The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Revisiting Virginia Tech: The Conclusion

Three students, fighting for their lives, had kept Seung Hui Cho out of German class where he had come to finish them off. (

Cho pumped five or six shots into the door in frustration. Then he turned and walked across the hall to Room 204/ Solid Mechanics class. He was in for a surprise.

The class had been in high alert from the moment Prof. Liviu Librescu saw Cho, gun in hand, leaving the room next door, Room 206, about three minutes earlier. Librescu told his students to get to the back of the room while he kept watch by the door. Two male students had bolted for safety, only to wind up right in front of Cho, who shot one of them twice.

Back in Room 204, the students were doing what they could.

"Everybody just got down on the ground," said Richard Mallalieu, 23. "We used desks to shield ourselves. One of my friends (Alex Calhoun - ed.) called 911."

"Somebody went up to the door to see if we could get out."

That was Matt Webster, 23. He said he put his head out to see what was going on.
"I heard a girl scream and what sounded like gunshots."

"One student tried going out the front door but as soon as he opened it, it sounded as if the gunshots started coming towards us. Dr. Librescu shut the door and stood guard after the student ran back into the classroom. " recalled Josh Wargo.

The scream most likely came from Room 207, German class, and may have been Erin Sheehan, who said later she screamed when Cho killed her teacher in front of the class.

Webster ran to the back of the room, leaped onto the windowsill and began kicking out the screens. Three windows were swung open but the gunshots got louder, he said.

"It sounded like he was going out into the hallway," Mallalieu said.

Students began jumping. It was almost 20 feet to the ground outside.

Jesse Wells was the first one out. "At this point I opened the window and removed the screen and shouted out that there was a bush to jump on...I made it safely to the ground."

Jeff Twigg landed hard and broke his leg is two places (the tibia and fibia).

Caroline Merry, 22, tossed her knapsack and windbreaker out the window and climbed out: " I hung from the window from my fingertips and I just closed my eyes and said to myself, "Here we go." She landed on her back and lay there stunned.

"I knocked the wind out of myself for like 30-45 seconds. I'm sitting there thinking I made it out of the classroom, but what's gonna stop him from looking out the window since I can't even move...I'm still in trouble, but two of my classmates came back for me at least."

She landed next to Kelly Swinson who twisted her ankle when she jumped.

Richard Mallalieu hung from the window ledge, then let go.

"For me, it wasn't a choice [to jump out the window]. It was kind of a grassy area, so it wasn't like falling on stairs or concrete. I just kind of fell and rolled, so I wasn't hurt at all."

Andrey Andreyev tried to pull Prof. Livescu to the back of the class, but his teacher pushed him away. He encouraged his students to get out as fast as possible.

"As I got ready to jump out the window," said Andreyev, "I turned back to look at the professor. He just stood there, holding the door. The last I saw him, he was blocking the door."

Josh Wargo was one of the last to get out.
" When I landed I was in a daze, standing outside of the building. Then I heard shots going through glass, that's when it hit me that I had to get out of there."

Jake Grohs was hanging from the window when Cho came into the room. He dropped, hearing people being shot.

Cho pushed his way into Room 204 past the 76-year-old professor who was blocking the door with his own body. Prof. Livescu was shot in the face at point blank range. Student Minal Panchal, standing beside him and possibly helping him hold the door shut, was shot next.

Alex Calhoun, 20, was at the windows but held back to the last minute.

"Before I jumped I turned around and looked at the professor, who stayed behind to block the door. He had been killed. I could see the people jump in front of me, and a couple of people broke ankles, legs.

So I aimed for a bush and I hit the bush first, so I ended up OK."

But time had run out for the last two students waiting to jump.

Matt Webster dropped to his knees and curled up in a ball "tornado-drill style." He was shot from three feet away. A bullet grazed his forehead and ricocheted into his right bicep.

Justin Klein was shot three times -- twice in his right leg and once in his left elbow. He stayed down and pretended he was dead.

But Cho must have felt cheated again. Expecting a whole class, he found only four people. He vented his anger on Prof. Livescu on his way out. Livescu's body had five bullet wounds, said a rabbi at his funeral.By this time the police were swarming the area at last.

Back in Room 211/French, the Virginia Tech Police Lt. Debbi Morgan was still talking to Emily Haas.

According to the account of the call in Washington Post:
Morgan: "Stay under the desk." "Keep talking to me. We're hurrying. They'll be there in a minute."
Haas: "Thank you."
Morgan: "Are you there?"
Hass: (whispering) "Yeah, I'm here."
"We need an ambulance."
Was the door locked? Morgan asked.
It doesn't lock, Haas replied.

The police arrived three minutes after the Haas 911 call began, the chief of police said later.

The Washington Post says Blacksburg Police Sgt. Anthony Wilson and four other officers ran to the front double door of Norris Hall. They found that the thick wooden doors chained shut from the inside. They could hear shots---and people screaming.

They ran to another door, where they with SWAT team officers. That door was also chained shut.

"Shoot the chain," they yelled in unison, recounted the Washington Post. Twice an officer fired a shotgun at the chains but couldn't break them. Cho had run out of schoolrooms. He began zigzagging along the hallway, retracing his steps.

According to an early story in the New York Daily News, Cho went back to German class, Room 207, a third time. (OUT OF THE HORROR EMERGES A HERO, ANDREA PEYSER, April 17, 2007)

"He could hear us talking," said Derek O'Dell.

But this time, he could not get the door open at all. So he shot another round or two into the door and left. No one was hit.

Back across the hall he went, to Hydrology class, Room 206 again.

He sprayed the room with bullets, shooting dead and wounded alike.

Nathaniel Krause had miraculously been spared during Cho's first attack on the class. Cho had come to finish everyone off, but once again his incredible luck saved him, but at the expense of a fellow classmate's life.

As Cho went along the front row shooting into bodies he was approaching Krause when Waleed Shaalan, 32, in the the second row, stood up to attract his attention. Cho shot and killed Shaalan, who fell over Krause, shielding him.

Cho poured shots in the direction of Gil Colman, who felt two or three strike the body of Partahi Lumbantoruan as it lay across Colman.

Lee Hixon, cowering in the back of the room, said Cho fired four times in his direction, without hitting him.

Outside, Blacksburg Police Chief Kim Crannis and Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum were waiting at the entrance to Norris Hall for bolt cutters to break through the chains holding the doors closed.

Janitor Gene Cole had come up to the second floor to find his co-worker, Pam Tickles, and get her out of the building. As he looked down the hallway he saw someone on the ground, writhing and trying to get up. It was Prof. Kevin Granata, although Cole didn't know it at the time.

He was about to go to help the injured person, when Cho stepped out of Room 206 and spotted Cole. "I was looking at somebody else who was already shot," Cole said. "I was shot at five times."

Cole took the back stairs two at a time as the bullets whizzed by his head so close he could hear them.

Room 211, Emily Haas could hear the gunshots again, getting louder. So could Lt. Morgan over the 911 line.
Haas: (whispering) "He's in here."

It was 9:48.
Cho had returned to Room 211.
Pop. Pop.
Morgan heard Haas scream. A blood-curdling, hysterical scream.

Haas: "I just got hit." Cho was walking through the room, determined to kill anyone left alive

Hillary Strollo told her brother "... he fired approximately 5- to 6- clips around 3 bullets into each person in the classroom."

Strollo was shot in the left side of her stomach and buttocks and a bullet grazed her head. One bullet lodged near her spine. "Blood was running down her face, so she thinks he thought she was dead and he didn't come back again."

Clay Violand said he continued to play dead. "He began unloading what it seemed like a second round into everyone again - it had to be the same people. There were way more gunshots than there were people in that room. I think I heard him reload maybe three times."

Heidi Miller was shot three times in her left side, in her knee, buttocks and thigh. She had already been shot in the lower abdomen. Doctors had to put screws in her shattered knee and a titanium rod in her femur (thigh bone).

