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Mex for the people

April 19, 2018
Mex for the people
Cantina Cinco de Mayo hits the right notes in downtown LR. /more/

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Ernest Dumas

Week That Was

After the wildest week of the wildest presidency in history, the clouded future suddenly unfolds more clearly and, yes, nearer. That includes the end of the Trump presidency. /more/

Gene Lyons

Trump and Comey

In the Bizarro World of the Trump administration, it's only fitting that the president serves as publicity director for James Comey's big book tour. (In the old Superman comics, Bizarro World was an upside-down reality where wickedness was virtue and vice versa.) Supposedly, Trump's stomping around the White House and various golf courses red-faced with anger, emitting smoke from his ears. /more/

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'Isle of Dogs' unmistakably Wes Anderson

April 12, 2018
'Isle of Dogs' unmistakably Wes Anderson
The actors deliver their lines drolly, portioning out emotions in pinches rather than with scoops. The stories flirt with magical realism. /more/

Pearls About Swine

Consistency

April 19, 2018
Dave Van Horn has had some fine baseball squads in his tenure as Arkansas's head coach. He took over for the well-regarded Norm DeBriyn in 2003, had his overachieving bunch in Omaha the next spring, and then took the Diamond Hogs back to college baseball's Valhalla three more times over a seven-season span from 2009 to 2015. But what happened in 2016 might well have proved his genuine value to the athletic program at large. /more/

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Friday, April 20, 2018 - 12:36:00

Jon Woods tried to direct marijuana money to Ecclesia College

WOODS: Testimony confirms previous reporting that Woods tried to steer marijuana cash to Ecclesia College.
  • WOODS: Testimony confirms previous reporting that Woods tried to steer marijuana cash to Ecclesia College.
The bombshells continue in the federal corruption trial against former Sen. Jon Woods, who federal prosecutors allege took kickbacks from from state money he guided to Ecclesia College and a mental health agency.

On Wednesday, testimony indicated that former Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux (later Chief of Staff for Gov. Asa Hutchinson and now a lobbyist) may have been implicated in the broader scheme to direct money to Ecclesia College. A director of a Hot Springs development district testified that he was pressured by Lamoureux approve faulty applications for grant money to be sent to Ecclesia.

Yesterday, legislative working papers previously made exempt from the FOIA were made public indicating that Woods had attempted to insert himself in the drafting of the ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in a manner that would have directed yet more money to Ecclesia. The Arkansas Blog has reported on this scheme several times. David Couch, a lawyer who was a key player in the push for the medical marijuana amendment, stated on the record that Woods had participated in the drafting of the initiated amendment and that an initial draft by Woods had included a provision to direct some proceeds from a marijuana tax to colleges with a particular work-study designation that Ecclesia has (in the end, the provision did not wind up in the amendment). Ecclesia is the only college in the state with such a designation, so this would have funneled money directly to the tiny religious school in Springdale.

The working papers made public at the trial yesterday appear to confirm the scheme described by Couch's statements and Max Brantley's reporting.

Matthew Miller, assistant director of the Bureau of Legislative Research testified yesterday that he prepared a draft resolution at Woods' request to legalize medical marijuana, reports Doug Thompson at the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who has been offering excellent coverage of the trial from the courtroom. There was essentially no chance that the legislature was going to refer a medical marijuana amendment, so Woods was presumably using the resources of BLR to draft language that he could then bring to Couch (I just spoke with Couch, who said that was his understanding of what happened). Further testimony from Miller this morning indicates that this was indeed why Woods brought the matter to BLR.

Slipped into the requested BLR language, as well as Woods' draft suggestions to Couch, was a provision that some of the tax revenues from medical marijuana would go to grants for "work colleges," an unusual designation that seven liberal arts colleges in the U.S. have, as part of the "Work Colleges Consortium."

