Saturday, May 30, 2015

The aftereffects of Michigan's largest Ponzi scheme

You may have been aware that last year David McQueen was sentenced to 30 years in prison as a result of his part in one of  Michigan's largest Ponzi schemes. This huge fraud, which affected 800 families and involved 46.5 million dollars in losses, has resulted in misery across the area for people who invested up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings as a way of accumulating money for retirement and now must live only on Social Security benefits.

McQueen's company, Accelerated Income Growth, or AIG, did not start out as a Ponzi scheme. He himself invested in a company called Multiple Return Transactions, or MRT, which was itself a Ponzi scheme. MRT paid out and then went under, leaving McQueen with the responsibility of telling his own investors that he'd lost their funds. Instead, McQueen chose to gamble with the remaining money in various speculative ventures while sending out statements showing growth of the investors' original funds. In August of 2009, both the IRS and the FBI obtained search warrants and the full breadth of the AIG's fraud came to light.

McQueen's co-conspirator, Trent Francke, testified against him in return for a plea deal. He received a 7-year sentence. Another man, Jason Juberg, is serving a 5-year sentence. The federal investigation continues.

Recently, the case received more coverage because of attempts to recover funds lost to investors. Last November, the Resurrection Life Church in Grandville received an email from Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Borgula requesting that they return the $300,000 Mr. McQueen donated to them. In April MLive reported that Resurrection Life's Board of Elders had rejected the request, saying that part of the money was donated 9 years ago and the church used it for their building program and cannot return it. Bernard Blaukamp, the church's pastor, stated that he believed the church had been unfairly targeted by the FBI in a way that other business and charity recipients of the money had not.

Then this month a Lansing woman is fighting claims to a coin collection made by Trent Francke's father, Edward Francke. The assets in question included 15 American Eagle silver coins, 20 one-ounce American Eagle gold coins, as well as silver bars and silver rounds. The woman believes that Edward Francke is holding this collection for his son and will return it to him when he has served his prison sentence. Edward Francke says he wired the funds used to purchase this collection to his son and is entitled to keep it. Their hearing is set for June 30.

This case has a number of unfortunate aspects to it: the number of people who were conned out of their savings, the retirement age of those people and their inability to make up the loss, the enormous amount of money that is just - poof! - gone, and the way that money crisscrossed through the community leaving any number of potential conflicts between those who were victimized and those who benefited from this crime, all unknowingly. Expect more of this mess to be revealed as the FBI works their way through the files.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Backyard Chickens in the city?

If you are one of the people in Grand Rapids who has been dying for the city commission to allow the city to move further along with the Slow Food movement and allow residents to keep chickens, this month might hold out hope for you.

On Tuesday, February 10, city leaders passed several amendments to a proposed ordinance, modifying the circumstances under which home owners could keep chickens on their property. Among these, they lowered the lot size required to keep 4 chickens from 5,000 square feet to 3,800 square feet which would allow more residents to keep chickens. Commissioners discussed among themselves a provision requiring neighbor consent. If a neighbor sharing a lot line objects to the chickens during the 21-day period after a permit is filled out, no chickens would be allowed.

There was disagreement between the commissioners about whether to allow chickens on duplex properties, but this passed 4-3. Multi-family buildings like apartment complexes will not be allowed to keep chickens. The commission also specified that chickens not be housed within 50 feet of any backyard catch basin, to ensure that any chicken waste would not spread into the water system. Roosters, of course, will not be allowed.

The number of chickens to be allowed per property is still undecided. Commissioners will meet again and vote on this ordinance on February 24. If passed, the two-year trial run would begin May 1, 2015.

It's well known that there are already chickens on many properties throughout the city, and not just on properties that can accommodate the provision that chickens must be housed no closer than 100 feet from any other dwelling, dwelling unit, spring, stream, drainage ditch, or drain. In neighborhoods largely populated by immigrants, they are particularly present - but illegally. Some families have tried keeping chickens semi-secretly but neighbors complained and they were cited and fined.

The passing of this proposed ordinance would allow residents who wish to follow local law to keep chickens and not violate their consciences. Many of these families already have gardens within the city, and are willing to put the time and the money into modifying their landscapes to make them more suitable for chickens, whether that means adding a chicken house, a small pond, or fencing off part of their yard to make room. They believe strongly that adding chickens would strengthen community and be a learning experience for their children and neighbors about where real food originates.

Frankly, given the city's reputation for food innovation, this is long overdue. It's time to make that dream a reality in Grand Rapids.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Doings and Deeds, a Grand Rapids history, part 2

For the previous installment, see Part 1.