Haas was grazed in the head by two bullets. (The wounds were minor and she left the hospital the day of the shooting.)

The terror of the moment is heard on the 911 call to police:
Over the phone, Morgan heard another loud gunshot. And another. She heard Emily Haas' breathing quicken.

Haas: "He's reloading."
Morgan: "Okay, there's units there. Stay calm. Try to stay calm. Ease your breathing."
Morgan: "What's your name?"
Haas: "I can't talk."
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Morgan: (to a dispatcher) "Still shooting in Norris."
Haas screamed.

Outside, student Jamal Albarghouti noticed policemen running by with their guns out.

"I thought there was just another bomb threat. Then I started hearing some gunshots far away... And then all the cops were trying to get into Norris Hall..."

He started shooting the action with his cellphone video.

"... and they used like a bomb or something to open one of the doors. Probably they dropped a bomb in the building. There was a person on the second floor of Norris trying to tell the cops that he's in there. And probably trying to guide him in."

Lt. Curtis Cook, leader of the Virginia Tech SWAT team, was at the back of the building with some of his men. They saw a wooden door next to the one chained shut was locked with a deadbolt. One officer blasted the lock with a shotgun and the police went into Norris Hall.

They split up. Some, including (Sgt. Anthony) Wilson, the Blacksburg SWAT team leader, started up a staircase. Cook and his group moved down the first-floor hall, checking classrooms in an "emergency clearing" tactic, and headed up another staircase, at the other end of the hall, so they would have both sides of the second floor covered. (Washington Post, June 26, 2007)

Colin Goddard watched as Cho "made multiple passes around the room and shot multiple people multiple times. He had been shooting very rapidly in succession and reloading quickly. He reloaded in our room a few times. He kept dropping clips and changing them out."

Goddard tried to play head, but that didn't matter to Cho anymore. He came so close his boot nearly brushed Goddard's leg--and he shot Goddard two more times. One bullet entered his right armpit and went out his shoulder. The other went into his right buttock.

Goddard tried to keep still. He heard one shot. Then another.

At 9:51, as Lt. Cook and Sgt. Wilson moved up opposite stairwells, they heard the last gunshot.

In Room 211 the silence was overwhelming.

Goddard turned to his friend Kristina Heeger, who had been shot in the back, and asked,"Is he here?"
Allison Cook, 19, opened her eyes. Emily Haas, her sorority sister, was near her, still on the cell phone.
Clay Violand was across from Cook who lay wounded with gunshot wounds to her side, shoulder and lower back.
One bullet entered her ribs, collapsing a lung.
"You're going to be OK," Violand told her.

Lt. Morgan was still talking to Emily Haas.
Morgan: "Stay calm."
"The officers are inside, so just stay calm. Stay with me. Stay calm."
A few minutes later, police were banging at the door shouting and trying to push their way in. But the door was blocked.

Morgan asked Haas to open the door and let the police in. Haas went to the door and found the bodies of Prof. Jocelyn Couture-Nowak and a classmate. She tried to open the door, but didn't have the strength. Police pushed their way in.

Goddard said he heard one of them shout, "The shooter is down! The shooter is 'black'!"

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Revisiting the Virginia Tech massacre Part Two

Review, rethink and revise

Blame our obsessive need to know the truth. To achieve our goal of providing the very best account of what happened April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech we've had to constantly review our source material and, if necessary, rewrite our story to incorporate new information.

We have to do it again.

The transcript of a 911 call from Room 211/French class gives us a rough timeline to what happened in the last eight minutes of the massacre. While preparing this piece, we came across an obscure first-hand account by a student in Room 205. The story ( 'It was the most horrifying sight', April 19, 2007, Times News Network, Times of India) was attributed to "a computer engineering student at Virginia Tech who was present in the Norris Hall that day. He wants his name to be withheld because the university has barred students from talking to the media."

A little bit of detective work matching quotes identified the student as Zach Petkewicz, whose suggestion to barricade the door to his classroom saved the lives of everyone in Room 205. In his anonymous account he wrote:

One of the girls ( The Black Rod has determined this is Theresa Walsh ) went into the hallway to see what was happening. The moment she saw the gun, she ran back inside the room and slammed the door. All of us got down on the floor immediately.

After that we heard continuous shooting for one whole minute. I asked, "Shouldn't we barricade the door because we are sitting ducks with no way out of that room if he opened the door?"

A couple of more people also suggested the same thing. But all of us were too scared to move, forget about moving the teacher's desk.

Finally, one of the guys in the front of the classroom was brave enough to get up and move the desk in front of the door to prevent outside entry. About 20 seconds later, the shooter rattled the doorknob trying to get in.

We realized that his timing of events more accurately put Cho's visit to Room 205 near the beginning of his shooting spree rather than near the end where we had it.

As a result we've revised our moment-by-moment account of the Virginia Tech massacre:

* Cho started his killing spree in Room 206/ Hydrology class about 9:40 a.m.

* Leaving the room with guns in hand, he was spotted by Theresa Walsh and the teacher of Room 205/Computer Engineering and Prof. Liviu Librescu of Room 204/ Solid Mechanics who were looking into the hallway to see where the gunfire sounds were coming from.

* Cho was distracted by two students who ran out of Room 204 and made a break for the exits. Cho shot at the boys, hitting one of them.

* Cho then went across the hall to Room 207 where a German class was in session. Cho had scouted out Room 207 earlier in the hour.

* He was in Room 207 when Professors Kevin Granata and Wally Grant knocked on the door. Cho shot Granata in the face and fired shots at Prof. Wally Grant who ran for his life.

* We now believe this is when Cho went to Room 205 and couldn't force his way in.

* He walked down the hall to a French class in Room 211. It's possible French Professor Couture-Nowak attracted his attention if this was the moment she glanced into the hallway as we'll recount.

* From French class, Cho went back to Room 207/German, but the surviving students kept him out.

* He went across the hall to Room 204/Solid Mechanics, finding few left to kill.

*Then he returned to Room 206/Hydrology.

* And finally he went back to Room 211, where he eventually killed himself.

We can now pick up the story where we left off:

As Seung Hui Cho approached Room 211/Intermediate French class, the 18 people inside already knew of the demonic force coming closer with each step.

In a scenario repeated in every classroom on the second floor of Norris Hall, the professor and students had at first tried to explain away the staccato noises they heard.

"Please tell me that's not what I think it is, is it?" Prof. Joceyln Couture-Nowak said. Initially she had been reassured it was construction noise, exactly what every class thought. Then, like other teachers, she looked into the hallway to see for herself.

"It got louder and it got closer, and it was very, very rapid in succession," recalled student Colin Goddard. "So [the teacher] poked her head out. Immediately she pulled it back in with a terrified look on her face, told us all to get on the ground, call 911."

Goddard grabbed his cell phone and dialed. But for some reason the 911 operator couldn't understand him. She kept asking where he was calling from, then repeating the wrong location back to him.

"A lot of us hit the ground and covered our heads," said Allison Cook, who sat in the middle of the classroom, three rows away from the door. The 19-year-old sophomore shut her eyes and prayed. Hillary Strollo curled up in a fetal position.

Student Clay Violand told Couture-Nowak, "Put that desk in front of the door, now."
The professor and some of her students pushed her desk over to block the door. Then they stacked some of the students' plastic desks around it.

Couture-Nowak told her students to get to the back of the room. She backed up against a wall.
"...we really were trying to be very quiet." said Emily Haas, who was huddled against the back wall with four other students. " ... I think it was Clay (Violand) said, keep quiet. Keep quiet, so he wouldn't think there was anybody in the room." They didn't have to wait long.

"I could hear him jiggling the door handle. I had my eyes closed," Haas told CNN.

Then the door began to splinter as Cho fired into it."It looked like he was trying to shoot the lock out. When he started firing at the door, I hit the floor," Goddard told Newsweek.

Cho kicked the door in. He shot Couture-Nowak point blank.

