Dunphy and the trains

To survey the “situation on the ground” with regard to the Department of Homeland Security’s forthcoming surveillance network on city train tracks, I took a street-level tour of the railways with Capitol Hill’s leading advocate for train safety, Gerry Dunphy.

To survey the “situation on the ground” with regard to the Department of Homeland Security’s forthcoming surveillance network on city train tracks, I took a street-level tour of the railways with Capitol Hill’s leading advocate for train safety, Gerry Dunphy.

“You have to consider a criminal mind,” the Oxford-educated septuagenarian says, scouring the defenseless bridges holding the tracks. We’re in his car, cruising on Virginia Avenue S.W., which runs along CSX Corp.’s elevated rail line, where (allegedly) the transport of hazardous materials has been suspended pending the resolution of a lawsuit between CSX and the city.

Dunphy knows something about the criminal mind: In 2004 he was charged with (and later convicted of) making a “False Report of a Weapon of Mass Destruction” at a Capitol Police checkpoint. He was trying to drive his son from his house to Union Station — a distance of one mile — and had to make repeated stops at the futile and short-lived vehicle checkpoints. That he had to deal with such massive inconvenience while there would be no security whatsoever on his son’s train infuriated Dunphy. He asked officers if they knew about the train tunnels underground, and if they realized how easy it would be to set off a bomb in them.

Bam! Jail for Dunphy. To carry the government’s humorless attitude in the case to its absolute zenith, Magistrate Judge John Facciola sentenced Dunphy — whose Irishness is apparent the minute he opens his mouth — on St. Patrick’s Day. Dunphy wore a green tie with little clovers on it.

“It’s quite an honor and entitlement to live as close to the Capitol as Mr. Dunphy does,” the government prosecutor, Heidi Pasichow, said. Thanks, Heidi. Whatever.

So now, after the D.C. Council has made a big stink about the security of hazardous cargo and tried to ban its transport through the city (and after Dunphy has paid his fines and performed his community service), the Department of Homeland Security is spending $10 million on a “virtual fence” of cameras and motion detectors on the D.C. portion of the CSX line. The project won’t be finished for a couple years. (DHS is also funding a study on the feasibility of alternate routes for the hazmat trains.)

Dunphy and I tour the tracks with a map of the project in hand. We see no security at all. Maybe there are cameras hidden somewhere, but we see nothing that would stop us from parking a van full of explosives under one of the bridges; nothing to stop us from puncturing a chlorine tanker with a high-powered rifle from a distance; in some areas, nothing to stop us from walking onto the tracks. There’s a homeless person living next to the tracks behind Garfield Park, we discover.

Even when the project is finished, we can’t imagine how a bunch of cameras will prevent any of these bad things from happening. To Dunphy, defenselessness is just as well, if it weren’t for the fact that the government is spending $10 million on nothing (the same sum, it so happens, that went to the vehicle checkpoints).

“I leave my kitchen door open. I’m not afraid of anybody,” Dunphy says. “You can’t protect yourself, my theory is. You just can’t.”

DHS has made presentations to the National Capital Planning Commission explaining what the project is — i.e., cameras and motion detectors — but nobody ever explained how it prevents a terrorist attack on trains.

“We cannot completely eliminate risk, but the D.C. Rail Corridor project, along with the recently announced proposed rule, security action items and other initiatives, take a significant percentage of that risk off the table for terrorists to exploit,” a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, Darrin Kayser, says.

Dunphy thinks there could be a better way to spend the funds: “If they figure it out why it is that they [terrorists] hate us, it would be more to the point.”



More tough talk from Norton

On Jan. 8, D.C.’s nonvoting congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton sent a stern letter to U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor, expressing her concern over his office’s “new and troubling pattern … of repeatedly seeking the death penalty in this strongly anti-death penalty jurisdiction despite consistent failure with juries and the federal courts.”

U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Channing Phillips says that higher-ups in the Department of Justice will issue a response to Norton’s letter this week.

Norton sent her letter shortly after an interview with HillScape concerning the capital murder trial of D.C.’s Larry Gooch. District Judge Rosemary Collyer denied an anti-death penalty motion by Gooch’s lawyers, who argued that prosecutors engaged in “blatant forum-shopping” by trying Gooch in federal court instead of local court. There is no capital punishment in the D.C. Code.

In her letter, Norton says the three most recent death penalty trials have all happened under the Bush administration, which is true, but the notice of intent to seek the death penalty in the Tommy Edelin case actually was filed in June 2000, during the Clinton administration. 

A jury sent Edelin to life in prison — the likely outcome for any capital trial in the District, where residents overwhelmingly oppose the death penalty.

Norton also has said she plans to re-introduce a bill from last year that would create a district attorney’s office for D.C. The District is the only place in the country where residents aren’t served by a locally elected district attorney.



Health bill from Tommy Wells

New Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells has introduced his first piece of legislation: A bill to give non-parents standing to sue for legal custody of children for whom they are already the primary caregivers.

An Aug. 31 appeals court decision made it impossible for grandparents and any non-biological parent in a legitimate parenting position to sue for custody. The potential widespread negative effects of the decision first were reported here in HillScape.

“There were cases where grandmothers could not [gain] legal custody of children that were in their care,” says Wells, who chairs the Committee on Human Services. Wells had initially hoped that the lawyers would be able to get the court to reconsider its decision, but enough reports of caregivers losing custody changed his mind, so he introduced the Safe and Stable Homes for Children and Youth Act of 2007. “Rather than just wait on that remedy only, which is … uncertain at best, I am proposing a certain remedy.”

In D.C., more than 8,000 grandparents have the primary responsibility for children. The appeals court’s decision left them vulnerable to being kidnapped, say, by their biological parents, for whom child custody might equate to a federal housing subsidy.

“The bill is a grand slam for D.C. — it protects children, preserves families, honors parents’ rights and saves money [for the foster care system],” says Matt Fraidin, a law professor at UDC’s HIV/AIDS clinic, which often deals with family issues. Fraidin has written briefs opposing the appeals court’s decision and has pushed for legislation. 



Grandstands on the horizon

Mayor Adrian Fenty is set to release a secret memo from former D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti to Anthony Williams on whether D.C. law would recognize tax returns filed jointly by a homosexual couple married in Massachusetts. Williams kept the memo under wraps to avoid triggering a round of congressional interference in District affairs.

Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson says the memo will come out this week.

In 2005, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) warned the District when Spagnoletti said a Massachusetts couple could file tax returns jointly, prompting Spagnoletti to backtrack. It has been speculated that his memo to Williams, which was written in 2004, also says District law allows joint filing by gay couples. 

D.C. — a city with hospitable laws toward one of the largest gay populations in the country — could jeopardize its entire budget if it presents to members of Congress an opportunity for high-horsing and grandstanding over the words “gay marriage.”