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GOP Sen. Norment files bill to ban guns in local government buildings for special session Tuesday

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, has filed a bill for Tuesday’s special session of the General Assembly that would ban anyone from bringing a gun into a local government building, a measure that goes further than what Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed.

Norment, however, has a history of pushing certain votes in an attempt to embarrass Democrats.

In January, for example, he sent a Democratic bill to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour to the Senate floor, where Republicans killed it. Norment wanted to send a message to the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce about what could happen if Democrats took control of the Senate after the chamber endorsed a Democrat in a state Senate election.

Norment’s spokesman, Jeff Ryer, said Monday that he didn’t know anything about the bill and said Norment didn’t tell him his motivation in filing it. Norment did not return a request for comment.

Norment’s bill was among more than 30 that had been filed and were publicly available as of Monday afternoon. It would amend the state law that prohibits firearms in courthouses to apply to all local government buildings. The bill also would make it a felony to carry a gun into a courthouse or public building.

Currently, local governments can prohibit government employees from having weapons, but not the public. Norment’s bill would go further toward restricting guns in public buildings than what Northam proposes. Northam last week said he would support legislation enabling localities “to enact any firearms ordinances that are stricter than state law,” including regulating firearms in municipal buildings, libraries and at permitted events.

Asked about Norment’s bill, Northam’s press secretary, Alena Yarmosky, said by email that “the Governor is pleased to see legislators coming to the table with serious gun violence prevention proposals — he hopes every legislator will have the chance to engage in honest debate and cast their vote.”

Norment’s bill is at odds with a bill filed by Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, which would prohibit local governments from adopting any rule that prohibits local government employees from taking guns into their buildings.

The May 31 mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center that left 12 dead prompted the governor’s call for a special session.

One of those killed, Kate Nixon, had told her husband she was considering taking her gun to work in her handbag the day of the shooting because she had concerns about two employees — one of whom was the gunman.

“She decided to follow the rules and of course the shooter did not, which they never do, and she was left helpless,” Black said in an interview Monday.

He said he had not heard of any plan by Norment to file a piece of legislation counter to his.

Norment’s bill did not appear to set off alarm bells with gun-rights activists who will rally at the Capitol on Tuesday to protest Northam’s push for gun control measures. Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, did not respond to a request for comment.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, filed a bill that would allow local governments to pass ordinances banning firearms in government buildings, but it would require that the ordinances include security requirements designed to stop people with guns from getting into the buildings.

Here’s a look at some of the other bills that have been filed and are publicly available:

Concealed weapon permit requirements

A bill from Davis would require applicants for concealed weapon permits to complete a firearm safety course in person, eliminating the part of existing law that allows them to do it online.

Northam’s agenda

A bill from Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, would allow local governments to adopt ordinances prohibiting anyone from having a weapon in a government meeting. This is different from Norment’s proposal because it would allow the locality to have the option.

A bill from Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, would reinstate a former Virginia law limiting handgun purchases to one per month. That measure became law in the early 1990s, during Gov. Doug Wilder’s administration. Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a bill to repeal it in 2012.

A bill from Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, would enhance punishment from a misdemeanor to a felony for anyone who recklessly leaves a loaded, unsecured firearm where a child could get it. The bill also expands the age of children affected under the law from up to age 12 to up to age 18.

Penalties

for gun crimes

Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, introduced a batch of bills to create or enhance punishments for gun crimes. One would increase the penalty for using a firearm in commission of a felony from a mandatory three years in prison to a mandatory five years.

Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, introduced a bill to enhance the penalty for use of a firearm in commission of a felony if a silencer is used. Current law requires a three-year prison sentence for felonious use of a firearm. Miyares’ bill would add two years to the sentence if a silencer was used. The gunman in the Virginia Beach shooting, who was killed in a shootout with police, used a silencer.


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Midlothian native set to return to charity in Kazakhstan after temporary deportation
Midlothian native Victoria Charbonneau is set to return to her charity in Kazakhstan after temporary deportation

She has told the story many times, but cameras still make Victoria Charbonneau nervous. Saule Sadykova, a 14-year old girl Charbonneau met in an orphanage in Kazakhstan, moves to comfort the woman she now calls “Mom.”

“If you’re nervous, hold my hand,” Saule tells her.

Charbonneau takes her hand and smiles, reminding Saule that everybody gets nervous sometimes.

With their fingers intertwined, Charbonneau began the story of her 19 years of love and labor in Kazakhstan. She left her home in the Richmond area, adopted the central Asian country as her new home, and opened a charity ranch there that has helped hundreds of children who had aged out of orphanages.