We believe it was at this point that Matthew LaPorte, a 20-year-old Air Force ROTC sophomore, jumped Cho in the only known incidence of defiance during the entire shooting spree. LaPorte's usual seat was in the front by the door.

But Cho, armed with a gun in each hand, shot LaPorte in the head and killed him.

He then began a slow counter-clockwise walk through the classroom, methodically shooting the remaining students.

"It sounded rhythmic - like he took his time in between each shot and kept up the pace, moving from person to person." said survivor Clay Violand.

"He just started walking down the rows of desks, shooting people multiple times. He didn't say anything. He didn't demand anything. He was just shooting." said Goddard, who was in front of Violand, trying to hide his 6-foot-3 body under a desk.

Goddard dropped his cell phone when he saw Cho shoot his way into the room.

He kept his eyes on the ground, refusing to look at the gunman. "I saw his boots, I saw his pants, I saw his shirt, and I saw two holsters over each of his shoulders, pistol holsters, and then that's as much of him as I wanted to see. I didn't want to make eye contact," he says. "I thought if I looked at him, then he would know I'm here."

But the 911 operator was still on the line.

"I think he heard the police on the phone," Goddard said. "He shot some people near me, he shot the girl across from me in the back."

That girl, Ukraine-born Kristina Heeger, 20, was shot in the lower back. Doctors would later remove two-thirds of one of her kidneys. Before the morning was over Heeger would be hit two more times, in the lower body and once in the foot from a ricocheting bullet.

As Cho made his circuit around the room, he found his path through the rows blocked by backpacks and overturned chairs. This factor may have saved the lives of six people who survived the rampage, almost all of whom were huddled at the back of the class.

"I couldn't believe what was happening," said Alison Cook. Then she heard shots almost on top of her, and felt "a searing sensation."

"My chest started to get tight, and I couldn't breathe," she said. She had been shot in the shoulder and the bullet lodged in her ribs.

"After every shot I thought: 'OK, the next one is me. Shot after shot went off and I never felt anything. I played dead and tried to look as lifeless as possible," said Violand. "I was under a desk. He shot the person to my left and to my right. He didn't shoot me."

Colin Goddard flinched when he was hit in the left leg, but, he told Newsweek he "did his best to stay still, to play dead."

Emily Haas saw Goddard drop his phone. She picked it up, and it's here that one of the last mysteries of the Virginia Tech shooting begins.


A transcript of the 911 call was released, without authorization police said later, to the Washington Post in June. It provides the only official times for the events at Norris Hall.

Inexplicably, the Virginia Tech police department claims this was the first 911 call they received about the mass murders taking place. But by so doing they don't explain why the police failed to respond to earlier calls and why it took them twice as long to arrive at Norris Hall than they say it did.

As we have shown, there had already been at the very least four previous 911 calls.

* After Cho left Room 206/Hydrology class, Gil Colman told another survivor, Nathanial Krause, who was uninjured, to go into his backpack, get Colman's phone, and call 911.

* Seeing Cho leave Room 206, gun in hand, Theresa Walsh in Room 205/Computers called 911.

* At the same time Prof. Librescu in Room 204/Mechanics called for someone in his class to call 911. His student Alec Calhoun did.

* And in Room 211/French, Colin Goddard made the first 911 call, which technically was the same call Emily Haas was making.

But as far back as April 25, Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell R. Flinchum was claiming that the Haas call was the first. He held a news conference where he talked about "a 911 call reporting gunshots being heard in Norris Hall is received by police at 9:42 a.m."

"Officers respond immediately to Norris Hall and attempt to enter the building. However, the doors had been chained from within. Virginia Tech and Blacksburg officers breach the doors and move inside by shooting the lock. As they move through the building they hear shots being fired from a floor above them. They hear the last gunshot as they are going up the stairwell to the second floor.

Cho Seung-Hui's shooting rampage inside Norris Hall lasted approximately nine minutes. From the first 911 call at 9:42 a.m., it took the officers only about three minutes to arrive in the area of Norris Hall. Just five minutes later the entry team officers had reached the doors, breached the chains, and made it to the second floor."

On April 20, 2007, Emily Haas told CNN anchor PAULA ZAHN why she picked up the phone.

"And I picked it up, so they would know we were still there. And the 911 operator wanted me to keep talking. And I said, no, I want to be quiet, so he doesn't know we're here. And she was in my ear the whole time, saying, just breathe. Just breathe."

The transcript of that call (or at least the Washington Post story "Eight Minutes after 911 Call, A Rescue From Madness, By Sari Horwitz Washington Post Staff Writer, Friday, June 22, 2007; Page A01) says it came in at 9:43 a.m. (one minute later than Chief Flinchum said at his news conference.) Haas talks to Virginia Tech Police Lt. Debbi Morgan.

Haas: "We've been hurt"

The sound of gunfire is so loud it's as if someone was shooting into the receiver, said the Washington Post.

Morgan: "Where are you?"
Haas: "Two-Eleven Norris Hall."
Morgan can be heard shouting to two dispatchers. There's a shooting! 211 Norris Hall! Happening now.
Morgan: "Are you still there?"
Gasping for breath.
Pop. Pop.
Haas: "I can't talk"
Morgan: "Keep yourself safe," "We're sending people."
Haas: "Please hurry,"
Morgan: "Try to stay calm," "Ease your breathing."

9:45 a.m.

Morgan asked Haas whether she still heard the gunshots.

Yes, Haas said, but they were farther away.

Cho was gone, leaving the room awash in blood and bodies.

Unknown to Haas, he was retracing his steps. He had gone back to Room 207/German class.


Of the 13 people in the room, almost everybody was already either dead or seriously wounded following Cho's first attack only minutes earlier. They could still hear shots but they sounded farther and farther away.

Garret Evans, shot in both legs, looked around the room and saw the most severely wounded fighting for life.

Lily Habtu had been shot in the wrist and in the face, the bullet passing through her jaw and stopping in her tongue a hairsbreadth from her spinal cord. She passed out, came to, then passed out again. "She was bleeding bad," he said.

Sean McQuade had also been shot in the face, his jaw shattered. A came to rest at the base of his skull, and severed eight nerves, paralyzing the right side of his face. He had passed out. Evans watched him come to, breathing heavily, then fall out of his chair.

Kevin Sterne had been shot twice in the leg and was literally bleeding to death. One of the bullets had torn his femoral artery. An Eagle Scout trained in first aid, he knew what he had to do to stay alive. He found an electrical cord and tied it around his leg as a tourniquet. Then he passed out.

"There were maybe four of us coherent enough to do anything," said Derek O'Dell.

As soon as the gunman left the room, those four went into action. O'Dell and Katelyn Carney had been shot; Trey Perkins and Erin Sheehan had miraculously escaped injury. O'Dell, Carney and Perkins rushed to the door and threw themselves against it to act as a human barricade. They braced the door with their feet while Sheehan went to the windows to call for help.

O'Dell was bleeding from a through-and-through gunshot to his right arm. He used his belt as a tourniquet, pulling it tight with his teeth. He was calling 911 when the gunman returned."

The door came open about 3 inches," recalled Evans. "I saw his face. I thought he would put the gun through and shoot."

But Cho just kept pushing on the door, trying to get in. Carney's head was banged by the door a few times, but the students held him back.

Frustrated, Cho fired four or five shots into the door. The door splintered, but the bullets didn't penetrate. And just as suddenly, he was gone.

Cho had moved on---to Room 204. But for the first time, the students on the second floor of Norris Hall had hope of rescue. The police had arrived.

Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell R. Flinchum said police arrived about three minutes after the Haas 911 call, i.e. about 9:46.They didn't immediately try to enter Norris Hall.

State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller, explaining police response time, said officers needed to assemble the proper team and clear the area before breaking through the doors.

We have no accounts of any of the first police at the scene. But a Newsweek story, which may have only appeared online as a Web Exclusive, provides some a clue to what police knew or didn't know when they arrived.

