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Jury selected for Charles City homicide trial

CHARLES CITY | Six men and eight women were selected as jurors for a trial involving a Chicago native who allegedly killed a Mason City man this past June.

Antoine Tyree Williams, 36, was charged with first-degree murder for fatally shooting Nathaniel Fleming, 36, outside of the Casa Apartments in Charles City at around 10 p.m. on June 30, according to police.

On Tuesday, the opening day of the trial, Iowa Assistant Attorney General Coleman McAllister and Williams' attorney, Nellie O'Mara, questioned more than 30 men and women about their ability to be fair and impartial jurors.

O'Mara had previously argued that because of media coverage, Williams would not be able to get a fair trial in Floyd County, and it should be moved. Judge Rustin Davenport denied the motion last month.

Mikhail "Mike Casa" Geister, owner of the Casa Apartments, told the Globe Gazette in July he has been trying to make the complex safer since the incident. He added that Williams had been living there since Feb. 1, and that Fleming was not a resident.

"We cooperated with police and tightened our screening process,” Geister told the Globe Gazette in June. “We had a meeting with police to discuss how we can work together to clean up the property, and police will be helping with our efforts in the future.”

The courtroom was filled to the brim Tuesday, until McAllister and O'Mara finished picking 14 jurors at about 4:30 p.m.

The trial will resume Wednesday at the Floyd County Courthouse at 9 a.m.

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Mason City mall owner owes more than $200,000 in back taxes; No taxes paid since purchase

MASON CITY | The owners of Southbridge Mall have paid no property taxes since purchasing the mall last year and owe $208,910 in back taxes, according to the Cerro Gordo County treasurer's office.

The mall was purchased for $1.5 million in September 2016 by Kohan Investment Group, Great Neck, New York, doing business as Southbridge Mall Realty Holding LLC.

Cerro Gordo County Treasurer Patricia Wright said taxes are owed on four parcels that make up the mall property with a taxable value of $4,613,370.

She said the holding company, like all taxpayers, receive five notifications of taxes due, including written notices in July, November (if delinquent) and in May (if still delinquent).

In addition, a list of properties with delinquent taxes is published in June, and if taxes are still not paid, they are subject to a tax sale usually held in the third week of June.

After the tax sale, another notice is mailed to the owners notifying them of the tax sale. The Kohan Investment Group received notification that two of the four parcels were sold at the 2017 tax sale.

"This does not constitute a sale of the property but a lien in the treasurer's office," said Wright. "The other two parcels, not sold at the tax sale, can be pursued through the court system."

Several attempts to contact Kohan Investment Group owner, Mehran Kohansiek, who goes by Mike Kohan, by phone and by email, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Mall property taxes are significant in the city's River City Renaissance project which includes an ice arena/multipurpose center in the mall.

On Nov. 7, voters will be asked to decide on whether to approve an agreement in which the mall would own the arena and lease it to the city for 20 years.

The mall would then pay property taxes which would provide the city with TIF financing to pay off bonds. Receipt of property taxes is the reason the city chose to lease rather than own the arena.

Kohan has a history of financial and legal problems with other malls he has owned.

A tax sale is pending this month on Washington Square Mall in Indianapolis because of $627,789 in property taxes owed by Kohan Investments. In the past, he was cited for owing back taxes on Northland Mall in Worthington, Minnesota.

In 2015, power was shut off at Rotterdam Square Mall ner Schenectady, New York, because an outstanding electric bill. Kohan has since sold that mall.

He has also had legal and financial problems in Effingham, Illinois, and Florissant, Missouri.

He owned Lincoln Mall in Matteson, Illinois, that was cited for many safety violations. A court ordered Kohan to pay $100,000 for repairs as well as a $100,000 fine. Kohan paid the fines and no longer owns the mall.

Woodville Mall in Northwood, Ohio, was ordered closed because of numerous health and safety violations. Its owners, including Kohan, were ordered to pay $1.69 million. Kohan told The Globe Gazette in a September 2016 interview that he was listed as one of the owners but had sold his interest and did not have to pay anything.

Reynolds wants line with Trump

DES MOINES — With health care options for as many as 70,000 Iowans hanging in the balance, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Tuesday she has requested a direct line to President Donald Trump.

Meantime, Reynolds said she continues to work with the president’s staff in order to get approval for Iowa’s proposed short-term health insurance plan.