In the early 19th century, the now established Three Fires tribes faced a European invasion when in 1821, the Treaty of Chicago ceded the entire region south of the Grand River to the United States. Baptist missionaries built in the villages on the west bank of the Grand River. In this same year, 1827, the shrewd Louis Campau set up shop, eventually purchasing 72 acres of land where downtown stands today - for $90. A number of his relatives settled in the area and also bought land. For a time the language spoken “downtown,” then, was not an Anishinabek dialect, nor English, but French.

Campau, Lucius Lyon, and others prospered through trade and the buying and selling of city lots. The downtown developed, and the people of the Three Fires were slowly pushed out or left. Louis Campau lost a great deal of money in land speculation when the land boom's bubble burst. He had signed a surety bond for the goods in his brother Toussaint’s store, and did not have the money to cover the bills when it failed. Campau was forced to sign over much of his property until all these debts could be sorted out. And there went the neighborhood again. In 1838 the City of Grand Rapids was officially incorporated.


Campau’s entrepreneurial success, his energetic wheeling and dealing, and the displacement of the native peoples who had lived in villages here undoubtedly caused friction and hard feelings over time, but he remained on good terms with Chief Noonday and had many Indian friends all his life. Campau could be generous to a fault, and all of the city was welcome first in his log house, and then in the mansion he built on the southwest corner of Fulton and Gay.

With city incorporation, more settlers arriving, and a more formal city emerging, some of the trappings of East Coast civilization emerged. Chages at first were small and slow. Campau renamed the Indian footpath along the river Monroe Street after President Monroe. Other trails leading to Campau's trading post were eventually called by recognizable names: Butterworth, Kalamazoo, Lake Drive, Plainfield, and Walker. Joel Guild built the first frame house with lumber sawed at an Indian mill in 1833. That Christmas in a letter to relatives, Guild wrote that the area was "settling very fast with respectable citizens." It was much easier for settlers to travel to Michigan and all parts west after the Erie Canal was complete in 1825. Guild mailed that letter from one of the area's two post offices.

Major earthworks projects reshaped the river and removed Prospect Hill. Farms sprung up in all directions radiating from the village. The Lucius Lyon Salt Works opened in 1842, and the Granger & Ball gypsum mill began operation. John Ball's name appears first in the city's records in 1836, and when the census was first taken in 1845, there were 1,510 residents. By this time the village had shops, mills, factories, tanneries, public houses, smiths, and three doctors. The first Grand Rapids dentist, J.T. Collier, who advertised his services arrived in 1843.

The villagers in Grand Rapids began building more formal churches. The Congregational Church at the corner of Division and Monroe had a thousand-pound bell that tolled the hours; it was one of four local places of worship. When the first east-west stone-foundation bridge was build in 1845, the city was beginning to feel permanently settled. It had by-laws, a fire barn and fire engine, paid trustees, and board sidewalks. The times, they were a-changin'.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Grand Rapids, the test case for fluoridation

In January of 1945, Grand Rapids became the first city to introduce fluoride to its water supply. Was this a net positive or a net negative? It depends on who you ask.

The American Dental Association has established that a .7 parts per million solution of fluoride is the optimal for the prevention of tooth decay, and many West Michigan dentists agree. There is no doubt that the often catastrophic tooth issues that plagued our grandparents are much rarer in American society now, and there is certainly a correlation between children with access to fluoridated water and lowered rates of tooth decay.

The Center for Disease Control considers the fluoridation of American water supplies to be a huge public health victory. About 70 percent of American municipal water is currently fluoridated.

There are a number of groups that exist to advocate for removing fluoridation from water as well, and it's useful to consider their arguments before coming to any conclusion.

One of the biggest arguments against water fluoridation is that essentially it's a rather uncontrolled science experiment on a captive population. By dosing whole communities with fluoride governments ensure access to this chemical, but do these populations know what is going into their body? What grade is the fluoride being added? Apparently it's not pharmaceutical grade fluoride.

Secondly, consuming fluoride isn't necessary to reduce cavities - this is why topical use in toothpaste serves teeth adequately. Taking in regular amounts of fluoride over time has largely unknown long-term health effects, and they are largely unknown because they are largely unstudied. But there does appear to be some evidence that fluoride exposure increases risk for infertility, arthritis, lowered I.Q., thyroid issues, bone problems, and bone cancer.

