Air Force agents raid military landlord’s Oklahoma office, seize computers

By M.B. Pell

(Reuters) – Air Force investigators raided the Oklahoma City offices of a major military landlord Tuesday morning, seizing computers and other material, in what the company said was part of an investigation into asbestos contamination.

The landlord, Balfour Beatty Communities, has been the focus of Reuters reports describing how it falsified maintenance records at several bases, allowing the company to collect millions in incentive bonus payments while military families awaited repairs. One of the bases Reuters described was Tinker Air Force in Oklahoma, the subject of Tuesday’s raid.

Linda Card, chief of public affairs for the Air Office of Special Investigations, confirmed the raid took place in cooperation with other federal agencies, but said she had no further details to share.

In a statement, Balfour Beatty said the federal action was related to a subpoena issued by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The investigation is connected to the matter of asbestos flooring removal that was reported in September 2019. When that event occurred, BBC promptly and voluntarily reported the incident to the local Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality,” it said. “The company will continue to cooperate fully with the investigation.”

At Tinker, Reuters in June documented how one family was left for months with deteriorating asbestos flooring even as Balfour Beatty’s maintenance records said, incorrectly, that the problem had been quickly fixed.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations have been investigating allegations of fraud at Tinker and two other Air Force bases where the company is landlord, John Henderson, the Air Force assistant secretary for installations, told Reuters last year. They are Travis in California and Fairchild in Washington State. Air Force agents are investigating additional fraud allegations at Mountain Home in Idaho and Lackland in Texas.

Balfour Beatty said it has hired an outside lawyer and auditor to examine the allegations.

Balfour Beatty Communities, based in Malvern, Pennsylvania, runs the military housing unit of Balfour Beatty plc, a London-based infrastructure company with annual revenue of $10.7 billion. The company earns $33 million in annual profit on its military housing operations, Balfour Beatty Communities President Chris Williams told Congress in February. The company operates 43,000 housing units at 55 Army, Navy and Air Force bases across the United States.

(Reporting by M.B. Pell in New York. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Some Oklahoma teachers find the grass really is greener in Texas

Former Oklahoma teacher Chelsea Price, 34, helps a 2nd grade student with an assignment on an iPad in her classroom in Grapevine, Texas, U.S., April 4, 2018. Courtesy Chelsea Price/Handout via REUTERS

By Lisa Maria Garza

GRAPEVINE, Texas (Reuters) – After years of poor pay, supply shortages and overcrowded classes, former Oklahoma teacher Chelsea Price decided the best way to pursue the profession she loves was to leave her home state and head south to Texas.

The harsh economic realities of teaching in Oklahoma, where school salaries are some of the lowest in the United States, have created an exodus to neighboring states where wages are higher.

As a consequence, Oklahoma is grappling with a teacher shortage that has forced school districts to cut curricula and deploy nearly 2,000 emergency-certified instructors as a stop-gap measure.

“It just got to the point where it was really defeating,” said Price, 34, who last year moved to the Dallas suburb of Grapevine with her husband and 10-year-old daughter to start a job as a second-grade teacher.

Crossing the Red River that separates Oklahoma and Texas meant a salary increase of about 40 percent for Price, who has a master’s degree. She saw few prospects of improving the lot of her family by staying put.

Price earned around $30,000 a year when she began teaching in Oklahoma. When she left 11 years later, she was earning just under $40,000. At her new position, Price earns about $55,000.

The benefits transcend salary. There is a cap on class sizes and every student has an iPad, which Price said makes her job easier.

In Oklahoma, where educators statewide walked off the job this week to protest years of low pay and budget cuts to the school system, teacher complaints range from decaying infrastructure, students’ having to share worn-out textbooks and teachers’ having to dip into their own pockets to buy supplies for underfunded classes.

In contrast, the northern Dallas suburbs, an hour or less south of the Oklahoma border, enjoy increased spending on schools as population growth in recent years, which has outpaced nearly every area of the United States, has driven up local tax revenues.

Grapevine, with about 50,000 people, has a refurbished main street, a major resort hotel and easy commutes to major employers in Dallas and Fort Worth. Like many of the northern Dallas-area suburbs, new parks, schools and businesses are springing up in a region seen as a place of relatively low crime, good employment prospects and affordable housing.

Oklahoma City and Tulsa also have relatively low unemployment rates and spectacularly refurbished urban areas, but median household income and wages are far lower than in the northern Dallas suburbs.

Price and other teachers from Oklahoma have followed the money.

“If I can find a better situation for all of us, then why wouldn’t I?” she said.

Since 2010, Texas has seen about 3,500 teachers from Oklahoma apply for teaching certificates, the most of any state, according to the Texas Education Agency.

“LOSING OUR BEST, BRIGHTEST”

About 11 percent of Oklahoma teachers overall leave the state or profession every year, according to data from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, an umbrella group.

More than 80 percent leave over low pay, according to the data. In constant dollar terms, the pay for Oklahoma teachers has dropped by about 15 percent over the last 25 years, federal data showed.

“Oklahoma’s teacher shortage has been devastating for children. When schools can’t find qualified teachers, they either must increase class sizes or hire under-qualified, under-prepared teachers,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the association.

