Norman corruption scandal

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Norman welcome sign.

The Norman corruption scandal is legal controversy surrounding the local government of the city of Norman, Shasta. Since at least 1998, a series of events have transpired in Norman which have culminated into the most covered corruption scandal in modern Sierran history. In August 2014, a group of citizens formed the advocacy organization Norman Residents for Fair Enforcement after the city drastically altered speed limit zones across the city. They filed a suit against the city, alleging such alterations were done intentionally to confuse motorists and entrap them into violations, where they would be cited exorbitant fines. Motorists from other provinces and Rainier would be especially targeted, the NRFE also alleged. On July 3, 2018, Sierran federal judge Allan Shepard III ruled in the NRFE's favor, ordering the city pay approximately $68.5 million in collected traffic fines back to the residents of Norman. The attention this suit brought to this city led to the opening of a federal corruption investigation led by Darren Holmes of the Royal Bureau of Investigation. Nine days after Judge Shepard's ruling on July 12, 2018, Holmes' investigation resulted in five city officials, including Norman mayor Harold F. Ramos, being charged with a variety of corruption-related offenses, including misuse of public funds, money laundering, falsifying public records, and violations of numerous city and county statutes. The investigation is still ongoing.

Background[edit | edit source]

Norman is a small city located near the Sierran-Rainian border with a population of 6,743. Although small in population, its official limits extend to an area roughly 21 square miles in area. There is only one high-speed roadway that connects Shasta and southern Rainier which runs through Norman, making it a popular pit stop for tourists and vacationers. As early as 1998, the town gained a reputation among locals in the region for its strict enforcement of speed limits. Many detours and work-arounds were discovered but rarely used as those roads were slow and poorly maintained. Even shuttles created to transport people through the city were stopped on occasion. In September 2010, the City of Norman voted to drastically alter its speed zones. Norman residents stated the zones became extremely confusing, as much of the signage indicating speed limits was removed, often indefinitely, pending a "replacement." Some roads had their speed limits reduced by half, despite running through sparsely populated areas. The reforms drew ire from residents but resulted in no changes in the council's part. A citizen advocacy group called Norman Residents for Fair Enforcement was formed to pressure the city to revert back to the old speed scheme. When little headway was being made, the NRFE filed a lawsuit in August 2014.

Norman Residents for Fair Enforcement v. City of Norman[edit | edit source]

The suit was filed by the organization on behalf of nearly 2,200 people, including residents of the city, residents of other provinces, and foreign travelers who alleged they were unfairly targeted by the city. The NRFE accused the city of altering speed zones to intentionally confuse drivers and entrap them into violations in order to issue them citations. Several photographs of Norman Police cruisers waiting by areas with sparse signage were shown to the court. Furthermore, the advocacy group provided hundreds of citations listing fines well-above what would be considered normal for speed violations: ranging between $100 and $600 even for violations little more than 5 miles per hour over the limit. Foreign and out-of-province travelers were especially targeted. The NRFE stated this was because the city knew people not familiar with the area would be less likely to contest a citation, especially if they lived very far away.

The city contested the group's accusations, citing a rise in drunk-driving arrests, and cases where people have been struck by drivers traveling at high speeds as the rationale for its change in speed limit enforcement. However, a financial document obtained by the NRFE under a Shasta freedom of information request showed the city of Norman made $87.5 million in traffic citations between 1998 and 2014, comprising more than 68% of its total revenue, which the NRFE said was a "Ridiculous" amount of money for a city with under 10,000 residents to have. The NRFE also said it was unable to find any conclusive records as to how that money was being spent. The city of Norman had no explanation.

The case took four years to resolve, mainly due to technical and clerical issues arising from inadequate equipment and a change in how the province of Shasta keeps public records as well as and motions to delay filed by the city which were granted by Judge George Wiseman. When Wiseman retired, Judge Allan Shepard III presided over the case and demanded an expedient resolution, denying another motion to delay by the city. Both the NRFE and the city agreed to a summary judgement which was handed down by Judge Shepard on July 3, 2018 in the NRFE's favor, ordering the city to pay the organization $68.5 million. The group would, in turn, distribute the funds to those it represented. Judge Shepard stated he was "Appalled" by the city's conduct, and opined in his official judgement: "The city of Norman has horrendously abused its lawful authority to enforce safe speeds for motorists. It has created what is in essence an extortion racket within its limits." In addition to the settlement, he also ordered the city to revert back to its old scheme of speed zones in place prior to 2010 and to ensure proper signage is in place.

