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In day four of ‘Varsity Blues’ trial, student testifies almost everything in defendant’s daughter’s profile is ‘untrue’

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In day four of ‘Varsity Blues’ trial, student testifies almost everything in defendant’s daughter’s profile is ‘untrue’

A Wellesley College senior testified on Friday that virtually everything in the athletic profile of the daughter of one of two parents on trial in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal was untrue.

On the fourth day of testimony in the trial of former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz and another parent, Rachel Sih was shown her high school yearbook, which included the same photo of a girl playing basketball that was used to try to get the defendant’s daughter into the University of Southern California as a basketball recruit.

“Is that Sabrina Abdelaziz?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Frank asked.

“No,” said Sih, the prosecution’s second witness in the high-profile trial in federal court in Boston.

“Did Sabrina try out for the varsity team?” Frank asked.

“Yes,” Sih said.

“Did she make it?” Frank asked.

“No,” Sih said.

When asked about other things on Sabrina Abdelaziz’s athletic profile, she also said, “It’s untrue that she was starting point guard or varsity captain.”

Sih’s testimony was a blow to the defense of Gamal Abdelaziz, who is on trial with former Staples and Gap Inc. executive John Wilson on charges they paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to help get their children into USC by falsely presenting them as athletic recruits. Wilson also is accused of paying more than $1 million to buy his twin daughters’ ways into Harvard and Stanford.

William “Rick” Singer, the so-called “godfather” behind the “Varsity Blues” scheme, is now cooperating with the government and has handed over emails and secret recordings he made of his dealings with parents.

In one recording played on Friday for the jury, Singer tells Wilson that he’s “going to do more than 730 of these side-door deals at 50 or 60 schools.”

In another recording, Wilson asks, “Is there any way to make those (payments) tax-deductible, as like, donations to a school?”

Singer assures him there is.

On Wednesday, Frank showed jurors multiple emails between Singer, parents, and others, including one from March 2018 to Abdelaziz, thanking him for his “generous donation” of $300,000 to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation, adding the money would benefit disadvantaged youngsters.

Recordings of conversations between Singer and Donna Heinel, the former senior associate athletic director at USC, discussed “structuring” some donations, which FBI Special Agent Keith Brown told jurors meant breaking them into smaller amounts to evade taxes.

Defense lawyers have claimed that the parents were duped by Singer and led to believe that their payments were legitimate donations.

Earlier this week,  the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Gordon Ernst, the former head coach of men’s and women’s tennis at Georgetown University, has agreed to plead guilty in connection with soliciting and accepting $3.4 million in bribes to facilitate the admission of prospective Georgetown applicants and failing to report a large portion of those bribes on his federal income taxes.

The parties have agreed to a sentence of at one to four years in prison, two years of supervised release and forfeiture of $3.4 million.

 

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Push to ban sale of flavored tobacco, vape juices in Denver sparks intense debate

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Push to ban sale of flavored tobacco, vape juices in Denver sparks intense debate

A push to outlaw the sale of flavored smoking products in Denver has drawn Big Tobacco, mom-and-pop vape shops, hookah lounges, health care providers and social justice advocates into a fight over public health, business rights and the freedom of choice.

The proposal under consideration by the Denver City Council is becoming one of the most intensely debated issues in City Hall in recent years, with public health advocates saying a ban would help end the teen vaping crisis while the opposition argues the city would be going too far in restricting access to products that adults have a right to use.

Adding to the complexity of the issue is a disagreement among the opposition over what kind of compromise — if any — can be reached.

As Phil Guerin, a Denver vape shop owner, said, “The vape people are throwing the hookah people under the bus and the hookah people are throwing the vape people under the bus.”

If passed by the City Council, the ordinance would outlaw the sale of any flavored smoking products, including menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars, e-cigarettes, vape pens and juices, and shisha, the tobacco used in hookahs and smoked in lounges across the city.

While Denver would become the seventh Colorado municipality to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, the ordinance would not prohibit people from possessing or using them.

The bill next will be discussed at 10 a.m. Wednesday during the council’s safety committee meeting in the Council Chambers at the Denver City and County Building.

The idea to outlaw the sale of flavored tobacco products started with Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who says she became alarmed about children’s access to vaping products last spring when her then-12-year-old daughter was part of a text chain in which another student was trying to purchase vaping supplies off TikTok to share with friends.

That led to a parent-child discussion about the dangers of smoking. Except Sawyer said her children didn’t believe vaping was harmful.

