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Statewide referendum sought on campaign spending; Capitol singers' defiance rewarded with citations; 11 more state briefs

It’s been three-and-a-half years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to allow corporations and unions to spend money on political campaigns. Now, a Democratic lawmaker from Madison and a coalition of groups are pushing for a statewide referendum to let voters say what they think about the aftermath of the Citizens United ruling.

Assembly Democrat Chris Taylor told reporters Thursday she’ll introduce a bill for an advisory referendum on the question of whether they support corporations spending unlimited amounts on campaigns.

Supporters of the Citizens United ruling say it’s a victory for free speech. Opponents say it has put way too much special interest money in politics.

Lisa Subek of United Wisconsin said total spending for state-and-federal offices totaled almost $400 million in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles – over three times what it was before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

Taylor said it would be hard to get the Republican-controlled Legislature to approve a referendum. She said opponents of the ruling would go door-to-door to make their case and “It’s impossible for legislators to ignore this.”

Sixteen other states have approved similar referenda, along with over a dozen Wisconsin communities.

The Citizens United ruling struck down part of the landmark campaign reform law co-sponsored by former U.S. Senate Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Senate Republican John McCain of Arizona.

Long-term acid rain study ending Monday

RHINELANDER -- A 30-year study ends Monday on how Wisconsin lakes are affected by acid rain – the rain-drops contaminated by chemical emissions on their way down.

Since 1984, the state DNR has had a 250-foot plastic barrier dividing Little Rock Lake in Vilas County. It will be removed on Monday. The barrier has allowed scientists to make side-by-side comparisons of waters under different conditions and treatments.

DNR research scientist Carl Watras says the results provided the first proof that acid rain caused environmental damage – and it resulted in Congress approving limits on the sulfur dioxide emissions which contribute to acid rain.

Little Rock Lake was also the first place where scientists showed how mercury accumulated in the fish population. Watras says the barrier on the lake is no longer needed.

He says the lake will be restored to its natural condition, and scientists will keep seeing how atmospheric changes affect the water quality.

-- Natalie Jabonski, WXPR, Rhinelander

No new listeria cases have surfaced since cheese recall

Federal health officials say no new listeria cases have been reported from three award-winning Wisconsin cheeses since they were recalled on July 3rd.

One person in Minnesota died, a pregnant woman had a miscarriage, and three others were hospitalized after eating contaminated cheese made by Crave Brothers of Waterloo.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control say more illnesses are possible, especially from those who didn’t hear about the recall and left the products in their refrigerators.

However, CDC entomologist Rajal Mody says it’s likely that the outbreak will be over if there are no new cases within four weeks after the recalls. Mody says it’s “really encouraging” that there have been no new listeria cases this month.

The earlier cases were from Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. No cases were reported in Wisconsin. It still isn't known how or why the cheeses were contaminated. Crave recalled its Les Freres, Petit Frere, and Petit Frere with Truffles made on- or before July 1st.

All three have won awards from the American Cheese Society.

Two dozen more citations issued defiant singers at Capitol

MADISON -- State Capitol Police issued 26 more citations Thursday as protesters kept singing while the arrests were being made.

Three people were arrested on other charges – one for disorderly conduct, one for resisting arrest, and one for both. The others got $200 tickets for violating the Walker administration’s order to get permits for organized Capitol protests and other events.

The permits were originally required for groups of three or more.

Federal Judge William Conley recently increased the minimum to 20 while upholding other parts of the permit requirement.

Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the Solidarity Singers were the only group who has not applied for a permit – and the real question to ask is why. Many cited their First Amendment rights to dissent.

Senate Democrat Tim Cullen of Janesville called the police actions “thug tactics” – and the only real effect is to attract more protestors the next day.

Egg firm damaged by fire levied $150,000 fine by OSHA

BURLINGTON -- The egg processing company that lost most of its Burlington plant in a January fire has been fined $150,000 for unrelated federal safety violations.

Echo Lake Foods was fined by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration for not properly training employees on the hazards of ammonia. The ammonia is used in refrigeration systems in Echo Lake’s factories in Burlington and Franksville.

The fines were based on government inspections just days before the Jan. 30th fire that destroyed about 75 percent of Echo Lake’s Burlington plant, causing $40 million in damage.

The inspections turned up 27 safety management violations at the two Racine County plants.

Both the company and OSHA say the violations are not related to the fire or its aftermath.

Echo Lake general manager Jerry Warntjes says the company may appeal the fine – and if nothing else, they’ll meet with OSHA in an effort to get the penalty reduced.

The Burlington plant used to process two million eggs a day with 300 workers. About 100 people currently work for the company.

Baseball-sized hail strafe Onalaska Thursday

LA CROSSE -- Parts of Wisconsin were hit with more hail and torrential rains Thursday. Baseball-sized hail fell in Onalaska, just north of La Crosse.

The National Weather Service said a large tree trunk split and fell onto a mini-van in Onalaska. Nearby Stueben had a 1.25 inches of rain. So did Gile in Iron County, where an inch fell in less than a half-hour early Thursday evening. Gile also reported quarter-sized hail. Small hail also came down in Marshfield and Auburndale.

The Weather Service blamed it all on a low-pressure system moving into western Lake Superior.

A cold front was expected to drag eastward through the Upper Midwest Friday, with more rain possible. A dense fog advisory is in effect until noon along Lake Superior in Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland, and Iron counties.

