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Missed opportunity for a safer Buffalo

   WASHINGTON -- So the score is Rochester $5.8 million, Buffalo 0.

   That's how much the two nearby cities got in federal stimulus grant money
for the hiring of new police officers -- and it might just be because Buffalo
didn't apply for the grant.

   The city didn't apply because it had existing police vacancies, and thus
wasn't eligible to apply.

   Those vacancies occurred because it could not find enough minority police
candidates, which it must do under a federal court case dating back to

   Yes, 31 years later, Buffalo -- which was found to have discriminated in its
hiring of police and firefighters in the 1970s -- is still under court order on
its hiring practices.

   Which is enough to make you wonder: Will this lawsuit never end?

   -- Jerry Zremski

The high cost of not reforming health care

   WASHINGTON -- If you think health care reform costs too much, well, here's what medical experts and lawmakers say would be the cost of doing nothing to reform the world's most expensive medical system.

   "Eventually the middle class, in large numbers, will be denied health care," said Dr. Mark J. Lema, vice president of the Medical Society of Erie County.

   In addition, "Medicare could collapse" thanks to spiraling costs, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat.

   And if you still like things the way they are, take note of this. Your payroll taxes are going to subsidize annual Medicare expenses of upwards of $15,000 in places like McAllen, Texas -- whereas Buffalo doctors manage to provide the same services for less than half that.

   Of course, there are plenty of reasons to question why Democrats want to spend $1.2 trillion to reform the health care system.

   But how does that number sound compared to the cost of a nation where health insurance is nothing but a luxury?

   -- Jerry Zremski

Crash families' voices heard in Washington

   WASHINGTON -- The story of Continental Connection Flight 3407 is slowly being transformed from tragedy into history.

   Both the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress are taking actions that boost airline safety in wake of the Feb. 12 accident in Clarence, which claimed 50 lives.

   It isn't always this way when a plane goes down. About a half-dozen similar regional airline crashes have occurred in the last 15 years, and aviation industry observers said only one -- a 1994 American Eagle crash in Roselawn, Ind. -- drew about as much governmental attention as the Clarence crash.

   And much of the credit for that fact goes to the families of the crash's victims, said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a lead sponsor of a bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill that a key committee passed on Tuesday with several strong safety provisions stemming from the February mishap.

   "I appreciate them being a voice for passengers and passenger safety in this country," DeMint said.

   Think about that the next time you hear someone say that the government is out of touch or that citizens don't have a voice.

   It's enough to make you wonder if the only reason we often don't seem to have a voice is because we just don't bother to say anything.

   -- Jerry Zremski

Despite close of criminal case in Wilson, hard feelings linger

   On Wednesday, the spokesman for the suspended Wilson baseball coaches said he wanted some results of an internal State Police probe released when completed. Baia_atlas_presser_FOR_WEB12505721H5351947

   A little more than 24 hours later, the agency released a statement to the press on the status of the investigation. It was not what Paul had hoped to hear.

   The State Police announced its probe was over; it found no wrongdoing had taken place.

   Read a story from today's Buffalo News on the end of the internal investigation. (Photo at right taken at coaches' press conference Wednesday, Charles Lewis/Buffalo News)

   Here's some of State Police Chief Inspector Colonel Anthony Ellis' statement:

   "All investigative and police actions concerning this matter were in accordance with State Police Rules and Regulations," Ellis said. "The review concluded that a thorough and proper investigation was conducted and the matter is now closed."

   In his statement, Ellis disclosed that Paul's allegations spurred the agency's internal review. Take a look at his full statement here.

   State Police confirmed on May 19 that they had begun an internal probe into how its investigators handled the alleged hazing case, which was triggered after an April 17, 2008, team bus ride.

   Paul recently began serving as spokesman for teacher-coaches William M. Atlas and Thomas J. Baia. Child endangerment charges against the coaches were dropped by a prosecutor Monday.

   After the investigation came to light in May, Paul was asked by The Buffalo News whether he was the one that called for the probe. He declined to comment at the time.

   Joseph Barrett, president of the New York State Police Investigators Association, also issued a statement Thursday saying the standard of proof required for arrest had been met in this case.

   He called Paul's claims "uncorroborated and unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct."

   He also said, "This is a common tactic used by defendants in criminal cases, to attack the police, so this is not unusual that Mr. Paul would be reduced to this."

   Read Barrett's full statement here.

   Paul, who was unaware of either statement until called by a reporter Thursday afternoon, said his camp was disappointed by the news.