“I was really startled when they said, ‘It’s just cotton candy,’” Sawyer said, referring to vape flavor. “‘It’s not a big deal. It’s not unhealthy.’”

Sawyer decided to push for a sales ban in Denver. Sure, the illicit market would remain and people could drive to Aurora, Arvada, Lakewood or other neighboring cities to buy products, she said, but the best step to curb youth use would be minimizing their ability to get the products in their own neighborhoods.

“A flavor ban really is the single remaining piece beyond aggressive taxation, which I’m not interested in,” Sawyer said of what governments can do to curb teen vaping.

Councilwoman Debbie Ortega signed on as a co-sponsor and the two introduced the bill — setting off one of the hottest fights in City Hall in years.

“The tobacco industry has hired every lobbyist in town, which is extraordinary. It’s something we’ve never seen before,” Sawyer said. “Every lobbyist in town is knocking on every council member’s door to talk about this.”

Preventing kids from becoming users

Those who support the ban argue that it’s in the best interest of the public. They fire off statistics and health studies that illustrate that e-cigarette use, or vaping, by teens is on the rise and that it’s harmful to their health.

The U.S. Surgeon General has declared e-cigarettes an epidemic. On Sept. 30, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration issued a report that showed an estimated 2 million American middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2021, with eight in 10 of them preferring flavored e-cigarettes — with fruit, sweets and mint being the preferred flavors. More than one in four high school students and one in 12 middle school students use them daily.

E-cigarettes are loaded with highly addictive nicotine, a chemical that harms the developing adolescent brain, the CDC and FDA report said.

Already, Denver and Colorado ban tobacco sales to anyone younger than 21. In Denver, the Department of Public Health and Environment visits retailers to find out if they sell to underage consumers, although the pandemic put a pause on enforcement between the spring of 2020 and August of this year, said Natalee Salcedo, the city’s tobacco administrator. In a normal year, investigators inspect more than 2,000 retailers.

People on both sides of the debate have used the city’s enforcement data to prove their points or accuse the other side of lying. But the break during the pandemic makes the data incomplete, and the enforcement unit shifts its tactics so enforcement priorities are not the same every year.

For example, during one quarter in 2018, Denver’s public health department visited tobacco retailers of every type and found a 3% non-compliance rate. But during the next quarter, the enforcement unit focused on e-cigarette retailers and the non-compliance rate jumped to 19%, data shows. And when inspections restarted in August, investigators focused on unlicensed retailers and found 10 out of 77 businesses would sell to minors.

Jodi Radke, the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains regional director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said flavored products need to be outlawed because tobacco companies target children in marketing in hopes of addicting them at a young age. It’s an old strategy that tobacco companies have used for generations, she said.

“The goal of this policy is to prevent these kids from becoming the lifelong adult users who regret making the decision to use when they were 13, 14 or 15,” Radke said.

Carmen Martin, a Denver mother to 12- and 14-year-old daughters, said one daughter recently saw someone buying mango-flavored e-cigarettes in a drug store and told her mother, “Who wouldn’t want to smoke mango? That sounds delicious.”

That comment led to a family talk.

Martin said she started smoking at 12 and knows how easy it is to become hooked. She smoked for 15 years, quitting before she had children, and she doesn’t want her daughters to follow in her footsteps because the health risks are too great.

“We know the flavors are there to hook kids. It’s a ‘no duh,’” Martin said. “I don’t feel like it’s something we need data around when there’s chocolate and cotton candy and strawberry. That’s intentional. The tobacco industry knows if they can hook a young person, that’s a consumer for life and they’ll use until they die.”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Phil Guerin, owner and founder of Myxed Up Creations, a store that sells vaping products, poses for a portrait in his shop at 5800 E. Colfax Ave. in Denver on Oct. 20, 2021. The Denver City Council is considering a ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including vape juice.

Valuable tool for quitting smoking

On the other side, those who sell e-cigarettes and the assorted flavors argue they’re a healthy alternative to traditional cigarettes because they don’t include the tar and other chemicals that cause lung cancer and other diseases.

Adults have a right to choose what to smoke, said Joe Miklosi, the chief executive officer of Bridge Consulting, who is working for Rocky Mountain Smoke-Free Alliance, a coalition of 125 vaping stores in Colorado, including 21 in Denver.

“People are desperate to quit smoking, and then they can use vaping and quit in a weekend,” Miklosi said. “The health organizations need to honor that. You need to meet people where they are. These mom-and-pop businesses poured their life savings into these businesses because they believe in helping people.”