The story, dated April 23, 2007, by Pat Wingert, is about Virginia State Police Sgt. Matthew Brannock, who attended the shooting scene and helped carry some of the wounded students out of the building.

He tells how he was listening to the police scanner in his Salem, Virginia, office when he heard Virginia State Trooper Ken Kozar say that "a suspect had barricaded himself" in a campus building.

Knowing of the double murder on the Virginia Tech campus that morning, Brannock decided to head over.

"A few minutes later, Kozar was back on the scanner, his voice now clearly betraying stress. 'There was a chance the suspect was armed.' Brannock flipped on his sirens and picked up speed. Moments later, Kozar was yelling into the scanner. Shots were being fired. 'Get me some help up here!' he hollered." (Newsweek Web Exclusive)

At first glance, this doesn't appear to be the account of a policeman responding to any of the 911 calls that came in as Cho went from room to room killing people.

Did the police delay dispatching police to Norris Hall for 3 minutes because they thought they were dealing with a routine man-with-a-gun report instead of a mass murder?

Whatever the reason for the delay, they were there now.

Tomorrow: the conclusion

And Cho was heading for Room 204. And a big disappointment.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The War in Afghanistan 2007 Week 33

1-2-3. The cut and thrust of war was the story in Afghanistan last week.

1. The American launched a furious offensive in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan. The air assault on the first day was unlike anything seen all year.
2. Five Nato soldiers were killed in separate attacks.
3. A disappointing lack of progress in rebuilding the vital Kajaki Dam

Tora Bora

You want shock and awe? You got it.

The Americans got wind in July that 300 Arab, Chechen, and Pakistani insurgents had moved into the mountains of Tora Bora a month earlier. The Tora Bora cave complex is "an entrenched network of caves and tunnels carved into the Safed Koh mountain range on the Nangarhar-Pakistan border." It's where many believe Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers made their final stand against a U.S. air assault before escaping into Pakistan in 2001.

On Sunday, Aug. 12, U.S. airpower returned to Tora Bora with a vengeance. The skies over Nangarhar province were full of Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, B-1B Lancer bombers, A-10 Thunderbolt Iis, Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets, and Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons.

And if that wasn't enough, the Americans have added a new weapon to their arsenal. It's an artillery shell called the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). Fired high into the air they are guided to their target by onboard GPS computer systems or lasers. This is the weapon used to kill Mullah Dadullah in May, breaking the back of the Taliban's planned spring and summer offensives. The rockets are now used as a complement to the Predator UAVs that have killed more than a dozen Al Qaeda leaders.

NATO deaths

Roadside bombs continue to take a deadly toll. They are the single most effective weapon in the insurgent arsenal. This week:

* Nangarhar 3 U.S. soldiers killed
* Eastern Afghanistan (probably Ghazni province) 1 Polish solider killed
* near Kabul 3 German diplomatic security guards killed
* Kandahar province 5 police officers killed
* Logar province 3 police officers killed
* Helmand province 3 police hurt
* Kandahar province 5 Canadian soldiers hurt
* Kandahar province 2 Canadians hurt

One British soldier was killed in combat in Helmand province, bringing the death toll for NATO and U.S. forces to five for the week. But its worth noting that we're talking about seven bomb blasts over seven days in five provinces in a country that's almost the size of France and twice the size of Germany. It's not exactly a devastating campaign.

And we can see why the Taliban has only roadside bombs to rely on. Their vaunted ambushes and raids are a faltering tactic.

In Kandahar, police got a tip that Taliban fighters were planning to storm a police centre. They launched a pre-emptive strike of their own, killing 9 insurgents.

In Helmand near the embattled town of Sangin, Taliban forces launched two ambushes. On Thursday, they were fought off until an air strike killed four insurgents, causing the rest to flee. The next day they tried again and were fought off by Afghan army forces.

In Wardak province in the east, about 10 Taliban fighters fought a four-hour gunbattle with police when they took over a radio station. They eventually fled after setting fire to the station. They left behind four dead---almost half the raiding party. Taliban forces resumed their suicide bomb campaign last week.

In Kandahar a suicide bomber knocked on the door of the district chief and detonated his explosives when the man answered. The district chief and three of his children, all under 10, were killed.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy in Kandahar province but only managed to kill himself, four Afghan security guards and 11 civilians, many of them the passengers of a minibus that was passing by. 26 people were wounded.

The mainstream media, of course, carried no stories about outrage at civilian casualties caused by suicide bombers.

Dam Frustrated

The death of another British soldier in Helmand only highlights the situation there. The slow progress in securing the area around the Kajai Dam is sapping the momentum of reconstruction in Afghanistan.

It now looks extremely unlikly that the goal of providing electricity to 2 million people by early 2008 will be met. Work on the dam had to start by August at the latest.

NATO announced in June that "the major Gershk-Sangin-Kajaki road-building project has started and progresses north." That would be a first step. But the major step of stablizing a perimeter of about 3 to 5 kilometres around a worksite-to stop mortar fire from threatening workers-appears a work in progress.

While British troops have pushed Taliban insurgents out of the area, there are still mortar attacks and sniper fire and almost daily air strikes to suppress them. Coalition and Afghan forces have yet to retake the village of Musa Qala which the Taliban captured in February and still holds, providing refuge and reinforcements for insurgents targetting Kajaki Dam.]

In December, Britain's top commander in Afghanistan announced that the Taliban had been "cleared" from the Kajaki area so that construction workers could return in the spring.

In January, James Franckiewicz, director of USAID's Office of Infrastructure, Engineering, and Energy in Afghanistan, said he expected contractors to be mobilized in February and the hydroelectric portion of reconstruction to be finished by the end of the year.

Those hopes have been dashed repeatedly.

For the last month the soldiers from B (Suffolk) Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, have been based in Kajaki, and tasked with maintaining the security around the Dam.

A Ministry of Defence story on their efforts is bleak reading:

The town of Tangye, which is just outside the British base near the dam is deserted after months of fighting. Towns and villages all around Kajaki have been abandoned; soldiers call it 'the dead zone'. The daily routine involves fighting and conducting security patrols on the lower plains as well as standing patrols in observation posts accessed by goat tracks and slopes that would challenge the most experienced hill men.

In the month or so of constant patrolling the Vikings have only had one patrol on which they did not come under enemy fire.

Taliban fire came from 360 degrees, achieved by several well hidden positions. At the same time Nato air assets circled overhead, dropping three 500lb (226kg) bombs to neutralise the enemy. At the dam, the Vikings' own mortars were being fired from the British base to stop the Taliban advancing. Section commanders accurately adjusted the mortar fire running quickly between trenches and drawing enemy fire as they moved.

At the same time a sniper speedily moved between positions engaging individual targets, pausing only for a few covert puffs on a cigarette. Inside one of the trenches Second Lieutenant Martin Driver explained that, due to the intensity of fire and the 'shoot and scoot' tactics adopted by the Taliban, it was difficult to pinpoint the enemy firing positions during these fierce engagements.

During the 80-minute dawn exchange, the Vikings fired more than 6,000 rounds and a number of Taliban were killed. Explosions from mortar bombs pitted the plain below, in all 237 mortar rounds rained on the enemy. So intense was the exchange that machine gun barrels were close to overheating. Oliver 'Dusty' Hale, 20, who was protecting the unit's left flank, had to break from firing to drench his barrel with gun oil to cool it down. A thousand used cartridges, the remnants of five expended ammunition belts, littering the floor of his trench. "

A week ago, Lt Col Richard Westley, commanding officer of 1st Battalion The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, said British and coalition forces had cleared more than half the "green zone", a strip of lush growth along the Helmand River which provides cover to Taliban fighters.

The defenders of Kajaki Dam have yet to see the benefit of that announcement.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Revisiting the Virginia Tech massacre: Breath-taking new information

Virginia Tech began its fall semester Monday. We're going to mark the return to classes by revisiting that dark hour in April when Seung-Hui Cho roamed the halls, killing 25 students and 5 staff members and wounding over a dozen.