But an innocent mistake on a permanent residency application got her temporarily banned from Kazakhstan, leaving her future in limbo at a time when her charity was on the verge of expansion.

Recently, the nation’s supreme court ruled that she can return to Kazakhstan with Saule, who traveled to Virginia with Charbonneau for medical care and, when home in Kazakhstan, comes to the ranch nearly every day.

***

Originally from Midlothian, the 58-year-old Charbonneau first traveled to Taraz, Kazakhstan, in 2000 as part of a delegation from Richmond’s St. Giles Presbyterian Church to volunteer at a camp for children to learn English, with no plans to return, much less move across the world.

“I thought I’d do a one-time trip to Kazakhstan [and] do a camp,” Charbonneau said. “I got there, fell in love with 180 kids and really saw that they didn’t have a lot of options.”

Charbonneau, who is divorced and had two young children at the time, returned to Virginia and already knew she wanted to move to Kazakhstan full time. She decided to wait until her children were grown and in the meantime returned there year after year until 2009 — when two life-changing events took place. She was hired to manage the youth department at a local nonprofit in Taraz, and she met Saule in an orphanage in Ulan.

Of the many orphans Charbonneau has helped to raise, Saule was the only one who was “proactive” about asking for help, Charbonneau said. Born with deformities including a cleft lip, a club foot and an eye that would not close, Saule climbed right into her lap and asked when the American would find her a family and medical care, Charbonneau said.

The interaction captured her heart, Charbonneau said, as did her experiences with many of the children she has seen since her first trip in 2000. She became particularly concerned as she saw those children begin to age out of orphanages around ages 15 or 16, watching their already slim prospects dwindle.

“It became very personal because these weren’t just statistics,” Charbonneau said. “These were kids that I knew.”

Along with Beth Turnock, an American friend she met in Kazakhstan, Charbonneau began dreaming of creating a safe place for children to learn life skills. In 2012, the two opened their nonprofit, a ranch called Caring Heart, in Kazakhstan, and registered as J127 Ranch in the United States.

Charbonneau describes the ranch as a shelter for aged-out orphans and single and widowed mothers who need services. It provides day care services, residential space and learning opportunities, including teaching mothers to read, write and do math. It offers a sewing program and provides a network of local businesses willing to offer job training.

Currently, the ranch supports 17 women and children with residential space, provides day care to 42 children on a daily basis, and helps nine women through the sewing program, with an additional three employed as support staff.

Charbonneau has also been able to secure medical care for residents. She brought Saule and a mother who had severe scoliosis to the Richmond area for treatment, donated by local doctors.

***

In recent years, the charity has grown substantially, Charbonneau said. Dr. Darrin Hubert, who practices in Richmond and performed surgery on Saule’s face, has traveled to Kazakhstan to offer training to local doctors.

Charbonneau is working to set up medical exchanges between the two nations to foster mutual learning, facilitating a trip two years ago and one this fall for Kazakh doctors to travel to the United States and visit clinics and hospitals.

Caring Heart raised $170,000 from sponsors to purchase a house for the ranch in Taraz, and with that building now full, the organization received a grant of $37,000 to buy an adjacent property to expand the residential program, Charbonneau said.

Under Charbonneau’s leadership, Caring Heart has expanded training opportunities, including the sewing program and partnerships with local businesses and social workers. There is talk of creating a family development program on the new piece of property to accommodate single mothers trying to keep their families together.

By this spring, growth was booming — making the legal trouble that followed all the more disorienting.

In undergoing the permanent residency process in September, Charbonneau hired a lawyer in the city of Almaty to fill out the forms and help her through the application, which was in Russian, a language she does not speak.

The lawyer’s assistant filled out the forms, and Charbonneau found out her application was accepted in November. But then she learned an error had been made based on a misunderstanding. On a question asking whether she had previously applied for permanent residency, Charbonneau instructed the lawyer to write no, understanding the question to be asking if she had received permanent residency. She had previously applied in 2013 and been denied.

By May 7, she was ordered to leave the country, having been found guilty of trying to deceive the Kazakh government, she said. Her permanent residency was removed, she was deported and banned from returning to the country for five years.

“When I had to leave, it was hard, ’cause [I thought] I couldn’t go back for five years,” Charbonneau said. “I mean it was hard on Saule, it was hard on the children and the mothers and the staff. Not that it’s dependent on me, because our sponsors and our supporters are what really carries all this, and our staff do so much work, but it was a vision of ours — of the Americans.”

For several weeks, the situation was uncertain. Through the chaos, Charbonneau said she did her best to remain positive and remind herself that everybody involved was simply doing what they were told to do, which kept her from being angry at any one person or group.