Cloudy skies and below-normal temperatures are expected for the weekend. Highs for Saturday might not reach 60 in parts of northern Wisconsin. The 70’s are not expected to return until Monday.

Program's quest is to find state's oldest 'icebox'

A contest to find Wisconsin’s oldest refrigerator has about a month to go. Hundreds of people have entered the contest by having their old ice-boxes recycled by the state’s Focus-on-Energy program.

The contest began June 1st, and old refrigerators from throughout Wisconsin are piling up at a storage facility in the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin.

Up to 60 have been set aside as candidates for the oldest refrigerator still in use, dating back to the 1930’s and maybe earlier. They’ll be judged in September, and the winner will get $1,000. Everyone who enters gets their old fridge picked up and recycled for free.

Wisconsin utility customers help pay for the Focus-on-Energy program, which encourages folks to use today’s more energy-efficient appliances.

Officials estimate that about 20 percent of Wisconsinites used second refrigerators and many are old energy-wasters. The program’s goal is to recycle 16,000 old fridges. About 11,000 have been retired so far.

Car-cycle crash claims Milwaukee man

MILWAUKEE -- A 32-year-old Milwaukee man has died, after two motorcycles and a car collided in West Allis Thursday evening.

It happened just before 8 p.m.

Police said the man who died lost control of his motorcycle and struck the other bike that was riding with him.

The first cycle then crossed a center line and was hit by an oncoming car. The driver of the second motorcycle, a 38-year-old man, was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. The car driver was not hurt.

Madison woman awaits sentencing in child-torture case

MADISON -- A Madison woman was to be sentenced Friday afternoon for torturing and starving her teenage step-daughter until she was just 68 pounds.

Melinda Drabek-Chritton, 43, struck a plea deal in April. She avoided a trial by pleading no contest to reckless endangerment and mentally harming a child. Those charges carry maximums of 25 years in prison and $50,000 in fines. Four other counts were dropped.

Authorities said the defendant’s step-daughter was locked in a basement and starved for years, until she broke away in February, 2012. She was 15 at the time.

In March, a Dane County jury convicted her husband Chad Chritton on two counts of child neglect. A mistrial was declared on for other charges, after the jury could not reach unanimous verdicts. Chritton will be re-tried on those counts starting Feb. 12th.

Also, the girl’s step-brother is scheduled to go on trial early next year on charges that he repeatedly molested her.

Clam Lake elk herd thriving, DNR reports

It’s been a great summer for the elk herd in northwest Wisconsin. The state DNR said about three dozen calves have been born.

Female babies out-numbered the males for the first time since elk were reintroduced to the Clam Lake area in 1995.

Biologist Laine Stowell tells Wisconsin Public Radio that the calves are doing well in spite of lower birth weights. That’s probably because the mother elk has lots of food available. Also, Stowell says none of the elk calves have been killed by bears this summer.

Normally, the death rate is as high as 25 percent, but Stowell believes the bear hunting season has helped the elk herd avoid being attacked. Wolves can also attack elk.

Stowell says they’re normally the most dangerous from January to the middle of May.

Convicted shooter claims he was shortchanged by police, counsel

MILWAUKEE -- John Spooner now says his attorney shortchanged him, and Milwaukee Police did not do their jobs in investigating the murder of his neighbor for which he was sent to prison for life.

The 76-year-old Spooner wrote a handwritten note to a Journal Sentinel reporter last week, when a jury found he was sane when he killed 13-year-old Darius Simmons in May of last year.

Spooner testified he handed out justice when he killed Simmons, after accusing the teen of stealing four of his guns in a burglary.

In his letter, Spooner called the justice system “a scam,” and he took matters into his own hands after police failed to identify three teens shown on his surveillance camera at the side of his house on the day of the break-in.

Spooner also complained that his attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, did not instruct him on his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. His letter also asked if police and judges can be sued, and he asked why Gimbel called no witnesses to vouch for Spooner’s character.

Gimbel said he represented Spooner properly. He tells the paper “I think that Mr. Spooner had the view that he was a victim of everybody and anything … and that’s about as much as I can say.”

Former Osseo woman facing charges in child's death

Police in west central Wisconsin expect charges next week against a 22-year-old woman for the death of her boyfriend’s young daughter.

Amanda Butts was arrested Thursday, about a month after 22-month-old Alexis Behlke. Osseo Police said Butts as caring for the toddler when she stopped breathing. She was taken to a hospital where she died.

Butts used to live in Osseo, and was arrested at her new home in the Jackson County town of Garfield. Authorities say she faces a possible reckless homicide charge in neighboring Trempealeau County, where the death occurred.

Brewers apologize for leaning on fan, critical of Ryan Braun

MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Brewers have apologized to a fan approached by a security worker, for wearing a T-shirt at Miller Park that called Ryan Braun a “fraud.”

The shirt was patterned after Braun’s uniform – and Karen Eidem changed the first and last letters in Braun’s name to spell “fraud.”

She tells WTMJ TV that she was watching a game the other night when a security worker told her to either to turn the shirt inside out or leave. She turned the shirt inside out.

Eiden said it was meant to be a joke, in the days after Braun was suspended for taking performance-enhancing drugs. She said it bothered her that the team’s security perceived her as doing something wrong just by wearing the shirt.

In a statement, the Brewers apologized and offered her to attend a future game for free. Eidem said she’d accept the offer. The Brewers say they “welcome the opportunity for fans to express their opinions,” and they only object when fans have messages and items which are offensive to other fans.

Steve Dzubay

Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer from 1995-2016. 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.