By incorporating vital new information we can correct mistakes in our previous stories and put the events into a better perspective than was possible before.

The Rosetta Stone to the story is a transcript of a 911 call from Virginia Tech which was released to the Washington Post in June. It allows us to orient the happenings at the school and to correlate various time estimates by students. The results are often breath-taking.

Cho's rampage started much later than we thought and took much less time than we imagined. He killed 30 people in four classrooms in the space of only 11 minutes.

And, we now know that the shots caught on a student's videophone and broadcast on CNN were Cho's final rampage, the exact moment when he was killing students in French class. The video ends with the sound of a huge bang, which is the sound of police firing a shotgun to force their way into the school past doors that had been chained shut from the inside. A minute later Cho fired his final shot--- into his own head.


Classes in Virginia Tech's Norris Hall started at 9:05 a.m.

At 9:01 a.m. Cho was at a post office mailing a home-made video of his rants against the world to NBC. A short while later school janitor Pamela Tickle was dusting a hallway on the second floor of Norris Hall when she passed a young man she now knows was Cho. He had a serious look on his face and she figured he was on his way to turn in a paper at one of the offices along the hall.

But what attracted her attention was the noise he made when he walked.

"You could hear stuff jingling," she said. The noise came from his pockets.

About 9:30 a.m. engineering student Zach Vane, 21, left Professor Liviu Librescu's mechanical engineering class in Room 204 and went to the washroom at the end of the hall. That rest stop may have saved his life.

Cho passed Tickle again, looking very intense.

The next time anyone saw him, he was peeking into occupied classrooms, sometimes visiting a classroom twice. The students found it unusual, the professors found it annoying.

Student David Stumpf finished an exam and headed for a coffee shop on campus. He noticed the time on his cellphone read 9:40 a.m.

Tickle kept dusting to the end of the hallway when she saw a student by the exit doors. He couldn't get out because the doors had been lashed together with chains and a gold padlock. The student, David Stumpf, asked her why the doors were chained.

Tickle said she had no idea, and said she would call her boss. At that moment, associate engineering professor Janis Terpenny walked up and showed Tickle a note she had plucked from the door leading to the stairwell on the second floor.

It read: " Bomb will go off if you open the door." The word "Bomb" was underlined. The note was written in red ink on the back of a flier.

Terpenny and Tickle now believe Cho posted the note to discourage people from entering the hallway from the stairwell and interrupting him as he chained and padlocked the doors with the chains that jangled as he walked by the janitor earlier.

* It's becoming more apparent that Cho planned his murder spree meticulously.

Police say that two days before the mass killings, a Saturday, they answered calls about a suspicious man in Norris Hall, and they discovered at least one door had been chained shut. You don't have to be Columbo to guess who that suspicious man was.

Back in Norris Hall, Tickle said she was going to call her supervisor. She was walking toward a closet to get her phone when the first shots rang out.

* Cho began his killing spree in Room 206, Hydrology. The 20 x 30 classroom held 14 people.

Cho stepped into the room armed with two handguns. He shot and killed Prof. G.V. Longanathan, 51. He killed Julia Pryde, 23, who sat near beside the front door.

Then he walked along the front row, shooting everyone in turn. Brian Bluhm, 25, Matthew Gwaltney, 24, and Juan Ortiz, 26, died where they sat.

Guillermo (Gil) Colman, 38, sat in the last chair in the front row to the shooter's right. The second he realized what was happening, he dived to the floor beside a radiator and covered up. Partahi Lumbantoruan, 34, who sat in the row behind him was shot and his body fell across Colman's. Cho shot Colman in the head behind his left ear.

The 9 mm. bullet lodged at the base of his skull, stopped in place by a bone that someone said later just happens to be the hardest bone in the human body. Colman also suffered a bullet wound to his shoulder, which may have been a ricochet. Another bullet grazed his nose leaving a burn. Colman played dead, which was made easy as his head wound bled like crazy.

Cho fired at Park Chang-Min, 27, who sat two rows behind Colman, also near the windows. Park was hit in the chest.

Four others-Jarrett Lane, 22, Daniel O'Neil, 22, Waleed Shaalan, 32, and Jeremy Herbstritt, 27-had been hit and were either dead or dying. Cho reloaded and fired another short burst. Then just as quickly as he entered, Cho left the room.

Only two students were unmarked - Lee Hixon who sat at the back of the class against the wall and Nathaniel Krause, who sat next to Colman in the front row. Krause was to have another brush with death very soon.

The barrage of shots hadn't gone unnoticed.

* In classes throughout Norris Hall students and professors wondered what the noise was, but dismissed it as the sound of the construction that had been going on all year. But some recognized it as the sound of gunshots and worried.

In the next room, Room 204/Mechanics, Prof. Librescu looked into the hallway for the source of the shots. Across the hall, in Room 205/Computer Technology, teaching assistant Cheng Haiyan was doing the same. With her was student Theresa Walsh.

"I looked across the hall at Dr. Librescu's class, and I look at him and he was in the doorway. All of his students were behind him, he was like holding them inside the classroom," Walsh said this week.

"That's when I saw the shooter out of the corner of my eye. He didn't see me at first. He kept walking towards us and when he got two or three feet away he started to raise his gun. A teacher's assistant was standing in the doorway. I was still in the hall. That's when I pushed her into the classroom and he shot and missed and we slammed the door," Walsh recounted earlier.

But Cho may not have been shooting at Walsh.

In Librescu's class, his students had been getting progressively more worried about the noises next door. The New York Times later reported that one student shouted, "That's gunfire, I'm getting out of here."

That student was Jamal Carver. He dashed out the door, with another student, Yank Kim, right behind him, only to run into Cho as he left Room 204. They sprinted toward a stairwell, but they couldn't outrun Cho's bullets.

Carver was knocked to the ground when bullets hit his right arm and left side. Kim helped him up and they ran down the stairs to the exit doors---only to find them chained shut. They took refuge in a main floor classroom and waited for help to arrive.

Back in their class, Prof. Librescu said, "Someone call 911." At the back of the room, Alec Calhoun waved his cellphone in the air to signal he had already called.

* Outside on the second floor, Cho simply walked across the hall to Room 207/German immediately across from Hydrology. There were only a dozen people inside and they had been growing more concerned as the strange noise didn't let up.

"That can't be gunshots, can it?" the professor said.

They had been joking that maybe they should barricade the door in case the sounds they were when Cho walked in and immediately shot Prof. Jamie Bishop, 35, in the head.

"Everyone hit the floor at that moment," said student Trey Perkins, 20. He would later remember looking at the time on his cellphone when he first heard shots. 9:40 a.m.

A girl screamed, setting off a chain of events in Prof. Livescu's class.

Cho methodically walked along the front row shooting people, said one survivor. Lily Habtu was sitting in the centre of the class. She was shot twice, once in the face and once in the right wrist. The bullet went through her jaw and lodged in her tongue. If it had gone even one millimeter further it would have hit her brainstem killing or paralyzing her.

Sean McQuade, 21, was also in the front row. He was shot in the face, the bullet shattering his jaw before splintering into five fragments.

Kevin Sterne, 22, was hit in the right thigh two times. One bullet went right through, the other severed a major artery and he was in danger of bleeding to death. Derek O'Dell was hit in the right arm. "Then I started belly crawling military-style to the back of the room, while he was firing, and hid under another desk." said O'Dell.

Garrett Evans was shot in the left leg. Katelyn Carney was hiding behind a desk shielding her face with her left hand when a bullet smashed through the desk hitting her temple and grazing her temple.

Perkins, who sat at the back of the class, hid behind overturned desks. He was not hit.

Erin Sheehan dove to the ground with bodies piling up all around her. She was covered in their blood, but was not wounded herself.

Cho ran out of bullets. For a second there was quiet as he reloaded. Then he fired another burst of 8-10 shots into the students.

* The gunshots could be heard throughout the building. A girl who had finished an accounting test on the third floor ran back to alert her class.