According to the consortium website, "Work Colleges offer students enhanced learning opportunities by integrating Work, Learning and Service throughout their college experience. Students earn a valuable degree plus important life and professional skills." The program is distinct from the need-based federal work-study program; at work colleges, the program is for all students, who typically work 8 to 15 hours per week and receive support from the college for their work and integration of relevant jobs into their academic study. It sounds like a nice program (amusingly, some of the consortium members are polar opposites of Ecclesia, such as the famously hippie college Warren Wilson).

But the key for Woods' alleged schemes to funnel money to Ecclesia wasn't the program itself, it was the fact that it was such a rare designation. Because Ecclesia, which joined the consortium in 2005, was the only "work college" in Arkansas, Woods could try to push state funds exclusively to Ecclesia without ever naming the school in legislation — or a constitutional amendment. For example, in 2015, Woods managed to get a bill passed that created an account at the state's Department of Higher Education for grants only available to colleges in the "Work Colleges Consortium." A slush fund, in other words, just for Ecclesia.

Ultimately, no state money was budgeted to that account, but this was the account that Woods aimed to use to route marijuana money to Ecclesia. In the draft amendment that Woods worked on with Miller and Couch, he tried to include a provision that would designate a certain amount of the tax revenue generated from medical marijuana to go into that fund.

Couch said that Woods, a longtime supporter of medical marijuana, had expressed interest in helping with an amendment as far back as 2013 or 2014. When Couch read the provision about the "work college fund," he was perplexed. He had no idea what a "work college" was. He investigated and realized that this just meant money would be going straight to Ecclesia. At that time, Couch had no idea there was an alleged kickback scheme involving the college, but he quickly concluded that this was a remarkably narrow and irrelevant use of the revenues. The provision was nixed from the amendment. Couch said that there were numerous efforts by various lawmakers to include narrowly tailored handouts to pet projects or special interests and at the time he chalked this up as an attempt at run-of-the-mill political grease. Couch said that in addition to wanting the revenues to go to a broader set of educational institutions, he was particularly leery of a handout to a "church that was probably fundamentally opposed to what I was doing."

In the end, the amendment that actually made it to the ballot designated half of the revenues to a broad fund for vocational and technical training, with other revenues designated to various departments and to the state's general revenue. The General Assembly later passed a law altering the distribution of revenues, doing away with those designations and sending all money to general revenue after the operating expenses for the medical marijuana bureaucracy are paid for (the ability for the legislature to change the distribution of revenues was, ahem, baked into the amendment).

According to testimony yesterday, Thompson reports, Ecclesia was in financial distress and in dire need of a windfall of state money. The college received $700,000 in state grants between 2013 and 2014, with Woods responsible for directing $500,000 of that via an alleged kickback scheme.

Two alleged co-conspirators, Oren Paris III, president of the college, and former state Rep. Micah Neal, have already pleaded guilty. Also on trial is Randell Shelton Jr., a friend of Woods and Paris who allegedly participated in the scheme. Paris pleaded guilty less than a week before the trial began, suddenly flipping from co-defendant to cooperating with the government.

Thompson reports that testimony yesterday from BLR staff and legislative working papers also suggested that Woods had worked on other bills to aid the college's bottom line:

Staff testified Woods directed them to work with Paris on higher education bills and with Shelton on bills on recycling roofing shingles. Shelton, Paris and Woods held a financial interest in a shingle recycling business, court records show.
One hopes that federal prosecutors presented the evidence on Woods' alleged marijuana shenanigans knowing that the story would hit the papers on 4/20.

 

Friday, April 20, 2018 - 10:57:00

Federal judge halts Cantrell Drug's distribution business until remediation plan complete

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker entered a consent decree of permanent injunction against Cantrell Drug Company, a compounding pharmacy in Little Rock, as well as Cantrell Drug CEO James McCarley.

The order prevents the compounder from "manufacturing, processing, or distributing drugs until they comply with specific remedial measures," according to a press release from the office of Cody Hiland, the U.S. attorney for Arkansas's Eastern District. Those measures include inspection of Cantrell Drug's facility by an independent expert to "ensure that defendants’ manufacturing and distributing of drugs will be in conformity with current good manufacturing practice."