Monica Vondruska, who owns Cignot Colorado at 1412 W. 38th Ave. in northwest Denver, said a ban would drive her out of business because her store’s entire focus is vaping supplies.

She doesn’t sell Juul or other e-cigarette brands owned by large tobacco corporations. And she offers various products with different levels of nicotine so smokers can ween themselves from their addictions over time. She believes vape pens and juices are legitimate alternatives to cigarettes because her husband used them to kick the habit.

“Adults deserve the ability to make that choice,” Vondruska said. “You’re standing in the way of people converting to a less harmful product. Period.”

Guerin, who owns Myxed Up Creations at 5800 E. Colfax Ave., called the ban a witch hunt, saying he agreed that teens should not use e-cigarettes or any other form of tobacco. But he said stores such as his keep the flavored products out of young hands with self-imposed rules and good business practices.

“Right now, it’s in my hands. I am a responsible business person,” Guerin said. “I still live in the same zip code I was born in. I know everyone. I have an 11-year-old daughter. My daughter goes to the same school I went to. I don’t condone my daughter using vape.”

In this fight, though, the businesses that oppose the ban are not all aligned in their fight to stop it.

Grier Bailey, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Convenience Store Association, said the ban is too wide because it includes flavored cigars and cigarettes, neither of which has been declared a youth health crisis. If the City Council wants to end teen vaping, then ban flavored vaping products, he said.

The broad flavored tobacco ban is being pushed by advocacy groups that want to outlaw all smoking, he said.

“The health people are using a teen vaping crisis to knock off another couple of items that are on their wish list,” Bailey said. “It doesn’t seem to be a very balanced policy.”

The owners of hookah lounges are lobbying the City Council to carve out an exemption for their businesses. They maintain their lounges only allow people 21 and older in the doors and no teen is going to try to sneak a bulky water pipe with all of its hoses into their bedrooms, said Hrant Vartzbedian, executive director of the National Hookah Community Association.

“We feel vape and namely Big Tobacco has abused that relationship and has been trying to sell to kids,” he said. “We believe hookah is collateral damage to vape’s problems.”

Vartzbedian also said he has explained to council members that hookah lounges are an important part of immigrant cultures, particularly for people from the Middle East. It’s a familiar place for people to socialize and relax.

“It’s their scene. You take this from them, what are they going to do?” he said.

Targeting people of color

Hookah isn’t the sole cultural argument introduced into the debate.

The sales ban would include menthol cigarettes, which are smoked primarily by Black people.

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Faces of the Front Range: Jonathan Alberico is a bonafide bones dealer — and his beetle colony eats them clean

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Faces of the Front Range: Jonathan Alberico is a bonafide bones dealer — and his beetle colony eats them clean

Jonathan Alberico’s Aurora home is teeming with skulls, creepy crawlies, macabre artwork and a collection of poison bottles.

“Aw, man, we’ve been too busy to decorate for Halloween this year yet, but I wish you could see it when we get around to it,” Alberico said.

The bones in Alberico’s home aren’t cheapo plastic seasonal decor. They’re bonafide animal skeletons, and they’re the eccentric 36-year-old’s livelihood.

Alberico is the owner of The Learned Lemur, an oddities shop that opened in a new location this summer — on Friday the 13th, no surprise — at 2220 E. Colfax Ave. in Denver.

The shop, which bills itself as “Colorado’s premier oddities dealer,” is stocked with vintage medical equipment, taxidermied animals, plants and other peculiarities.

But Alberico’s specialty is bones.

The Learned Lemur offers bone and skull cleaning — a service for those looking to tidy up a trophy buck for mounting, clean off a carcass nabbed on a hike or even create a skeletal remembrance of a lost furry friend.

Alberico said he is a stickler for ethically sourced materials and skeletons, but he’s got a few key employees who aren’t on the payroll: colonies of dermestid beetles that live in climate-controlled chests in Alberico’s home workshop that eat the flesh off the bones their boss deposits.

“We clean about 1,500 to 2,000 skulls a year with those guys,” Alberico said. “They’re our hardest working employees.”

Alberico’s home office space likely looks different than yours. His beetle den, with an eau de rotting flesh, features freezers housing their projects and beetle abodes. On a recent October day, a swarm chowed down on coyote and beaver skulls slated for The Learned Lemur’s shelves.

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Jonathan Alberico works on a pomeranian-chihuahua mix on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021.