"(She) was freaking out. She was, like, something is going on downstairs. People are running out of the building. There's gunshots going off," recalled Tiffany Otey. Her professor spoke with a colleague, Kevin Granata, and the class of about 20 was ushered into Granata's office and the door was locked.

Granata went down to the second floor to check out the situation for himself. He bumped into Professor Wally Grant who left his second floor office to do the same. Together they walked toward the room where the sounds were coming from---Room 207.

Granata knocked on the classroom door, Grant told the Charleston Daily Mail. "The shooter opened the door and shot him right away."

Grant, who was standing about five feet away, turned and ran for his life back the way he had come. Cho fired shots at the fleeing man, but missed. Some ricochets, however, hit Grant in the triceps muscle of his right arm and the side of his face. He decided to duck into a bathroom at the end of the hallway.

Inside was Librescu's student Zach Vane who was just leaving to go back to class. Grant called 911 and the pair waited for rescue. The washroom door didn't lock and they knew they couldn't stop the gunman if he chose to force his way in.

Following Grant would have led Cho down the hallway toward the back of the school, back to the door into Room 211/French where 18 people were praying to survive the latest school horror.

(to be continued tomorrow)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

O'Learygate: Follow The Money


A school board headed by the NDP's former campaign chairman uses public funds to engage in an unauthorized, illicit land development scheme and loses $300,000 while the NDP Minister of Education turns a blind eye. And the provincial Auditor General hasn't a word of condemnation for either man in her so-called "special audit."

What's wrong with this picture?

Auditor Carol Bellringer says because she couldn't find that anyone in government or at the school board personally profitted from the land deal, nothing is wrong with this picture.

The ethics of misusing taxpayer dollars and then covering it up escaped her. The political connections between the parties was the farthest thing from her mind, and her audit.

She also spent as little time as humanly possible examining the fishy accounting that supposedly tells the financial story of the Seven Oaks School Board's short experience as land developers.

WE didn't. Here's the sorry story unravelled by The Black Rod.

Let's start with Carol Bellringer's approach to the finances of the deal (emphasis ours):

"Based on the cost allocations provided by the Planner, the financial information for the residential development disclosed a surplus of $512,118 and the financial information for the future school site disclosed an asset in land that cost $819,810. When the financial information for the residential development and the future school site are combined, expenditures for the project exceeded revenues by $307,692, but SOSD maintains an asset in the form of a serviced future school site."

"We did not undertake a review of these financial statements nor did we validate the reasonableness of the cost allocations provided by the Planner."

In ordinary language, the auditor accepted holus-bolus the numbers provided by the man who proposed the land development in the first place, who advised the school board to become the developers, whose company (Lombard North Group) collected $392,868 in fees, and who has, by any reasonable measure, the biggest stake in making the scheme sound good.

No red flags there, eh?

Perhaps Bellringer should have read Page 12 of her own report where she quotes from a forensic analysis of the Swinford Park development prepared by Land Management Services (a branch of the provincial government providing real estate services to provincial agencies.)

The analysis provided in February, 2005, reported:

"The School Division's income statement is not consistent with the quality of financial reporting warranted by a commercial venture of this scale. Any review of the project's financial performance or plint-in-time risk assessment is hindered by the quality of the available financial information."

That said, all we have to work with is the financial statement provided by the Seven Oaks School Board on its website the same statement that Auditor Bellringer relied upon. The financial statement, audited by chartered accountants KPMG, gives the accounting as at Jan. 31, 2006.

Of course you immediately go to the bottom line: minus $307,692.

And that's not counting another $78,000 that was expected to be spent in 2006 on trees, a pond and professional fees. There are no offsetting revenues.

If Bellringer had bothered to ask for an updated financial statement to, say, Dec. 31, 2006 the bottom line would likely read an eventual loss of $385,692.

That means the geniuses at Seven Oaks School Division took a 13.8 percent loss on their illicit business venture.

And, for lovers of irony, the loss is almost exactly what the Planner who proposed the whole scheme earned on the deal (see above).

The Seven Oaks School Division, NDP Education Minister Peter Bjornson, and even auditor general Carol Bellringer prefer to point to the duplicitous $512,118 "net income" realized on the Swinford Park development.

The only way the principles could turn a loss into an alleged profit was through the legerdemain of creative accounting.

Initially the deal went like this: Seven Oaks would buy twice as much land as they needed for a new school, sell the surplus as a developed subdivision, and use the profits to pay for the school land.

But after they got caught--- and they had to come up with an explanation for losing hundreds of thousands of dollars--- they revised their memory of their plan. Now it was two separate and barely related projects.

One was to acquire land for a new high school.
The other was a land development.
Two projects, two sets of accounting.

David Palubeski, the man known to Bellringer as The Planner, was left to apportion the costs of each project to the relevent set of finances. Nobody questioned the fact that, as the man who first produced the school division-as-developer option, he might have an incentive to maximize the benefits of the money-losing project.

This could be done by shifting as many costs as possible to the new school project. That would reduce liabilities for Swinford Park and increase the alleged surplus on that project.

Hocus pocus, loss into profit.

And through the magic of accounting principles, the liabilities now attached to the new school, instantly becomed assets. How, you ask?

Because if a school is ever built on that land, the school division will be reimbursed all their costs by the province. Hello, Peter Bjornson.

That's why the empty lot that the Seven Oaks School Division owns in the Swinford Park development now carries a "net book value" of $819,810.

Taxpayers in the Seven Oaks School Division might wonder why their school board poured $819,810 into a piece of land that's going to sit empty, possibly for decades, not earning a cent. Certainly Carol Bellringer didn't think this use (or abuse) of taxpayers' money was noteworthy.

Remember that the City and the community didn't want a high school in Swinford Park in the first place. Will they welcome a Junior High? That "asset" may never be realized, except as a fig leaf.

Something we found noteworthy, even if we can't explain it, was this strange notation in the Swinford Park financial statement on the school division's website.

Due from Seven Oaks School Division -- Capital Fund $511,909

That figure comes from nowhere, is never mentioned again, and is not the subject of any note of explanation.

Coincidentally, it is exactly $209 less than the alleged profit on Swinford Park.

Is the Seven Oaks School Division using its Capital Fund to provide the profit on its disastrous adventure in land development? Carol Bellringer didn't think it worth an explanation.

In her world, the Seven Oaks School Division made an honest mistake because of confusing policies, procedures and practices.

"It is arguable that SOSD was not in compliance with the PSA (Public Schools Act) when it undertook residential land development activities in Swinford Park." is the strongest criticism she makes. She softens her biting words by suggesting the school board would have been prudent to get a legal opinion first.

She overlooks the fact that the layman who wrote to the Education Minister in 2004 had no difficulty recognizing that a school board should not be involved as land developers, something which the professionals couldn't grasp. He also recognized that Seven Oaks was trying to hide its involvement.

Bellringer, on the other hand, sees the opposite.

"...we found no evidence that SOSD intended to mislead PSFB (the Public Schools Finance Board which had to approve how Seven Oaks disposed of its surplus land - ed) or to obscure its intended development activities from PSFB."

No, not if you don't count advising the finance board of your intention "to sell the excess land to developers" without mentioning that YOU are the developer. (Special audit P. 19)

And not if you don't count failing to notify the finance board of the tenders received for the surplus land, as required by the regulations, because you intended to develop the land yourself. (Special audit P.22)

And not if you don't count having a meeting with the finance board, as required by the regulations, when there was still time to quash the land development. (Special audit P.22)

And not if you don't count submitting lot sale agreements (LSA's) to the finance board prior to the closure of the sale of each property, as required by the rules, so that the finance board could see you were selling developed lots and not raw land. (Special audit P. 24)

And not if you don't count bamboozling the finance board by writing them about the bid time limits and referencing the normal process of selling surplus land in "as is condition." (Special audit P.20 and 21).

