and help get his truck out of a nearby ditch.

The incident occurred May 18th while the group was camping in a yard south of Phillips.

Rutherford has asked Circuit Judge Patrick Fox not to let a jury hear statements he made to police, and the results of a search of his vehicle. He’s free after posting a $5,000 cash bond.

Rutherford’s charges include three felonies of false imprisonment, reckless endangerment, and narcotics possession. The misdemeanors are for operating a gun while intoxicated, third-time drunk driving, possession of drug paraphernalia, driving with a revoked license, and disorderly conduct. Rutherford was also given traffic tickets for not taking a sobriety test after his arrest, and violating a license restriction.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Testimony continues in camera store trial

LA CROSSE -- Testimony was to continue Thursday in the trial of Jeffrey Lepsch, the man accused of killing two people in a camera store and stealing their equipment so he could pay off an old debt.

Paul Petras, 56, and his 19-year-old son A-J were shot to death last September at May’s Photo in downtown La Crosse, which Petras owned. Over $17,000 in camera equipment was stolen.

Sherri Petras, the victims’ mother, testified that she failed repeatedly to reach the two men by phone – so she went to the store and found A.J. dead.

Dane County medical examiner Vincent Tranchida said Paul Petras was shot at close range, and his son at least three feet away. Prosecutors also called five other witnesses who saw people in the store as it was about to close for the day.

In opening arguments Wednesday, prosecution said surveillance video caught Lepsch’s van at the crime scene – and he left a palm print in the store.

Defense lawyer Vincent Rust said the state relied on bad science. He also claimed that Lepsch was not at the photo store that day, and he said Lepsch may be a thief but not a killer.

Court records show that he owed $60,000 in judgments from a theft case a decade earlier.

The trial is scheduled to continue until Aug. 2nd.

Woman pleads guilty to providing the heroin that killed Trempealeau County man

A La Crosse woman has pleaded guilty to providing the heroin that killed a man in Trempealeau County.

Tasha Kempfer, 27, is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 8th after being convicted Wednesday of first-degree reckless homicide.

Jeremiah Harris, 32, died in July of 2011 outside the Trempealeau fire station, where paramedics tried to revive him.

Authorities said Kempfer, her mother, and Harris all went to Madison where Kempfer bought the heroin that Harris died from. Kempfer is also charged in La Crosse County, where innocent pleas have been entered to a pair of felony counts of selling heroin to police informants.

The status of that case will be reviewed at a hearing next Tuesday. Kempfer’s mother, 45-year-old Michelle Johnson, is on five years of probation after she pleaded guilty to conspiring to deliver heroin.

Stretch of Great River Road reopened after flood repairs

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN -- A 15-mile stretch of Highway 35 is open again in Crawford County, after being closed for a month due to flood damage.

Heavy rains in late June caused mudslides on a number of roads in southwest Wisconsin.

The Great River Road between Lynxville and Prairie du Chien was among the most heavily damaged.

Retired probation officer allegedly stole from criminals

A retired state probation officer from Grant County is due in court Monday, after being charged with 67 criminal counts for stealing money from criminals she supervised.

Sherry Buswell, 56, of Rewey is accused of taking over $4,000 from 21 victims last summer. The charges are for theft and misconduct. Twenty-one of the 67 counts are felonies.

Officials said a co-worker found inconsistencies when reviewing Buswell’s cases – and offenders later began questioning the amounts of supervision fees they owed.

WISC TV in Madison said a special prosecutor from Richland County was assigned to the case, and found no more inconsistencies than what the original probe turned up. The station said a motive has not been disclosed, and the judge in the case might have to withdraw to avoid a conflict-of-interest.

Buswell was put on administrative leave when the inconsistencies first came to light. She retired in January after 16 years at the Lancaster probation and parole office.

Superior woman gets 10 years for prison attack

SUPERIOR -- A woman from Superior has been sentenced to just over 10 years in a federal prison, for attacking a jail inmate who was a government witness in the woman’s drug-trafficking case.

Authorities said Veronique Muckle, 23, violently attacked Angelique Vos last August at the Sherburne County Jail in Minnesota. That was after Vos testified against Lawrence Colton for his role in the same drug-ring in which Muckle participated.

At the time of the attack, Muckle was awaiting placement in a federal prison after being sentenced to almost 4.5 years in the drug case – which was among the largest in Duluth-Superior history.

Over three-dozen people were charged in an operation that reportedly transported heroin and prescription drugs to the Twin Ports area. The arrests netted large amounts of drugs, as well as firearms and around $30,000.

Authorities started investigating in 2010 after they noticed a large increase in the trafficking of the prescription drug Opana in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Big crowds expected for Tall Ships exposition

SUPERIOR -- Duluth-Superior is expecting a quarter-million visitors for a five-day festival of tall ships.

Nine historic ships were expected to pass under the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth around 2 p.m., Thursday, kicking off a festival that runs through Monday.

Terry Mattson of the group “Visit Duluth” says people love hearing the sails ripple, and cannons fired from the boats. Tours of the tall ships begin tomorrow, both on the docks, and on the boats themselves.

Mattson calls it “the greatest spectacle on Lake Superior,” where the sights-and-sounds of history come alive.

The festival has numerous events in an area of downtown Duluth that’s being expanded this year.

-- Minnesota News Network

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Steve Dzubay
Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer since 1995. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as a reporter-photographer at small daily newspapers in Minnesota and is past editor of the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal.
(715) 426-1054
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