What's more, not everyone's exposure to fluoride is the same, since people drink different amounts of water and children, particularly babies fed on formula have higher fluoride intake. Furthermore, while poor children without access to other sources of water such as bottled water are more exposed to fluoride in the water, they still have higher rates of dental decay than other children. Dental problems have steadily decreased in American populations, but they've also decreased in European populations without access to fluoridated water.

There are many more arguments against fluoridation, and few people are aware of them since fluoride is viewed as a wonder chemical and actively advertised. Grand Rapidians are increasingly interested in exploring options for better and more natural food options and healthcare. They care about what they put into their bodies. It would be worthwhile for them to be aware of what is going into their bodies without permission as well - and to ask questions.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Doings and Deeds, a Grand Rapids history, part 1

As the demographic composition of Grand Rapids continues to change, it’s easy to imagine the current influx of immigrants from other countries and elsewhere in the United States and Michigan is something new and uniquely challenging for Grand Rapidians. In reality, the area’s history is full of these kinds of changes.

The earliest identified settlers of the area were the Hopewell Indians, known primarily for the complex engineering of their large burial mounds. Grand Rapids has one of the best preserved of these earthworks downtown, although what remains is only a small part of what the Hopewell built. It’s uncertain what happened to the Hopewell peoples. Some historians speculate that their collapse was due to a greater use of the bow and arrow on the North American continent Since they left no written records, we can only interpret their culture through the ceremonial items they left in their burial mounds, the most common of which are chipped points and blades, celts and adzes, as well as some ceramics and ceremonial ornaments and jewelry made of shells, silver, copper, and mica. Many of the products they crafted were made of materials found far from West Michigan, so clearly there were cross-continental trade routes in existence at the time.

The sixth century saw the decline of the Hopewell, and during the Late Woodland period, a number of other smaller cultures appear and disappear in the fossil record, and by the 16th century, when the French began exploring the area, they found a number of different tribes living along the shores of Lake Michigan, including the Ottawa, the Chippewa, the Menominee, the Sauk, the Fox, the Mascouten, the Miami, and the Potawatomi peoples. They lived separately, spoke different languages (some of them dialects of Algonquin), and had their own cultural as well as food growing or gathering practices which were dependent in large part on the local climate. The Potawatomi and the Ottawa periodically encamped together.

During this period trade flourished among the many groups. The Ottawa (Algonquin for "to buy or sell") were particularly involved in this inter-tribal trade. By the mid-17th century, the Iroquois Indians began expanding their territory into the Great Lakes region in an attempt to monopolize the lucrative fur trade the Europeans had introduced. The Iroquois were fierce fighters, armed with rifles, and their efforts resulted in either the death, forced integration, or the out migration of tribes who fled the violence resulting from the Beaver Wars.

Later the French resumed the fur trade, but conflicts with the Iroquois and the British, as well as an oversupply of furs, made it less lucrative over time. Eventually they abandoned their trading forts in the upper Great Lakes. In 1701 they allowed Antoine Laumet de Lamothe Cadillac to build a model trading post at what today is Detroit, and the French began encouraging the many tribes they had been trading with to do business with them in southeast Michigan instead. Combining these tribes together in one area had some less than peaceful results for the French. Eventually the British moved in on French territory and there were multiple players rivaling each other for dominance of the fur trade. The British treated the native tribes differently, however, and relations between the British and the various Indian tribes was never as friendly or cooperative, even during more peaceful periods.

Eventually the tribes we associate with Michigan history settled the previously emptied out areas. These were the people of the Three Fires, the Ottawa, the Chippewa, and the Potawatomi, who called themselves the Anishinabek, or “the Original People.” The numerous wars with the Iroquois, the French, the British, as well as inter-tribal conflicts had eliminated many tribes from Michigan, so while Europeans visiting in 1600 and 1800 would have seen territory controlled by Indians, there had been a significant amount of shake up as to who controlled what and when. Then, as it has been since, West Michigan's population was in flux.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Jamarion Lawhorn's parents are charged with child abuse

Last week Anita Lawhorn and her husband, Bernard Harrold, were charged with child abuse for their treatment of Anita's son, Jamarion Lawhorn, the 12-year-old responsible for the stabbing murder of Connor Verkerke in August. 

After Connor's murder, details of Jamarion's home life came to light including past CPS involvement in the family's life. Child neglect and abuse reports were substantiated against both Lawhorn and Harrold which, in 2013, led to his being placed with his father in New York.  This spring Jamarion returned to Michigan for what was intended to be a short visit with his mother, and he remained there until August when police took him into custody.