And not if you don't count the school board's lie to the finance board and the provincial authorities that there was "no financial risk" (Special audit P.26) when the Special audit, itself, refers to the risk of "a possible cash shortfall for the school division" (P. 23) and the danger that Seven Oaks School Division "could face financial liability" if the finance board didn't retroactively approve the lot sales immediately (P.25).

Nope. No pattern of deception here.

Instead, Bellringer blamed the Public Schools Finance Board`for failing to keep the Seven Oaks School Board from breaching the act that prohibits trustees from playing fast and loose with taxpayers' money, and for failing to see that the school board wasn't giving them the information they were legally required to provide.

Bad board. Baaad board.

Her "special audit" deserves a special place in the Delusional Hall of Fame.

The sparse facts provided by Bellringer herself tell a story completely at odds with her conclusions.

The Seven Oaks School Board thought they had discovered a clever way to get a new high school at a time when their ideological friends in government were not approving new schools.

They would buy land for a new school, pay for it through profits on a land development, and present the schools finance board with an offer they couldnt' refuse -- free land for a new school.

They tricked the schools finance board into approving the sale of the land they had picked for a subdivision by claiming they were going to sell it "to developers or builders". Instead they launched into their own development project, going through zoning and holding public hearings and always keeping the finance board in the dark by failing to hand over the very information that would have revealed their illicit land development.

When they finally got caught, thanks to a whistleblower Robert Snyder who wrote the Education Minister, they ran to the public schools finance board to bail them out. It was a foregone conclusion. The schools finance board wasn't going to turn them down and be blamed for the loss of two million dollars.

And they knew they could count on the Education Minister to help them keep the scandal under wraps.

And, sure enough, Education Minister Peter Bjornson played his part, even going so far as to mislead the Legislature twice.

First when he claimed he knew nothing about Swinford Park until it was raised in the legislature, only to confess the opposite when the whistleblower's May, 2004, email turned up.

And a second time when he claimed Swinford Park made a profit, without revealing the intricate double accounting that hid the $307,000 loss.He even mislead the whistleblower.

Bjornson stalled a reply to Snyder's email for two weeks, exactly enough time for the public schools finance board to retroactively approve the Swinford Park development.

He let the Seven Oaks School Board draft an unresponsive reply to Robert Snyder without demanding that the board tell him whether Snyder's allegations were true (we'll bet anything that Bjornson already knew the answer).

And in his reply email Bjornson included this:

"If The Public Schools Finance Board (PSFB) approves a new school on that property, the school division is entitled to be reimbursed its acquisition cost at fair market value."

Remember, Bjornson wrote Robert Snyder in May, 2004.

That was two years and four months AFTER the request for a new high school in Swinford Park had been turned down by the PSFB.

And the Minister was still pretending it was a possibility.

But auditor Carol Bellringer saw nothing wrong in any of this.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Auditor gives O'Learygate a makeover

Come one. Come all.

See the amazing contortionist Auditor General of Manitoba bend and twist herself into unnatural and painful positions as she tries to shape a new reality from the scandal known as O'Learygate.

In fact, the role of Brian O'Leary, who gives his name to the scandal, is not even explored in Auditor Carol Bellringer's "special audit".

O'Leary, the superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division --- and former NDP campaign manager --- guided the division's illicit foray into illegal development of Swinford Park with public money. And he still gets a pass in Bellringer's books.

The special audit took 20 months--yes, that's twenty months--to answer three main questions.

Q: Was the Seven Oaks School Division's land development project lawful?
A: No.

Q: When they got caught, did they admit what they were doing?
A: No.

Q: Who's to blame?
A: Ah, there's the rub...

Bellringer worked long and hard to massage that answer. First she threw up a bunch of straw man questions to obscure the evidence.

" Did Seven Oaks dispose of other surplus land and if so, did they comply with the Public Schools Act?"

Uh, who said they did?

" Was the decision process by the Public Schools Finance Board to approve a new high school to replace West Kildonan Collegiate Institute clear and transparent? "

Uh, who cares?

There's a half dozen more irrelevent eye-glazers that the media, as the NDP hoped, jumped on, ignoring the real meat of the story.

When it came to apportioning blame, Bellringer applied the same principle that the NDP uses to determine who is to blame for auto theft. In the NDP's case, it's obviously the owners of the cars that thieves steal.

In O'Learygate, it's not the people who entered the illicit land development and covered it up. It's the Public Schools Finance Board which "should have known" that Seven Oaks was going to go into the land development business.

Yet, a careful reading of the facts in the special audit tells the true story.

For starters, Bellringer confirms that Seven Oaks School Division lost well over $300,000 in its ill-fated land development project, something reported exclusively in The Black Rod in June, 2005---two years and two months ago.

But that's the end of the story. Let's start at the beginning.

In January, 2001, Seven Oaks School Division wanted a new high school to replace West Kildonan Collegiate. But the government isn't approving new schools unless every seat in a division is filled and there's no other option.

In Seven Oaks, the option was to renovate West K. That was minor stumbling block for the school board.

They hired a planner to, you know, do some preliminary work on a new high school, if, you know, there happened to be a new high school in the works.

They liked his report which suggested they buy twice as much land as they needed for a school, then subdivide the excess into a new subdivision. The profit would cover the cost of land for the school, and all would be hunky-dory.

So they bought the land. And asked the Public Schools Finance Board to reconsider the WKCI renos in favour of a brand new high school.

While the finance board considered the request, the Seven Oaks board applied for rezoning, held public hearings on the new (still unapproved) school, and bought even more land to provide better access to the new (still unapproved) school.

Six months later, guess what? The Public Schools Finance Board rejected their plan.
No new high school.
Minor hurdle, said the Seven Oaks school board.

They continued holding public hearings (the city and community were opposed to a new school at the site) until September, 2002 when they told the community they would hold on to the land for a new junior high school they hoped to eventually build there.

In the meantime, they had all this surplus land just sitting there. So they asked the PSFB for permission to sell it. They just forgot to tell the PSFB they were going to be their own developers.

In fact, their request kinda said the opposite.

"The request stated that SOSD hoped " sell the excess land to developers or builders in the near future." (P. 19, Special Audit: Property Transactions in the Seven Oaks School Division.)

They got the okay to sell the land with the normal provisions--put it out to tender, bring the bids to the schools finance board, and have a meeting with them to pick the best offer.

Then something funny happened. Okay, not exactly funny so much as extremely troubling, to the point that it calls Carol Bellringer's judgement into question.

On April 3, 2003, there was a meeting to discuss a request to shorten the tender process from 4 months to 30 days.

Three people were at the meeting: a representative of the Public Schools Finance Board, someone from the Seven Oaks School Division, and David Palubeski, the planner with Lombard Group North, who were working with Seven Oaks on the subdivision.

Three people.
Who gave three completely different accounts of what happened at that meeting.

In the news business, this is known as ONE HORKING BIG RED FLAG.
In the auditor general business, it's passed off with a shrug.

* The PSFB staff member said he left the meeting with the understanding Seven Oaks was selling "staked" land, i.e. undeveloped lots and there had been absolutely no discussion that Seven Oaks School Division was going to do any servicing of the lots.

* Palubeski said he left with the impression that the Public Schools Finance Board knew that the school board planned to get into the land development business.

* And the Seven Oaks School Division attendee couldn't remember a thing about the meeting.

Uh, huh.

Bellringer doesn't find any of this the slightest big suspicious. Or what happened next.

In July, 2003, Palubeski went to the Seven Oaks board and recommended that all the tenders for the land be rejected because, to quote Bellringer's report, "the builders would take an unreasonably large portion of the profit."

The solution---do it yourself and reap the profits.

The SOSB thought that was a wonderful idea. There was only one small problem. They were supposed to bring the tenders to the schools finance board as per the rules.

The solution? Don't tell the finance board about the tenders. Problem solved.

Neither did the Seven Oaks School Board provide the PSFB the land service agreements as required by the rules. While that would have revealed the school board was in the land development business, it was a good thing that "an oversight" kept the information from the schools finance board. Whew , lucky break.

