Ballot Access Battles

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Look Who Isn’t Fighting Over Elections: Bloomberg Government

During a political season in which Republicans and Democrats battle over ballot access there’s one state where a GOP-led compromise seeks to both expand voting and tighten security. Read more of our coverage here with my exclusive interview with the Secretary of State behind the plan.

One final search for MIAs

Dennis Thompson, left, of Lakeville, MN, Ralph Stillman, of Deephaven, MN, center, and John Syverson, of Park Rapids, MN listened as WWII veteran Richard L. Carroll talked about being shot while serving in the war. They were sitting in front of photos of what the MIA group calls "MIA graveyards." Photo by Elizabeth Flores.

This story was published on the front of the Minneapolis Star Tribune local section 6/27/2010.

Last month, at age 82, Bryan Moon led one last adventure into the jungle in search of America’s missing soldiers.

Moon has spent the last 20 years wading through New Guinea streams, being chased by warring native tribes and fleeing gunfire from Italian mobsters — all while tracking down crash sites of World War II airmen missing in action.

Moon, through his nonprofit MIA Hunters, led 32 volunteers, including 25 from Minnesota, on a search for crash sites and closure for missing soldiers’ families. The group was the largest such U.S. civilian mission ever.

Using firsthand accounts from villagers and pilots’ families, they said they found 50 possible sites of downed American pilots. That information, turned over to the U.S. government, could help answer questions about what happened to 250 or more lost airmen.

At a press conference on Monday at a Bloomington hotel, Richard Carroll, an 89-year-old WWII veteran who still has a German bullet lodged in his heart, thanked the volunteers for searching for his fellow soldiers. He was shot down and captured in Hungary in 1944 and was considered MIA for six months.

“Every POW was once an MIA,” said a tearful Carroll, who lives in Eagan. “You can’t imagine the feeling that I have today, how to express my thanks to you people.”

A passion for the missing

Moon, a retired Northwest Airlines vice president, found his passion for MIAs through his curiosity about planes.

Moon went to China in 1990 to search for missing WWII bombers. He found three, and one still had human remains inside. That prompted him to research missing WWII soldiers — a staggering 76,000.

“That was the number that blew me away and made me an MIA hunter,” he said.

Since that trip, Moon and his family have spent countless hours researching possible crash sites, organizing trips overseas and searching for missing Americans.

The trips weren’t smooth sailing. In southern Italy, group members were shot at and their plane caught on fire. On another trip through the jungle, scouts led the mission through a warring tribe’s territory. The MIA Hunters had to be airlifted out of a battle.

The crew always made light of the danger and came back for more, said Dona Moon, Moon’s daughter-in-law. On the May trip, guides killed a python and threw it on her as a joke. The joke became dinner.

“I may just start a cooking show called ‘Cooking with Dona’ because I cooked the python,” she said.

Bryan Moon, the Missions Director, held up a handful of military dog tags that the group has recovered throughout their missions. Photo by Elizabeth Flores.

On Monday volunteers chatted while crew cameraman Kyle Gallagher played a DVD compilation of the group’s jungle journey, complete with rocky cliff climbs and nervous volunteers crossing a raging river on a rickety makeshift bridge made of branches.

“No one said it would be easy,” Moon said with a chuckle.

Reaching difficult places

Despite physical obstacles and funding woes, MIA Hunters potentially helped locate hundreds of missing soldiers.

Crews hired locals to find sites where “white people haven’t been before,” Moon said. Then volunteers went places even the government couldn’t because of politics. The volunteers pay their own way, which can cost up to $11,000. None are allowed to take valuable vintage materials found at the sites.

In 2009 the U.S. Department of Defense recognized the MIA Hunters as the most successful civilian assistance group for finding MIA soldiers. In all, volunteers have located 89 American, Japanese, German and Italian MIAs. During his time as group leader, Moon has been invited to the White House and spoken with the media.

Moon said he wants to pass on the torch and hopes to spend more time with his wife, Cicely, who is battling cancer.

“Everything above my neck is working, but everything below can’t make another trip,” Moon said.

He admits it will be hard to pass on what he has committed his retired life to doing.

“I get letters every week saying, ‘Can you find my father? Can you find my brother?'” he said. “I don’t know who can or will take this on; this is a full-time job.”