Now Lawhorn and Harrold have each been charged with one count of third and fourth-degree child abuse. Lawhorn's other children were removed from their care and are staying with relatives. They are allowed only supervised visits with the children until the court can evaluate their progress. Currently they are cooperating with authorities and getting counseling.

I'm going to go off the Reservation of Objectivity here and say that, as another Grand Rapids parent of a young boy, I think these people should be charged, imprisoned, sterilized, and never allowed near their children, or any children, again. CPS deemed their home entirely unsatisfactory. Utilities were off, the rent overdue, the beds lacked bedding, food in the house was scarce, and drug paraphernalia was present in the bathroom. Additionally, Jamarion had bruises all over his body he said his stepfather gave him, and he was being threatened daily with more beatings. Lawhorn and Harrold also neglected to get him the psychological help recommended for his "significant behavioral issues." 

While I believe in human self-determination, it hard to think that, given Jamarion's extreme youth, Connor's murder wasn't the fault of these two. This is not the first proven instance of abusive parenting either. Anita Lawhorn lost custody of two other children in 1996. 

I don't care what kind of "progress" these two are making, they should be arrested, thrown into jail, denied bail until their trial, then put away forever. It's too bad we don't have the death penalty in Michigan. They're horrible people and awful parents. They created a killer. No doubt their other children have been abused and neglected as well.  

Children should have the right to be cared for by capable, nurturing adults. Despite the impression given by ad campaigns, it's actually a long, tedious process to become a foster or adoptive parent in Michigan. It takes hours of training, and the bureaucracy goes through your life with a fine toothed comb. And then, when you actually have foster children in your home, your life is subject to endless regulation and check ups by the state and you're on the leash of the preferences of your foster children's biological parents and family (so that someday they can be reunited with their proven abusers). It's a bit shocking that the system prioritizes this - micromanaging foster parents - when children all over the city and state are living in filth and danger, uncared for and abused, and ample evidence has presented itself to authorities in any number of cases. 

While Jamarion is an outlier because of his age and his chosen method of killing, he is certainly not alone in his despair and rage. How can we sufficiently punish and shame this kind of abuse enough to send a message to others that this kind of abuse is not acceptable and will not be allowed to continue? It seems like with all of its blessings, West Michigan should have the kinds of resources to make real change in the lives of these kids and prevent more violence in the future. How can we do that? 

Monday, September 29, 2014

ArtPrize from the view of middle schoolers

What gorgeous weather Grand Rapids has had this year for ArtPrize. September is quite often our most enjoyable month, but all of this sunshine and warmth must be great for downtown venues and vendors - and tourists!

While the adults in our family have been to ArtPrize once or not at all, our fifth grader has been three times: once with his school class, once with friends, and once with his mother. He tells me that he doesn't need to see this much art, but it is still fun to view this huge event through his eyes.

One of the interesting things I realized when I was driving downtown with him was that even though this is only the sixth time ArtPrize has been held, he doesn't remember Grand Rapids before this event. Nor does he remember a time when people had to take cameras or just view large spectacles like this and try to remember them. In his mind there have always been iPods and smartphones and people have always been whipping them out whenever anything moved or even twitched.

When he came home after his class trip, I asked him what he liked best, and he had no comment. Browsing the photos taken on my camera, I noted that half of them were pictures taken of his friends in goofy poses. There was some art - a stained glass church window, a large painting with a cow, but any greater meaning or vision the art on display held seems to have largely passed him by.

I encouraged his friend and him to tell me what they saw. Here is conversation the had:

Friend: "Some of the exhibits were completely inappropriate."
My son: "There were a bunch of naked people."
Friend: "Well, naked women. I think the guys had underwear on."
My son: "No, they didn't."
Friend: "Yeah, they did.
My son: "They didn't have underwear on."
Friend: "And one of them - her boobs were all saggy. It was totally disgusting."
Son: "It was gross."
Friend: "I don't know what those artists were thinking!"

According to both of them, the men in bunny suits in the river piece was "Messed up!" When I told them it was a self-portrait, they just looked at me funny.

My son really wanted to take a selfie with the penguin statue next to the horse made out of old mechanical parts, though. And both boys were impressed by Dominic Pangborn's 3-D Michigan in Motion. We looked at that one for awhile from all of the different angles.

They collected the cards from the artists too and tried to decide which cards were more better and more tradable: "This one has +5 attack damage." "This is a get out of jail free card!" And they went back to the #U piece to get the temporary #U tattoo.

It would appear, then, that whether you like or appreciate art, people watching, walking around downtown Grand Rapids in September, or none of these, ArtPrize still may have something enjoyable to offer.