Not for the Public Schools Finance Board though.
Carol Bellringer says it's their fault the Seven Oaks school board kept them in the dark.
"PSFB did not follow up to ensure compliance with their motion." she writes.

And then it all fell apart. On May 2, a taxpayer sent an e-mail to the Minister of Education advising him that it appeared the Seven Oaks School Division was engaged in a land development project, and asking whether this was a legal activity for a school board.

Only one word describes the next two weeks:

You can read all about the desperate moves to cover up the unauthorized rogue land development by the SOSD in The Black Rod archives from Sunday, June 19, 2005 (yes, two years ago): FLAGGING O'LEARYGATE: The 3 Stages of Cover-Up.

In a nutshell, the board of the Seven Oaks School Division went running to the Public Schools Finance Board to get the land development approved retroactively and to bail out the SOSD from potential lawsuits if the project was stopped because it was unauthorized and in breach of the Public Schools Act.

No biggie, says Bellringer.

In fact, she deliberately kept the whistleblower's complaint out of the chronology of the Seven Oaks development scandal so that the subsequent unusual and unexplained actions of the school board and the schools finance board are without context.

And she shows no curiousity at the amazing memory loss of everyone involved.

Nobody, it seems, can remember the details of the meeting where the Swinford Park development received its belated approval.Well, its belated pre-approval.

Bellringer notes, without comment, that crucial information was missing from the minutes of that panicky meeting--namely the names of the presenter, the mover and the seconder of the motion to approve the land settlement agreements. And that a subsequent examination showed that the motion had been "pre-approved only" and still needed to be ratified at another board meeting.

Nope. Nothing suspicious there.

Cut to the chase: the money.

to be continued...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The War in Afghanistan 2007 Week 32

What's that saying about not seeing the forest for the trees?

Well, that perfectly describes how the mainstream media is covering the mission in Afghanistan.

This past week we read how five Canadian soldiers were injured when their RG-31 Nyala armoured vehicle struck an IED in a Taliban ambush.

The reporter for Canwest News, Andrew Maueda, couldn't help himself from making the snide comment "The attack came only hours after a top Canadian military commander touted the progress Canada has made in securing the province against insurgents."

But here's a story that didn't make the news: the Taliban have abandoned their 29 training camps in North and South Waziristan, the border area of Pakistan.

That's right. The pressure got too great and they split for the hills (literally in some cases). Anticipating military strikes from the American and Pakistani forces, the Taliban ran. They didn't chose to leave. They were forced to. In other words, another victory for the international forces in Afghanistan.

Oh, of course, they're painting their sudden retreat as a wily tactical manoeuvre.

"The naive, rustic but battle-hardened Taliban still want a fight, but it will be fought on the Taliban's chosen battlegrounds," writes Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau chief, in a story headlined 'Taliban a step ahead of US assault.'

Shahzad's stories for the Asia Times all put a Taliban friendly spin on the news from Afghanistan, but he has strong sources within the insurgent groups. That means his stories offer a good insight into the thinking within Taliban power circles.

Shahzad admits the killing of the Taliban's chief military commander, Mullah Dadullah, in May shattered the insurgency.

"Amid the demoralization, the entire Taliban leadership left Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul and Kandahar and sat idle in Satellite Town in Quetta, Pakistan for several weeks," he writes.

In June, according to the Asia Times, Taliban leader Mullah Omar decided that from now on the insurgency in the southwest, where British, Canadian and Dutch forces are stationed, would be decentralized. "No members of the central military command would work in southwest Afghanistan" wrote Shahzad. The mortality rate for senior commanders was just too high.

Instead, local commanders were on their own to conduct their own strategy. Just keep us posted, said Omar.

That's the forest.

* The insurgency in shambles.
* The leaders afraid to show themselves.
* The training camps closed.

Keep this handy to read the next time you see a news account of "how badly" the mission in Afghanistan is going.

Three attacks

On the ground during Week 32 the most intriguing story was the attacks on Camp Anaconda, a U.S. special forces outpost in Uruzgan province. Taliban forces assaulted Camp Anaconda three times during the week.

On Tuesday, the camp's defenders fought off a force of about 75 insurgents, killing about 24. The daily air summary says an Air Force B-1 Lancer "provided close-air support for coalition troops taking small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire from Taliban extremists near Oruzgan. The B-1 expended Guided Bomb Unit-31s on cave entrances and the extremists' positions, ending the engagement."

Then on Saturday, another attack was beaten off with mortars and heavy machine gun fire. Four insurgents were killed. Saturday evening, there was a third attack which was also repulsed with "several" insurgents killed.

Coalition forces suspect the unusual Taliban assaults on Firebase Anaconda may be rehearsals for a much bigger attack this summer. They say the Taliban's goal is to overrun an occupied US outpost.

Two other possibilities come to mind. One is that the attacks are a diversion for forces resupplying or massing elsewhere. The other is much simpler; with the summer offensive sputtering, a local group of fighters just decided it was a good time to get killed and claim their virgins in heaven before the winter sets in.

There was a lot of air activity over Uruzgan province last week, with A-10 Thunderbolts strafing insurgents on Monday, the action over Camp Anaconda Tuesday, and a concerted attack on Friday by F-15Es which dropped 500 pound bombs on enemy firing positions in Tarin Kowt and a Royal Air Force Harrier which picked up the fight after the F-15s left, attacking a ridgeline with rockets.

Green Zone

In neighbouring Helmand Province, a top commander said British forces have cleared Taliban fighters from more than half of the crucial "Green Zone", a narrow strip along the Helmand River where the vegetation offers insurgents cover they can't find in the surrounding desert.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Westley said NATO has driven Taliban fighters out of about 60 percent of the Green Zone. He said the front line, on the outskirts of the town of Gereshk as of April, has been pushed back seven miles.

A major NATO assault last month, codenamed Operation Storm - saw up to 270 Taliban fighters killed, while others withdrew from the zone, he said.

Air over Helmand

Air activity over Helmand continued to be steady as it has almost every week since the Brits launched their first offensive in the spring. The town of Sangin continues to be hotly contested by Taliban forces which were driven out earlier this summer.

A weapons cache was destroyed at Sangin on Monday, a B-1 Lancer provided close-air support Tuesday for coaliton troops fighting insurgent foces near the Taliban-held village of Musa Qala, and a Taliban vehicle was blown up near Sangin, enemy forces were strafed Thursday at Garmsir and Sangin. On Friday, an F-15E put a 500 pound bomb on an enemy firing position near a tree line in Sangin.

About 50 Taliban ambushed British forces near the village of Payowak in Washir district of Helmand province, sparking off a 13-hour gunbattle. The Brits has some warning of the attack when villagers suddenly began leaving the area. Air support was called in and the ambush was fought off with 10 Taliban dead.


In Kandahar province, where Canadians lead the provincial reconstruction efforts, an attack on a police vehicle left two police dead and eight wounded.

The Dutch shot and killed a motorcyclist who got too close to their convoy.

In Zabul province insurgents on motorbikes attacked a police checkpoint. Five Taliban were killed.

In Farah province at the western edge of Afghanistan, villagers fought Taliban insurgents, killing five of them. Two villagers died.

In Badghis province, bordering Iran, a major ambush left seven Afghan soldiers dead and destroyed eight Afghan army vehicles. 20 Taliban fighters were killed, including the local commander.

And Australian troops newly arrived in Uruzgan province fought two battles in two days. On Wednesday a patrol was ambushed. Attack helicopters flew in to support the Aussies and ended the fight.

On Friday, five Australian troops guarding a reconstruction team of engineers building a checkpoint was attacked by Taliban fighters. A 90-minute gun battle in an alley followed.

Defence spokesman Brigadier Andrew Nikolic said the Australians were fired on with rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire from multiple positions in the alley. NATO Apache attack helicopters were called in to devastating effect. "They hammered them with rockets and there was apparently very little left of some of the attackers' positions," a military source said.

The Australians found blood trails but no bodies.