In another room of Alberico’s novelty-laden home, which features enough plants to take on a jungle-like quality, the bones of Werewolf the beloved pup were organized on a tabletop. On his days off from the oddities shop, Alberico spends his time meticulously piecing together bones of clients’ late pets. The animals’ remains are cleaned off by the beetles, go through chemical baths and come out as squeaky clean bones ready to be puzzle-pieced back together into a skeletal tribute.

“I can hear him telling the animals that they were good boys or girls while he works on them,” said Bex Schimoler, Alberico’s partner, who also works at The Learned Lemur.

Alberico grew up on Denver’s historic Antique Row, refining his taste for the weird while digging through old barns and buildings as a kid with his dad on the hunt for treasures for their family’s antique shop.

He remembers playing in his backyard as a kid and discovering a bird skull under a bush.

“I still have that skull, and it’s one of the pieces I’ll always have,” Alberico said. “It was that kickoff moment that made me realize weird stuff is neat. I quickly became bored with what most people considered antiques. Even as a little kid, I started gravitating toward the unusual stuff and bizarre stuff — anatomical models, biohazard suits.”

Now, The Learned Lemur is the amalgamation of years of collecting curiosities. Every item has a history, and Alberico is eager to share.

Take the mink bones he said he obtained after U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers found a rash of wild mink that tested positive for COVID-19 near a Colorado campsite. The agency called on hunting professionals to kill the mink out of fear the animals would pass the disease to humans, Alberico said, and he got dibs on the skulls.

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Speed limits on Denver’s neighborhood streets would drop to 20 mph if councilman’s push succeeds

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Speed limits on Denver’s neighborhood streets would drop to 20 mph if councilman’s push succeeds

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Contractor Tracy Barker installs a warning beacon on a speed-limit sign in Denver on Wednesday, May 27, 2009.

Denver drivers could soon see speed limits on every neighborhood street drop from 25 mph to 20 mph if an upcoming City Council measure is successful.

The proposal, which Councilman Paul Kashmann plans to introduce in the next month, follows more than two years of campaigning by a local advocacy group to reduce speeds in Denver’s residential areas and an effort by the city to eliminate traffic deaths.

The change to thousands of Denver’s streets could be implemented as soon as next year.

“We get neverending calls from neighborhood residents that cars are going too fast,” Kashmann said. “Part of what we can do is encourage people to slow down.”

City data shows that the per-capita rate of traffic deaths has grown steadily from 5.7 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2012 to 8.4 deaths per 100,000 people n 2019.

Fewer people died or were seriously injured in traffic crashes last year than the previous year as people stayed home at the beginning of the pandemic, but the rates of injuries and deaths have rebounded in 2021, data published by the city shows.

Sixty-six people have died in traffic crashes so far in 2021 and 296 more people have been seriously injured. That’s an average of 36 people injured or killed every month, which exceeds the rate seen in 2019.

Reducing speed limits is a relatively easy, cheap and effective way to quickly prevent traffic injuries and deaths, said Jill Locantore, executive director of Denver Streets Partnership, which has pushed for the speed limit reduction since 2019. But the speed reductions need to be followed by additional infrastructure, like speed humps and raised intersections, she said.

“It’s a statement of values, saying we value safety and human life over the convenience of driving,” Locantore said.

The proposal comes four years into the Denver government’s five-year plan to eliminate traffic deaths in the city by 2030. The plan, Vision Zero, states reducing speed is a priority and cites a study that shows there is a 13% chance a pedestrian will be seriously injured or killed if struck by a car traveling 20 mph. That chance increases to 40% if the car is traveling at 40 mph.

If Kashmann’s proposal is successful, it will take the city between three and five years to swap out the more than 2,700 signs stating the speed limit is 25 mph, said Nancy Kuhn, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

The department does not have an estimate on how much it will cost to replace the signs, nor does it have money earmarked to do that. Neighborhood streets are typically smaller streets without any yellow center lines.

Kashmann said reducing the speed limit is not a silver bullet and that further changes to street design are necessary.

Reducing speeds is the best way to reduce the risk and severity of injury on roads, said Wes Marshall, associate professor of civil engineering and affiliate professor in urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver.

“Changing the speed limit is a baby step, but the reality is people drive the speed the road is designed for,” he said.

Factors like road width and whether there are cars parked along the street have a greater impact on how fast drivers go, Marshall said.

“We need to make it difficult to drive 20 or 25 mph, and that’s where we get the impacts,” he said.

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