In March, federal prosecutors filed suit to halt Cantrell Drug's production operations, citing evidence of unsatisfactory conditions found by a U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection last year.

Here's the consent decree.

And here's the press release from the government:

DISTRICT COURT ENTERS PERMANENT INJUNCTION AGAINST ARKANSAS COMPOUNDING PHARMACY AND ITS CEO TO PREVENT DISTRIBUTION OF ADULTERATED DRUGS

WASHINGTON - The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas entered a consent decree of permanent injunction against defendants Cantrell Drug Company (Cantrell), and James L. McCarley Jr., Cantrell’s co-owner and Chief Executive Officer. The injunction permanently enjoins the defendants from distributing adulterated drugs in violation of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

The entered permanent injunction stems from a complaint the Department filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas on Feb. 28, at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That complaint alleged, among other things, that the defendants distributed adulterated drugs in interstate commerce.

As part of the permanent injunction, defendants cannot resume manufacturing, processing, or distributing drugs until they comply with specific remedial measures. Those measures include submitting a remedial plan to FDA, which will provide for an independent expert to conduct inspection(s) of defendants’ facility, ensure defendants implement all recommended corrective actions, and ensure that defendants’ manufacturing and distributing of drugs will be in conformity with current good manufacturing practice. The permanent injunction provides that defendants cannot resume manufacturing, processing, or distributing drugs until FDA notifies them in writing that defendants appear to be in compliance with the ordered remedial measures.

“Compounding pharmacies have a responsibility to ensure that they process drugs in a manner that meets the legal standards necessary to ensure the safety and quality of such drugs,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to work with FDA to ensure that doctors and patients can rely on the protections in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.”

According to the complaint filed by the Department on Feb. 28, defendants’ drugs were adulterated because they were prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have been contaminated or may have been rendered injurious to health. The complaint also alleged that defendants’ drugs were adulterated because defendants failed to comply with current good manufacturing practice regulations.

Cantrell initiated voluntary recalls of drug products in 2016 and 2017. The 2016 recall, initiated due to lack of sterility assurance, involved 29 lots of unexpired sterile drug products. The 2017 recall, also due to a lack of sterility assurance, encompassed all lots of unexpired sterile drug products that Cantrell had compounded and distributed between Feb. 16, 2017, and July 19, 2017.

“The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act is designed to protect the public health,” said U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland for the Eastern District of Arkansas. “This enforcement action demonstrated our commitment to ensuring that when deficiencies are identified, they are properly addressed.”

“As a public health agency, the FDA is committed to fully implementing the regulatory framework set forth by Congress that helps ensure compounded drugs are made under appropriate production standards,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. “FDA is committed to taking action against compounders who do not comply with the requirements set forth in federal law.”

The government is represented by Trial Attorney Raquel Toledo of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch and Assistant U.S. Attorney Shannon S. Smith of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas, with the assistance of Associate Chief Counsel, Litigation, Jennifer Kang of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of General Counsel’s Food and Drug Division.

Additional information about the Consumer Protection Branch and its enforcement efforts may be found at http://www.justice.gov/civil/consumer-protection-branch. For more information about the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas, visit its website at https://www.justice.gov/usao-edar. 

 

Friday, April 20, 2018 - 09:34:00

Arkansas's unemployment rate holds steady in March; still slightly below national figure

The Arkansas unemployment rate was unchanged from February to March at 3.8 percent, the state Department of Workforce Services said this morning in its monthly jobs report.

That's slightly below the national figure of 4.1 percent, the agency said.

The state's official jobless rate has been below the 4 percent mark since mid-2016.

Here's the full press release.