Parks think green, as in cash

Customers of Tin Fish restaurant have a view of Lake Calhoun spread out in front of them. The Park Board is looking at more eateries in city parks as a way to make up for budget cutbacks. The board is also contemplating peddling some long-stored sculptures. Photo by Brendan Sullivan.

This article was published on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune 7/26/2010.

Faced with a shrunken budget, Minneapolis park leaders hope a combination of bikes, burgers and an Italian sculptor named Brioschi will stave off further cuts to the popular and nationally known park system.

Park board commissioners are talking of raising revenue through selling donated marble sculptures, increasing the number of concession stands and holding more sponsored events as part of a pronounced shift toward business ventures to make up for declining state aid.

“We’ve cut so much, if we cut more deeply moving into the future it would be really obvious to our citizens,” said John Erwin, president of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

One marquee loss for the city that’s home to the Aquatennial is the lack of lifeguards at most park beaches on weekdays.

“We’re the city of lakes with beaches” cutting back on lifeguards, said Commissioner Bob Fine, who was a lifeguard in college. “I don’t want to see us cutting back any more on youth sports or the beaches or maintenance.”

Park-goers seem ready for the business embrace, to a point. Three-quarters of park-goers surveyed in 2009 said the board should partner with business to “support operations,” leading the board to kick around ideas from trinket sales to event management. But they expressed caution about making parks too commercial, such as by adding corporate names to popular venues.

“We’re not entrepreneurs,” Commissioner Scott Vreeland said. But alternatives are quickly disappearing, he added.

Cuts to park services — from lifeguards to senior citizen programs — often mean residents need to travel farther to have needs met.

“We’ve been making cuts in the system that have made it very difficult,” Fine said. “We’re not providing the services we should.”

Minneapolis’ struggle to make up for declining state aid reflects the struggle of many cities around the state.

According to the 2010 budget, “community recreation services” took a nearly $150,000 hit, the largest among any park department. Park police, environmental and customer services departments each took close to $80,000 cuts. Park employment is down more than 100 positions from a high of 951 in 2001.

“This year we reduced costs to make this up,” Erwin said. But the board will need to find more funding if it wants to continue all of its services, he added.

“That’s our only choice,” he said.

Friends Katie Jackson and Katie McBride of Minneapolis at the Tin Fish. Three-fourths of park-goers surveyed in 2009 favored park-business partnerships. Photo by Bredan Sullivan.

Bikes, burgers, Brioschi

At a recent Park Board meeting, commissioners laid out a series of potential business ideas, from annual events to securing one-time funding by selling off some Italian sculptures.

The board talked about adding $50,000 through a corporate-sponsored spring bike race, similar to the successful Minneapolis Bike Tour in September. Other ideas include fishing or curling competitions.

On the food front, more than 10 businesses are bidding to open a new concession stand at Lake Harriet. The board is talking about adding a restaurant on Lake Nokomis. Those moves could add more than $100,000 in revenue annually, Fine said.

Hungry park-goers at Lake Calhoun’s Tin Fish restaurant last Tuesday said they’d be glad to see more concessions in Minneapolis parks.

Roseville residents Louise Miles and Tom Heinz said they came to Lake Calhoun just to eat at the concession stand.

“This works, and I can see more of this working,” Heinz said while waving a hand toward a long line of waiting customers. “This is a nice user fee.”

Others are more hesitant about too much business emphasis.

“Some people are of the opinion that parks shouldn’t be commercialized, but I think they’re losing,” said Harvey Ettinger, a city resident who has gone to most board meetings for the last three years. “The question is, can they do it in a tasteful way where it’s not [like a normal] commercial venture?”

Margaret Miles and her son Louie Tenbroeke, 2, of Minneapolis stopped at the Tin Fish last week for a bite to eat. The Park Board is being cautious as it explores more partnerships with business. Photo by Brendan Sullivan.

Besides commercial partnerships, the board is also contemplating selling a marble sculpture set that has sat in park storage since the 1950s. The delicate statues were modeled in plaster in 1913 by Carlo (Charles) Brioschi, whose company Brioschi-Minuti remodeled sculptures in the White House and several Minnesota landmarks, including the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, according to state records. The board hopes to net at least $50,000 for the set and put the money toward more public park art.