Kazakh people are among the most welcoming and generous she knows, but years under Soviet rule contributed to a culture of suspicion, Charbonneau said.

“It’s hard to understand, if there’s not a monetary gain, what is the gain?” Charbonneau said, discussing the mentality among some Kazakh officials toward charity. “To see a young girl [Saule] that couldn’t walk and couldn’t get around now can run and ride a bike and do tae kwon do and ride a horse and speak three languages, that’s very encouraging to a heart. And so it’s hard to understand why we do what we do, so then there’s a lot of suspicion.”

***

Thanks to public attention and support in Kazakhstan and across the region, the ruling was appealed and taken to the nation’s supreme court relatively quickly, Charbonneau said.

On May 30, the court handed down its ruling: The deportation and five-year ban had been overruled, and Charbonneau could return to Kazakhstan to sue for the return of her permanent residency in a lower court.

On Wednesday, Charbonneau and Saule are set to leave Virginia — they have been staying with a friend in Powhatan County — and return to Taraz. The ordeal will make the reunion even sweeter, and Charbonneau said she can’t wait to return to the ranch and see the children, mothers and staff who, over the past two decades, have become so much more.

“A lot of our mothers, and a lot of people that are part of [our organization], I knew since 2000,” Charbonneau said. “These are not strangers and people that we didn’t know. A lot of my employees, they were from my host homes when I was coming on short-term trips, and so they’ve seen me cry when I’ve had troubles with my children, [when] they’ve been sick or had car accidents, and they’ve seen me celebrate when people do well.”

“It’s a family there,” she continued, smiling. “I have family on two sides of the world.”


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Former U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor announces bid to unseat Sen. Mark Warner

Former U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican from Virginia Beach who lost his seat last year, will run for U.S. Senate against Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in 2020.

Taylor posted an announcement video on YouTube on Monday talking about his challenging childhood, his service as a Navy SEAL and his term in Congress, and said he listened to people who didn’t feel like they were being listened to.

“There’s a leadership crisis in Virginia, Washington is broken and we need a fresh start in the Senate,” Taylor said in the video. “I’m running for the United States Senate for our stories, for the disadvantaged, for those stuck and those left behind. We are all in this together.”

Taylor, 40, served as a state delegate from Virginia Beach before his 2016 election to Congress, where he succeeded retiring GOP Rep. Scott Rigell.

Taylor beat fellow a Republican, former U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, in a primary that year. Forbes opted to run in the 2nd Congressional District primary even though he represented the 4th Congressional District because the 4th had been redrawn favorably to Democrats.

In November, Taylor lost his seat to Elaine Luria, who was one of three female Democrats to unseat Republican incumbents, giving Democrats a 7-4 edge in Virginia’s U.S. House delegation.

Dogging Taylor during the campaign was the revelation that his campaign staff had signed off on forged signatures in an attempt to get an independent candidate, Shaun Brown, on the ballot in the general election in an apparent attempt to draw votes away from Luria and frustrate the Democrats.

A Richmond judge in a civil trial ordered Brown removed from the ballot and found “out and out fraud” in the signatures she submitted, including some by Taylor campaign aides. Taylor has said he did not know about the forged signatures, and in May said that he’s concerned that a special prosecutor who’s investigating is dragging out the process for political purposes.

Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Don Caldwell, an independent who was previously a Democrat, was assigned to investigate about 11 months ago. In May, one former Taylor aide was indicted on two felony counts of election fraud.

Democrats issued statements Monday pegging Taylor as a perennial candidate.

“Scott Taylor is an experienced campaigner, having run or explored running for five different offices in the past decade,” said Warner campaign manager Bruce Sinclair in a news release. “We welcome Scott Taylor to the race and wish him the best of luck in the Republican primary.”

Warner, Virginia’s governor from 2002 to 2006, has served in the Senate since 2009. He was narrowly re-elected in 2014, defeating Republican Ed Gillespie.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, the top five vote-getters in Virginia history are Democrats running in presidential years, led by Warner, who received a record 2,369,327 votes in 2008 when Barack Obama led the Democratic ticket. Virginia’s voter turnout in 2008 was 74%.

In 2014, a nonpresidential year, turnout was 41.6% and Warner received 1,073,667 votes — nearly 1.3 million fewer than in his last bid — and barely edged Gillespie.

In a news release, Taylor said he is the underdog in the race: “No matter what pundits or polls predict, this race is on, and all bets are off.”