The examination of the city's financial records caught the attention of federal corruption investigators at the Royal Bureau of Investigation (RBI), which launched an investigation shortly after Judge Shepard's ruling. Two more lawsuits filed in 2016, one against the city for violation of federal road standards, and another against the Norman Police Department for unfairly targeting out-of-province and foreign motorists, are still pending.

Corruption investigation[edit | edit source]

The Royal Bureau of Investigation looked into the NRFE's claim that it could not find any record as to where the city's traffic revenue was going to. As the investigation is still ongoing, the RBI has been sparse with giving details on its findings, but a press conference held on July 9 by the lead investigator in the case, Darren Holmes, stated the NRFE's claim had "Strong merit." Three days after that statement, on July 12, the RBI announced it had formally charged five officials of the city of Norman with a variety of corruption charges, including the mayor, Harold F. Ramos.

The next day, on July 13, all five officials announced the resignations from their offices. As the city government could not function without these five people, and there would not be enough time to schedule a special election to replace them, the Evergreen County council voted unanimously to strip Norman of its municipality status, bringing it under county governance, and reducing Norman to an unincorporated census-designated place. Under provincial law, non-municipality communities cannot have their own police forces, so the Norman Police Department was effectively disbanded as a result of this decision; law enforcement will now be handled by the Evergreen County Sheriff. The Fraternal Order of Police protested the decision, as did the families of the now-jobless officers. Norman will also no longer be allowed to lay and collect property taxes, which is only a right of municipalities.

Officials charged[edit | edit source]

Name Charge(s) Office
Harold F. Ramos Money laundering, misuse of public funds, falsifying public records, perjury, extortion, abuse of office Mayor
Cheryl Burgess Money laundering, misuse of public funds, falsifying public records, obstruction of justice, abuse of office City treasurer
David Lee Pao Money laundering, misuse of public funds, falsifying public records, abuse of office City clerk
Ricardo Ubaldo Ramirez Misuse of public funds, abuse of office City council member
Margaret Hannah Misuse of public funds, abuse of office City council member

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

The case has become one of the most covered corruption scandals in recent Sierran history and has elicited reactions from numerous politicians, pundits, and celebrities. It has been described as an absolute failure of city government. The City of Norman was covered twice by RBS' The Sunday Special Report, once in 2008 and the other in 2017, where officials from the city government, as well as private citizens associated with NRFE were interviewed. The scandal was also parodied in Tokki Comedy's The Good and Bad (But Mostly Bad) News with Mike Blaustein in a sketch where travelers were heavily fined for numerous, minor crimes unrelated to traffic.

Protests[edit | edit source]

After the county revoked Norman's status as a municipality, protests formed outside the Norman city hall and the Evergreen County Courthouse, calling for, among other things, justice for those charged and demanding the county restore Norman's city rights. They were joined by members of the former Norman Police Department and their families, who have been rendered jobless as a result of the crisis. The County of Evergreen is reportedly seeking assistance from the Province of Shasta. Norman residents have lamented the amount of attention the crisis has brought to their community. Controversial pastor Lee Eun-suk made an appearance at these protests to condemn the charged officials and led a prayer to restore order to the community of Norman.

Current developments[edit | edit source]

As of July 15, protests are still ongoing both in Norman and in the county seat of Yreka and are being patrolled entirely by the Shasta Provincial Police as the Evergreen County Sheriff could not spare the manpower needed. Eight protesters have been arrested. The Evergreen County council is expected to meet sometime during the week of July 15 to discuss Norman's future and status.

On July 17, Kaitlyn Gans, governor of Shasta, declared a state of emergency for the area surrounding Norman, recognizing "A state of affairs that has led to the complete lack of any effective governance for the community of Norman". Later that day, the Evergreen County council appointed Richard Wesley as emergency manager, who will act as an interim mayor for the town. The five officials charged will be arraigned on July 18 and they are currently on bond.

See also[edit | edit source]