Every state bordering Oklahoma offers higher wages for teachers, with mean wages in the neighboring states about $8,600 to $16,000 higher, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Striking teachers in Oklahoma are seeking a $10,000 raise.

Those leaving are often teachers who have several years of experience and generally hold a master’s degree or higher, according to a survey from Theresa Cullen, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Oklahoma. The average salary increase for those who fled to other states was about $19,000, the survey showed.

“We are losing our best, brightest and most prepared,” Cullen said.

Of neighboring states, Texas offers the highest mean wages. Ginny Duncan, 24, decided to relocate there two years after starting her teaching career at an elementary school in Tulsa.

“I’m moving to Texas this summer because I can’t afford to live here,” she said in a telephone interview.

Duncan, who holds degrees in both special education and regular education, earns about $32,000 a year as a teacher and needs to work three summer jobs to make ends meet. If she can land a similar teaching job in the Dallas area, she could earn about $20,000 a year more.

“I love teaching so much,” Duncan said. “I wanted to be a teacher my entire life. I have a special passion for special needs kids.” But her Oklahoma salary “makes it so hard to actually do it.”

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)

Man arrested in plot to bomb Oklahoma bank

Jerry Drake Varnell, is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters August 14, 2017. Oklahoma Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – An Oklahoma man was arrested after what he thought was an attempt over the weekend to bomb an Oklahoma City bank building as part of an anti-government plot, U.S. prosecutors said on Monday.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Jerry Drake Varnell, 23, on Saturday after an undercover agent posed as a co-conspirator and agreed to help him build what he believed was a 1,000-pound (454 kg) explosive.

Varnell had initially planned to bomb the U.S. Federal Reserve in Washington in a manner similar to the 1995 explosion at a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, according to a complaint.

FBI agents arrested Varnell after he went as far as making a call early on Saturday morning to a mobile phone he believed would detonate a device in a van parked next to a BancFirst Corp building in downtown Oklahoma City, the complaint said.

“This arrest is the culmination of a long-term domestic terrorism investigation involving an undercover operation, during which Varnell had been monitored closely for months as the alleged bomb plot developed,” federal prosecutors said in a statement. “The device was actually inert, and the public was not in danger.”

Varnell, of Sayre, Oklahoma, was charged with malicious attempted destruction of a building in interstate commerce. He is expected to make his first court appearance in federal court in Oklahoma City on Monday afternoon.

 

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Von Ahn)

 

Black Mass Scheduled At Oklahoma City Civic Center

A group of Satanists want to hold a “black mass” aimed at mocking the rites of the Catholic Church at the Oklahoma City Civic Center.

Tickets are being sold at the Civic Center for what’s being described as a “sacrilegious” event to be a “blasphemous mockery of the Mass.”

Tickets for the “Black Mass of Oklahoma” are $15.   The event is described by the Civic Center ticket office like this: “The Black Mass has been a feared ritual, and now it’s being brought into the light! This will not only be enlightening but educational as well. This Black Mass will be conducted for the public to attend with certain adaptations to allow for a legal celebration.”

Archbishop Paul Coakley of the Catholic archdiocese of Oklahoma City, is calling on the city’s leaders to step in and stop the event from being supported by taxpayer dollars which provide funds for the facility, security, employees and other services.

“We’re astonished and grieved that the Civic Center would promote as entertainment and sell tickets for an event that is very transparently a blasphemous mockery of the Mass,” he said. “The ‘Black Mass’ that is scheduled for the Civic Center in September is a satanic inversion and distortion of the most sacred beliefs not only of Catholics, but of all Christians.”

City spokesman say that as a public facility, they cannot deny the group the right to rent the space under the First Amendment.

Earthquake Shakes Oklahoma City

A 4.5 magnitude earthquake shook Central Oklahoma on Saturday.

The quake came just weeks after the two-year anniversary of the strongest quake ever recorded in Oklahoma. The quake was followed by two smaller aftershocks later in the day.

Residents say that the quakes are starting to become commonplace in the state after increasing in intensity over the last few years. A restaurant owner said that when the quake struck Saturday afternoon everyone in the restaurant stopped what they were doing but immediately went back to watching a football game on TV after the quake ended.

The quake struck during the nationally televised Oklahoma State-Oklahoma football game in the middle of a field goal attempt.

The quake centered near Arcadia, Oklahoma, about 14 miles northeast of Oklahoma City. The quake was about five miles deep according to a report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Los Angeles Times: Oklahoma chemical plant explosions force evacuations; no injuries

Fire consumed a chemical plant west of Oklahoma City overnight Thursday, forcing evacuations but causing no injuries and leaving surrounding areas unscathed, officials said.

The fire and explosions at Danlin Industries in Thomas, Okla., about 85 miles west of the capital, according to Michael Galloway, Custer County emergency management director. Continue reading

Reuters: Fire destroys Oklahoma chemical plant, no injuries

A fire destroyed a chemical plant and caused small explosions near a western Oklahoma town, forcing the evacuation of about a dozen people from nearby homes, but resulting in no injuries, a county emergency management official said on Thursday.

The fire erupted about 10:00 p.m. CDT (0300 GMT) Wednesday at a Danlin Industries facility outside Thomas, Oklahoma, a city of 1,181 people about 90 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. Continue reading