To keep or enhance the park system, the board will have to think more like a business, said Park Board general manager Mike Schmidt.

“People talk about us becoming more entrepreneurial, willing to take a risk. We need to think in those terms,” he said. “There will be some failures and we will learn and grow from those failures.”

This article was published on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune 7/26/2010.

Jury: Brainerd woman owes record firms $1.92 million

This article was published on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune 6/19/2009. I broke this news, which was later picked up by national publications and the BBC.

A 32-year-old woman from Brainerd, Minn., owes $1.92 million in damages to recording companies for downloading their music, a federal jury in Minneapolis decided Thursday.

That amounts to $80,000 a song for the 24 songs Jammie Thomas-Rasset was accused of downloading.

The damages are eight times more than Thomas-Rasset, a mother of four, was ordered to pay the first time she faced six record companies in court on claims that she downloaded more than 1,700 songs. The judge granted a retrial after deciding that he had wrongly instructed the jury.

“The only thing I can say is, ‘Good luck getting it from me,'” said Thomas-Rasset, who looked tearful immediately after hearing of the decision, but then appeared resolute.

Of the more than 30,000 suits brought by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against alleged file-sharers, Thomas-Rasset’s is the only one to go to a jury trial, let alone two. For that reason, the case has received international attention.

While observers dispute the significance of the verdict, the recording industry saw a decisive victory in its battle against music-loving downloaders.

The industry claims file-sharers are to blame for a $6 billion loss in revenue in the past few years.

“We appreciate the jury’s service and that they take this as seriously as we do,” said Cara Duckworth, spokeswoman for the recording association. “Since Day 1 we have been willing to settle this case, and we remain willing to do so,” she said, without specifying the terms under which the association might be willing to settle.

The jury took less than five hours to come to a decision, but the case itself has taken three years.

The industry group sued Thomas-Rasset, then a single mother of two, in 2006. In December 2007, a federal jury in Duluth found her liable for up to $220,000 for copyright infringement of the 24 songs the industry group focused on — $9,250 per song.

But U.S. District Judge Michael Davis granted a retrial because he said he gave the jurors the wrong instructions. He had instructed the jury that the “act of making copyrighted sound recordings available” violates the copyright “regardless of whether actual distribution has been shown.” Thursday’s instructions stressed that it is infringement to either reproduce or distribute copyrighted material, but that making something available does not constitute distribution.

“This is a battle won for the RIAA, but not the end of the war,” said defense attorney Kiwi Camara, adding that the case won’t directly affect others because jury trials don’t set legal precedents.

Camara said the defense is contemplating seeking a settlement and/or appealing the verdict.

Different trial, similar ending

To come to its decision, the jury considered evidence that included screen shots of the online file-sharing network Kazaa, CDs with downloaded and legitimate music, and lists of Thomas-Rasset’s personal CD collection.

During closing arguments, Timothy Reynolds, the plaintiff’s lead attorney, told the jury that Thomas-Rasset gave copyrighted material to “millions on the Internet” through Kazaa.

One of Thomas-Rasset’s defense attorneys argued that she didn’t download anything. “There was better evidence brought against prospective jurors than there was against the defendant in this case,” said attorney Joe Sibley, referring to instances when potential jurors admitted to illegally sharing music.

Thomas-Rasset testified that she hadn’t even heard of Kazaa before the case. She said her children or ex-boyfriend could have downloaded songs without her knowledge. But the jury didn’t buy it.

Contested significance

Thursday’s $1.9 million verdict is the largest win for the recording industry in its litigation campaign against file-sharers, but authorities on media convergence and copyright law disagree about its significance.

Late last year, the industry ended the controversial campaign under which it had sued about 35,000 people, including Thomas, since 2003 for illegally downloading or sharing songs over the Internet. Instead, it is working with several major Internet service providers to address the issue. Industry officials also said the lawsuits educated the music-downloading public and statistics appear to indicate they slowed the increase in illegal file sharers, although other experts suggest illegal sharing is rising again.

The fallout from Thursday’s verdict also might pose problems for the victors, said Ben Sheffner, a copyright lawyer who has represented music studios and record companies.

While deterring potential file-sharers, the jury’s decision could have unintended public relations, legal and political implications for the Recording Industry group, Sheffner said.

Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune columnist and author of “Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music,” said the verdict could hurt the recording industry more than help it. “I really think that punitive measures like this one, and the fact that this verdict is so eye-poppingly out of step with anybody’s conception of what these songs might be worth, is only going to increase the ill will toward the record industry that has accrued over the last decade,” he said.

Either way, the verdict hasn’t changed Thomas-Rasset’s response: For the second time in three years, surrounded by reporters after a crushing loss, she wished the recording companies good luck collecting their money.

“You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip,” she said.

Indomitable hope, unending drive

Shah shaves on Tuesday before his 8 a.m. class. Photo by MARIJA MAJERLE.

This story was published on the front page of the Minnesota Daily 3/11/2009. It received second place in the AAJA Student Journalist contest for feature writing.

At 6:03 a.m. Tuesday, students across the University of Minnesota were sleeping, but at the sound of his first alarm, the CEO of Mxapp and Shah Ink greets the rainy day.

For a moment he lays in bed, checking his red BlackBerry Curve, his “obsession” that never leaves his side. But instead of stepping out into a high rise penthouse, this CEO tiptoes about his two-bedroom Dinnaken House apartment, cautiously avoiding waking his two roommates.

Parag Shah, a University of Minnesota entrepreneur senior, is no normal student or CEO.

After showering, shaving and preparing his white dress shirt on his mother’s pink-striped ironing board, he yawns and takes a seat on his moth-eaten couch, looking ahead to a day of meetings, interviews, projects and school.

Almost reluctantly, he throws the white shirt over his black T-shirt and puts on black pants — a far cry from his typical Chicago Bears hoodie — before walking out into the rain.

He strolls into to his first class, chatting it up with the professors and students as he takes his seat in the back. The class, Carlson Venture Enterprises, is a graduate class where he is only one of five undergraduates. The students serve as consultants for Twin Cities businesses — impressive, but nothing Shah hasn’t done before.

As a gangly high school sophomore Shah started Shah Ink, a one-man company selling ink cartridges to businesses as a mediator between the corporations and the manufacturer.

From there, Shah tried and failed several other times on ideas ranging from research databases to booster club discount cards, but he thinks he’s found an idea that will take him places in his new start up, Mxapp.

Shah’s company is a small outfit, creating a program that hungry customers can use to order food on their cell phones — something he came up with while standing in line at a café. The idea began to materialize when Shah received a $1,500 seed grant from the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship.

His company’s application, Lunchbox, is just in the works, but if his plans pan out, Shah thinks he can take it to a national scale.

It works like a mobile food takeout counter, except it would include thousands of items from every participating restaurant in the area.

Menus are posted along with ingredients and customer product ratings, and with the tap of a finger, viewers can browse the application by food item, like “burger,” or by area restaurant type. Then if they find something they like, they can push another button and instantly order it for takeout and leave a rating of the food item if they’ve already ate it.

But the application doesn’t exist yet, and reality has its speed bumps. For Shah and his company, the largest hurdles are lack of money and the length of the process. The company has no capital to pay employees beyond the grant and the $500 the five partners put in collectively, so paying programmers and convincing restaurants to participate has been an uphill battle.

9:45 a.m.

Shah holds an iPod touch displaying an interactive model of the Mxapp application, Lunchbox. Photo by MARIJA MAJERLE.

For half an hour of his 9:45 a.m. class in Hanson Hall’s International Dairy Queen Room, Shah pulls out a laptop and sets up meetings for later that day, while his classmates stare attentively at a PowerPoint presentation.

On average, Shah gets 75 e-mails a day and checks his BlackBerry at a minimum of every five minutes. But this class, which he barely pays attention to, is actually one of his favorites.

He admits his passion for entrepreneurship wins over his dedication to school. He’ll gladly skip class to schedule an interview with a potential employee or run out to a restaurant to pitch to a client. He doesn’t care for the theoretical, only for what builds his business.

“There’s priorities, it’s what you’re passionate about and you do it,” he said.

After class Shah strolls across the skywalk between Hanson Hall and the Carlson building, fist bumping students and calling out to professors he’s met as Vice President of the Entrepreneur Club, where he met his roommate and business partner, Dominick Grande, when the two were “food freshman” assigned to barter down the price on food orders for group meetings.

11:45 a.m.