According to a Washington Post report, Trump in August told one of his agency heads to reject Iowa’s stopgap proposal, which was designed as a short-term measure to ease the costs of insurance plans under the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

During her weekly press conference Tuesday, Reynolds said she continues to have constructive conversations with Trump administration officials regarding Iowa’s stopgap plan.

The plan is in a mandatory public comment period.

Open enrollment for 2018 plans begins Nov. 1.

“I haven’t spoken directly to the president. I’ve asked for a conversation,” Reynolds said. “We were actually on the phone yesterday, my team was, with Seema Verma (administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) talking about the stopgap proposal and where we’re at, what we need to do. So our indication is they’ve been very receptive, they continue to work with us.”

Under the stopgap plan, Iowa would use federal Affordable Care Act funding to provide financial assistance to individuals based on age and income, and would establish a separate program for individuals with high health care costs.

Roughly 70,000 Iowans purchase insurance through the Affordable Car Act’s marketplace, and roughly 20,000 of them could face costs so high they likely would decline to purchase insurance, the state insurance division has estimated.

State insurance commissioner Doug Ommen said he thinks the stopgap plan, which he designed in partnership with Iowa health insurer Wellmark, would ease the burden of spiking insurance costs for one year.

Even if approved, the stopgap plan could face a legal challenge by individuals or groups who feel it does not meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Reynolds said her administration attempted to create a proposal that would pass legal scrutiny.

“I’m really, really proud of my team, the commissioner Doug Ommen and Wellmark, for sitting down and coming up with a very innovative and creative solution that really will, I think, help reduce premiums compared to where they’re going with Obamacare,” Reynolds said. “It’s not perfect, but I think it goes a long way in making sure that we can reduce the premiums, make sure that Iowans have access to coverage and that we can step forward in making it affordable for especially farmers, small business owners and single moms.”

Both Ommen and Reynolds have stressed the stopgap plan, even if approved, is just a short-term solution and have implored Congress to pass long-term health care reform.

Text to 911

State officials said Tuesday that by the end of the year every county in Iowa will have emergency call centers that accept text messages to 911.

Currently, 94 of the state’s 113 emergency call centers accept 911 text messages, officials said.

Officials stressed that calling 911 remains the preferred method of emergency communication, but texting can be useful in cases where a call may endanger the individual trying to communicate with emergency responders, or if the individual’s speech has been impaired.

Officials said Iowa was the first state in the nation to accept 911 text messages; a pilot program in Black Hawk County debuted in 2009.

Coalition challenges Iowa 'ag gag' law

The lawsuit asks, among other things, the federal court to declare that Iowa’s ag gag law is a violation of the U.S. Constitution, strike it down and block the state from enforcing it.

The lawsuit is being filed by the ACLU of Iowa, along with attorneys from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Law Offices of Matthew Strugar, Public Justice and the Center for Food Safety. Among their clients are Bailing Out Benji, an Iowa nonprofit concerned about puppy mills, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the national Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the National Center for Food Safety.

The suit names Gov. Kim Reynolds, Attorney General Tom Miller and Montgomery County Attorney Bruce Swanson as defendants.

A spokeswoman for the Reynolds said the governor’s office had not seen the lawsuit. Spokesmen for the attorney general and the Iowa ag secretary also declined to comment.

When the law was passed, legislative leaders said it might be unconstitutional and stated that they would let the courts decide.

The law makes it a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to a year in jail, to make a false statement in connection with obtaining a job at such an animal facilities. It also penalizes “obtaining access” to an agricultural production facility by “false pretenses.”

Before the ag gag law passed, laws already existed that criminalized trespass or fraud or other similar crimes. But the ag gag law criminalized access to the facilities by false pretenses and publication of the information found by those means, even if there was no harm or injury to the facility investigated.

“An especially grievous harm to our democracy occurs when the government uses the power of the criminal laws to target unpopular speech to protect those with power — which is exactly what this law is about,” said Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director. “Ag gag clearly is a violation of Iowans’ First Amendment rights to free speech.”

In the years leading up to the passage of the law in 2012, there were at least 10 undercover investigations of factory farms in Iowa. Since the law’s passage, there have been none.

In Idaho and Utah, similar laws have been struck down as unconstitutional.

“The Ag Protection Act passed in 2012 was drafted by the Legislature to provide meaningful protection to farmers from those who seek and obtain farm employment under false pretenses while at the same time it intentionally respects and protects all citizens’ constitutional rights,” Ron Birkenholz of the Iowa Pork Producers Association said. “The law also helps Iowa pig farmers ensure the health and safety of the animals they raise.”