Taylor’s first day as a Senate candidate got off to a rocky start; a 2 p.m. news conference at a Richmond law firm was pushed back until 3:30 p.m., and when reporters arrived they were told it was pushed back to 5 p.m. Then the Taylor campaign sent an email to reporters saying it was canceled because of unexpected travel delays.


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Report: Va. progressing toward closure of training centers, but struggling with DOJ compliance

Melton

One year away from the prescribed closure of the Central Virginia Training Center, a state institution that treats patients with intellectual and physical disabilities, the state has moved most of the patients into community-based care settings but is struggling to comply with other requirements set in a U.S. Department of Justice settlement and has not yet determined the fate of the complex near Lynchburg.

“The commonwealth has made excellent progress in transitioning people into more integrated settings,” said Dr. Hughes Melton, commissioner of the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, in a presentation Monday to the General Assembly’s Special Joint Subcommittee to Consult on the Plan to Close State Training Centers.

In the eight years since a federal investigation by the Department of Justice found that the way that Virginia treated disabled people in training centers violated their civil rights, the number of people living in the large institutions has gone down by 89%, from 1,084 to 116, according to Melton.

In its efforts to comply with the DOJ settlement, the state has closed three of the five training centers and plans to close the fourth, the Central Virginia Training Center, by June 2020.

Currently, 45 people live at CVTC, with 36 having plans for where they will go when they leave the training center. The remaining nine patients and their families have not agreed to a transition plan, but Melton said that the behavioral health department is confident that treatment arrangements can be found that will meet their needs.

Some families have protested CVTC’s closure and the movement of loved ones being treated there, saying that other options won’t give the patients the care they need.

Under the terms of the DOJ settlement, the state is required to consider the patient and his or her family’s preferences and ensure that the person is placed in the least restrictive environment possible.

One training center, the Southeastern Virginia Training Center in Chesapeake, will remain open with 75 beds for individuals who the state concludes cannot be placed in the community.

Of the 830 people who left training centers from Oct. 1, 2011, to July 3, the majority went on to group homes — with 339 going to homes with four beds or fewer and 271 going to homes with five beds or more. Others went on to intermediate care facilities, nursing homes or another community setting.

An independent reviewer is monitoring the state’s compliance with the DOJ settlement. The reviewer’s latest report, released in June, found that the state has made progress in offering more living options for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including children, and in improving case management. However, the report also said that Virginia continues to place people in six- to 16-bed facilities “that isolate individuals from their communities and that operate and appear like institutions.”

The report also found that the statewide crisis service system for the disabled is not working, that low pay rates are making it difficult for families and agencies to recruit and retain support professionals, and that there is a shortage of providers for people with intense services needs, as well as for those who can live with more independence.

Melton said his department is working with the DOJ to determine specific indicators that can be used to measure the state’s compliance on a number of the settlement’s terms. Some members of the joint subcommittee expressed concern over the cost to the state that full compliance with the settlement could bring.

“A lot of work needs to be done, and it probably has a significant price tag on it,” said Del. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg. “If so, we need that yesterday. If you don’t have that number, we’ve got some issues.”

Melton did not give a specific figure, but said he expected that the state’s existing plan to reform the mental health system — known as STEP-VA — could overlap with some of the settlement requirements. He also said that some of the work has already been done to build out the community care required.

Melton added that compliance will require ongoing investments in some areas and that the department will need to build out the processes, infrastructure and data systems required to ensure quality of the programs.

Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, the chairman of the subcommittee, said the state is currently spending money to continue to treat people at CVTC.

“We’re going in the right direction,” Hanger said. “And hopefully, if you get your rules of engagement from the court as far as what constitutes compliance, that’s when we can put some hard numbers together.”

In addition to the cost of complying with the settlement, the subcommittee heard from Christine Kennedy, executive vice president of the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, about the estimated costs and economic potential of converting the 378-acre plot where CVTC sits into usable land for redevelopment.

The complex, which accepted its first patients more than a century ago, was once a major employer and economic force for the Lynchburg region but now has more than 40 abandoned buildings. Over the decades, the buildings have fallen into severe disrepair and have become environmentally hazardous, including with the presence of asbestos, a coal ash dump and lead, Kennedy said.

Safe demolition and cleanup of the site could cost anywhere from $50 million to $100 million. Some of the lawmakers on the subcommittee balked at the high price.

“A million dollars is a heck of a lot of money just to raze a building,” Garrett said.

He added that, if they’re going to come up with a feasible plan for the site, it would have to be for the long term.

“It’s going to be little bites,” he said. “If we don’t start biting, then we’ll never even begin.”

Said Hanger: “It’s kind of like a vulture picking at an elephant.”

“But it always picks the bones clean,” Kennedy replied.