Then in an instant, he turns on his stern, confident persona that works as his business armor. At 11:45 a.m. Shah joins other members of the Carlson Ventures Enterprise class to consult a local health provider.

The market research the students conducted in a contract with the client is nothing new to Shah, who did the same work for other medical professionals in the past, and at 1:30 p.m. he exits the room as he entered, confident and austere. He checks his e-mail as he gets in line for his Carlson café burrito.

2:15 p.m.

A different Shah walks into class at 2:15 p.m., lies back and scoffs at a quiz the professor returns.

Shah writes down the agenda for the Mxapp weekly business meeting in the Carlson School of Management. Photo by MARIJA MAJERLE.

“To show you how worthless this class is, for this test, we had to write a memo, which is something I think they did in the ‘50s,” Shah says, conveniently ignoring his 80 percent grade, which was lower than the class average.

But when the class breaks into groups assigned to create a marketing strategy for a “green” Target line, businessman Shah kicks in again. His knee starts bouncing and the wink returns to his eye as he slowly convinces all of the members in his group to adopt a strategy selling a friend’s product — a friend who, unbeknownst to his group members, promised Shah equity in the company if the deal goes though.

Professors, advisors and family claim Shah’s aggressive positivity allows him to pitch easily, work out a business deal and sell just about anything. And when the current “food freshman” needs help ordering from Pizza Hut, he gets a chance to stretch the business muscles that kept the Entrepreneur Club under budget when he was a first year.

When the Pizza Hut manager names a price, Shah dismisses it with a smile on his face, but cool authority in his voice.

“You guys usually give us a good deal,” he says, “That’s why we keep coming back to you.”

After 20 minutes, the manager finally buckles on his previous order price of $187.

“Can we cut it even at $125?” Shah asks. “Perfect, we’ll just meet you at the turn around at Carlson.”

Shah teasingly asks the first-year group member if she knows how to work a deal because this is the last time he’s helping.

The first year smirked, the look that means he’s said that before.

But after a day’s worth of good meetings and consulting, much of the positive energy in Shah’s day is sidelined by the complexity of his venture.

6:00 p.m.

In a 6:00 p.m. discussion in one of his classes, the harsh reality of the online credit-purchasing system hits the Mxapp partners as Harold Slawik, an advisor and lawyer for entrepreneurs, spells out the difficulty of running an Internet ordering business.

Slawik said Shah’s business isn’t ready to take on the responsibility of holding customer credit card numbers, an integral part to the mobile-ordering application.

If a competing business looked into Shah’s company structure and saw Mxapp was nothing more than five students with laptops, or if one of those laptops was stolen, the company couldn’t handle the implications, Slawik said.

“The consequences of this going wrong are the business going poof,” he said.

7:30 p.m.

Shah and business partners Kyle Cunningham, left, and Dominick Grande discuss a potential new Mxapp employee. The company currently has a staff of six and is looking to hire both a graphic designer and software engineer. Photo by MARIJA MAJERLE.

After the meeting, the group slinks out of the classroom, Shah leading the way, looking flat. He takes his time walking across the deserted Carlson floor, as most of the students had gone home for the night, but Mxapp had reserved a room for their weekly 7:30 p.m. meeting.

But when all five partners and the programmer got into the room, the energy immediately rises again.

With only $2,000 in the Mxapp bank account, one designer, no ability to keep credit card information and a staff — including Shah, who will be graduating soon without a fulltime job — all working basically for free, many people would think the business was at a dead-end.

But together, the group’s energy is volcanic, and ideas fly from all sides of the small conference table. And with one wave of his hand, Shah dismisses the credit issue and simultaneously instills hope. All is well.

In an hour Shah is back at his apartment, sitting in his blue basketball shorts and eating spaghetti made with noodles and sauce from Sam’s Club.

He ignores the NCAA basketball game on his grainy TV, blaring in the background. He ignores the deafening screams of college students who had taken hours out of their day to watch a game.

Instead, Shah sits rigidly in his black T-shirt, checking e-mails instead of studying for his 9:45 a.m. midterm.

12:03 a.m.

He picks up his homework and starts to read, but pauses to watch the final seconds of the game, the final shot, the victory.

The happy students stream out onto the court, like it was the best moment of their lives.

But it’s 12:03 a.m., Wednesday, and the CEO goes to bed.