   Baia_atlas_presser_crowd_for_web_12505721H5351748 Paul, who on Wednesday said the charges against the coaches came due to a rush to judgment by State Police, called the end of the internal probe "a clear, quick rush to judgment, again." (Photo at left from press conference held by coaches Wednesday, Charles Lewis/Buffalo News)

   He also called the review "unethical."

   Paul said there was evidence introduced at the players' trial which showed police wrongdoing.

   "It appears that the New York State Police internal investigation swept that information under the rug and covered it up," Paul said.

   Paul said he heard about four weeks ago that the State Police were considering wrapping up their internal investigation. At that point, he said he contacted the head investigator and told him he would question such an end in the press.

   His message was heard "loud and clear," he said.

   Paul called Thursday's announcement of the closed investigation a response to the negative press the agency received thanks to Wednesday's press conference.

   "It smells of an incomplete investigation," Paul said, "favoritism of the State Police taking care of the State Police."

   Paul said there are "other options" for an investigation into the New York State Police, "one of which is the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

   Paul said he and his clients are reviewing that option and will have more information at a later date.

   -- Aaron Besecker

Wilson baseball coaches take their turn to talk

  A spokesman for Thomas J. Baia and William Atlas called the treatment of the two men in the center of the Wilson hazing case a "terrible rush to judgment."

   Two high school baseball coaches, who just like they had done numerous times before, accompanied their teams back to school after games on the team bus.

   Everything seemed normal. Some of the players spent part of the trip back to school singing a song from the cartoon "Spongebob Squarepants."

   Twelve days later, the coaches were arrested and charged with child endangerment.

   Fast forward 15 months. On Monday, charges against the two were dropped by the prosecutor.

   On Wednesday, complete with a trampoline, balloons and colorful signs, Baia's backyard was turned into the staging area for a press conference where the coaches would speak publicly for the first time.

   Both coaches showed emotion during their prepared remarks.

   Here's a snippet of what Baia said: "For the many years prior to April 17, 2008, I was the teacher who cared for and looked out for the little guy. I was the coach who kept around the players that nobody else wanted, gave that player a role and made him part of the team. In a determined campaign by law enforcement, I erroneously became the teacher/coach who willingly and knowingly allowed children to be hurt. That is a lie that I will not let stand."

   Listen to Baia's full statement here.

   You can also listen to Atlas' full statement here.

   Mike Paul, a college friend of Atlas', runs a public relations firm and calls himself the "Reputation Doctor." He has been serving as the coaches' spokesman, and also made a statement, which you can listen to here.

   Reporters asked questions of the coaches and Paul, which you can listen to here.

Too much Michael, too much of the time

Not everyone's on board with the round-the-clock, round-the-dial Michael Jackson coverage.

Some people — perhaps a large minority, or even more than that — have had it with the all-Michael, all-the-time coverage surrounding the death of the iconic pop star.

Read the full story.

It's a fascinating story, to be sure, the rise and demise of arguably the world's most famous person.

But many people have had enough and are hoisting the "No Mas" sign. Some of those who have put away their TV remote controls until the tidal wave passes are people who work in the fields of child sex abuse and law enforcement.

They just can't forget the volume of accusations about Jackson.

As one person, Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita, put it, most people can deal with Jackson's weirdness and eccentricities.

"But when you're talking about accusations of abusing children, that's a universal taboo that crosses all lines — generational lines, racial lines, gender lines and socioeconomic lines," Sedita said. "It is the universal taboo."

— Gene Warner

As the Wilson hazing case nears an end, shades of gray remain

   The defense asserted all along that the prosecution had a weak case against two Wilson High School baseball coaches, and maybe they were right.

   The Niagara County District Attorney's office moved to dismiss the charges Monday, the day a jury was to be selected for the trial of William M. Atlas and Thomas J. Baia.

   They had been charged with child endangerment misdemeanors for allegedly failing to stop a hazing attack on some junior varsity players by varsity players as the team bus drove home from Niagara Falls after a game April 17, 2008.

   Now, they'll get their jobs back, and they've called a news conference for Wednesday. Don't be surprised if the state police take it on the chin there.

   Assistant District Attorney Robert A. Zucco wouldn't say why the charges were dropped - especially now instead of more than a year ago, tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars later, as the Wilson district, in line with its teachers' union contract, paid for the coaches' defense.