 

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Friday, April 20, 2018 - 10:50:00

Guitarist Ed Gerhard's lyricism lands on spellbound ears at The Joint

click to enlarge mvimg_20180419_213553.jpg

Acoustic guitarist Ed Gerhard played for a full house at The Joint Theater & Coffeehouse last night as part of the Argenta Acoustic Music Series. Essentially, once a month, fellow guitarist Steve Davison brings an acoustic guitarist of renown to the Argenta venue where he or she can be heard with minimal distraction in a small room that's acoustically outfitted for intense listening. I've been in the audience for formal classical recitals that were less hushed and still.

Gerhard's delivery is au naturale; he sits in a chair atop an elevated riser, surrounds himself with his guitar, his Weissenborn and a few accoutrements - a small mixer, an electronic tuner, a hot microphone and a nail file for mid-show maintenance of the long, acrylic-capped fingernails that double as picks on his right hand. He's too bereft of pretense to have a schtick, really, but if he has one, musically speaking, it's to take tunes like "The Water Is Wide" and render them in sweet, meterless phrases, stretching silences and giving shape to each line. He's consummately musical in his approach, landing on the next note in the phrase just a millisecond before the last one's done ringing, creating a seamless legato. He does not noodle. He does not make a habit of playing lots of notes in quick succession.

We caught the second half of his concert, in which he applied that lyricism to "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," with a shout out to Ry Cooder for his version and a nod to fellow guitarist David Lindley for having done the piece before Gerhard could get around to it; a medley of The Beatles' 'If I Fell" and "In My Life" introduced as "a couple of old British ballads"; Gerhard's own "On a Pennsylvania Hill" and others. His stage patter is intimate and clever; he introduced his version of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" by admitting that though he was not especially religious, he was assuredly "sky-curious."

Appreciated: a fleeting reference to "Beavis and Butthead" that nobody in the audience seemed to get, his writerly description of the Argenta Acoustic Music Series as having created a "nice fire in a wet world," the way he floated his hands above the Weissenborn (an acoustic Hawaiian lap slide) as if he were charming notes out of a theremin. Unappreciated: his cheap shot at hip-hop, which went over swimmingly with the baby boomer contingent nonetheless. For me, too, I missed the bite and strum of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" when rendered by Gerhard (and I'd swear I heard the first two chords of Mitchell's "Amelia" before he started in; bait-and-switch!) Judging by the enthusiastic applause for "Both Sides Now," though, I was clearly in the minority.

Gerhard has the ear and the finesse to reach up and adjust a tuning peg mid-song, he can quote Leo Kottke ("The only thing you'll get from a tuner is an opinion") and ancient Chinese poetry in the same breath and he can do otherworldly things with six strings. If that sounds like your cup of tea, check out the rest of the year's lineup.

 

Thursday, April 19, 2018 - 14:10:00

Revolution to close its restaurant, but music continues

click to enlarge mvimg_20180419_141402.jpg

Owner-operators Chris King and Suzon Awbry announced yesterday that they will close the restaurant portion of Revolution, the live music venue and "Taco & Tequila Lounge" at 300 President Clinton Ave. in downtown Little Rock's River Market area.

The Rev Room music venue will remain open, and for the time being, King told us, "we just operate inside of the actual music venue." The river-facing patio and restaurant side of Revolution had been for sale for a few years, King told us, and a buyer had been found.
 
click to enlarge revolution_logo-colored.png

No word yet on who that buyer is, but we'll update this post when that information becomes available.

King added:
"We are very thankful that we were able to operate in that space for 12 years, and we appreciate all of the love and support. Looking forward to working hard on continuing to bring great concert events to the area."  

 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018 - 15:46:00

Food Truck Friday feeds start this week

click to enlarge retro-food-truck_23-2147530708.jpg
Food Truck Fridays, the Downtown Little Rock Partnership's project to use food to lure folks to enjoy the Creative/Technical Corridor on Main Street, kicks off its season Friday, April 20, at Fifth and Main streets. Hours are 10:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Food trucks will continue to serve at the spot every Friday through May 18.

The DLRP also announced the 2018 Food Truck Festival will be Sept. 8, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and a new food truck event, the East Village Street Food Jam, will be held from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. June 16 on the lawn of the Clinton Presidential Center.


 

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