   In line with the usual situation in the case, the court files were sealed. Along with the closed-door testimony in the trial of two former players last week, it continues to mean the public will still not know what really happened and whether the state police did their job properly in arresting the coaches, and in charging three players with felony sexual abuse - charges that later were replaced with non-sexual misdemeanor and violation counts.

   Maybe the whole thing was malarkey to begin with. Or was it? A system that covers up the facts in an effort to protect teenage defendants makes it hard to know.

   Terrence M. Connors, attorney for the parents of one of the boys who says he was roughed up, says he will sue the school district by the end of the month. And if that ever goes to trial, well, there's no such thing as youthful offender status in a civil suit.

   Connors insists that something bad happened on that bus, and something bad had been happening in Wilson baseball for a long time.

   "Our case was never dependent on the criminal case against the coaches. Our focus is to stop practices that should have stopped a long time ago," Connors said Monday. "Those who were charged with the responsibility of protecting those kids failed in their responsibility, and that's from the top down."

   Zucco tried to enter evidence that hazing had been going on in Wilson baseball for years, and the coaches knew about it. In fact, one of the players charged in this case said he was a victim a couple of years ago.

   Town Justice George R. Berger barred that evidence from use at a trial, but as Zucco said in an interview with The News several weeks ago, "Just because the evidence isn't admissible doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

   The rules are different in civil suits. The evidence may well come in. And perhaps, at long last, we'll know whether it was the cops or the ballplayers who were out of control.

-- Thomas J. Prohaska


An inside look at the gang culture

   The experience of interviewing gang members was both an education and an awakening.

   One thing that stood out is that some of the young men in the gang subculture really are trying to chart a different course for their lives, but it's not easy.

   That's not just a cliche or a cop out. I used to think it was, too. But after my involvement with these young men, I saw for myself that they really, truly are trying. Sometimes trying is not enough.

   You see, the difference is when I left the GED classes and mentoring programs they were participating in to try to do better, I went home to comfortable home in a relatively safe community where my neighbors are professionals and where families are two-parent households.

   Not so much for people like Curtis, Andrew, Jamod, Anthony and Cosme.

   They leave and return to the same elements that sent them down the wrong path.

   It takes the inner fortitude of mythical proportions - something most of us don't have - to overcome some of these conditions.

   What do you think some of the solutions are?

   &8212; Deidre Williams

The high cost of health care for pets

   I got the idea to do a story about the high-tech - and expensive - veterinary care available today after hearing a lot about it from friends and acquaintances.

   MRIs? CT scans? Hip replacements? Orthodontic braces? Chemotherapy?

   Yes, all that and more is available for pets, and their owners are willing to do whatever it takes for their "luvies," as Kimberly Cudzilo refers to her cats.

   Cudzilo has "joint custody" with her ex-boyfriend of three cats that all have special diets, but her 6-year-old Tyler has serious health problems.

   Tyler had an eye infection, he had most of his teeth removed due to recurring dental infections and he must take a daily pill - mixed by Cudzilo - to help with digestive problems. He also must take three eye drops, two ointments, a steroid and an antibiotic each day.

   "I never complain about it, because I do it because I love them," said Cudzilo, an educational coordinator from North Tonawanda.

   While some pet owners are considering getting pet health insurance, most do not have it and have to pay for the care out of pocket.

   "King of the Hill" took note of the increasing cost of vet care in an episode in 2005, when Hank agrees to care for a cat owned by a soldier stationed overseas.

   Actor Jason Bateman provides the voice for a veterinarian who convinces Hank that he has to spend thousands of dollars on testing and treatment for the ornery cat.

   Veterinarians I interviewed say they don't push their clients to pay for unnecessary procedures, and many devoted owners say they don't care how much the procedures cost.

   After pouring so much of themselves into their pets, many owners take their deaths hard.

   Shelley Cavanaugh, a North Buffalo jeweler, said one dog she owned, a mutt named Henry, was "her soul mate."

   She got the dog in 1995 when he was 5 months old. He survived an intestinal virus known as parvo, but at 5 developed incurable lupus.

   Henry ended up staying at a vet clinic in New York City, where Cavanaugh lived at the time, for one or two weeks at a total cost of $6,000.

   After Cavanaugh found Henry dead one morning in 2000, she laid on the floor with him, petting his body and crying into his fur.

   "I would have done anything for him," said Cavanaugh, who still gets emotional while talking about Henry nine years after the dog's death and has his ashes on her mantle.

   What do you think? Do you have stories to share about your experiences as a pet owner with veterinary care? And how much have you spent to keep a beloved pet alive?

    — Stephen T. Watson