Local man indicted on charge linked to fatal overdose

A 27-year-old Dominican national most recently living in Haverhill is facing 20 years in prison for distributing fentanyl and cocaine resulting in the overdose death of a 26-year-old in 2018.

Bernardito Carvajal was federally indicted last week in Boston on one count of distribution of fentanyl and cocaine resulting in death and one count of distribution of fentanyl, U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling's office said.

Carvajal's indictment comes six months after he was arrested along with 37 others during a local, state and federal drug and firearms sweep dubbed “Operation Devil's Highway.”

Carvajal, in custody since his arrest, was among those individuals police say were involved in “drug distribution activity” in Lawrence and New Hampshire.

According to Lelling's office, Carvajal sold drugs in Lawrence to a person who died of an overdose after using the drugs in June 2018. He continued to sell fentanyl after the fatal overdose, officials said.

If convicted, Carvajal faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years and up to life in prison, a minimum of five years of supervised release and a fine of up to $10 million, according to Lelling's office.

— Allison Corneau


'Dumpster diving' no joke for School Committee member

Some people call it "dumpster diving.''

It might sound funny, but Toni Sapienza Donais isn't laughing.

The first-term School Committee member said she understands someone is throwing away School Department items that are still usable, tossing them in a dumpster at a city-owned maintenance barn across from Holy Family Hospital.

The tossed items — including tables and desks — are often taken from the dumpster, Sapienza Donais said, possibly by residents who use the items or sell them.

"We're hearing from people that live in that area that it's sort of been ... free for the dumpsters ... taking out oak tables and desks and things of that sort," she said.

Sapienza Donais has asked Superintendent Margaret Marotta for clarification on any policy that addresses the disposal of school equipment or supplies.

Sapienza Donais has also asked that the school facilities director provide a list of items that have been discarded from the School Department over the past six to eight weeks.

Mayor James Fiorentini, who is chairman of the School Committee, said the superintendent needs time to discuss the issue with facilities director Heather Forgione and will report her findings at the next School Committee meeting.

Sapienza Donais was an administrator in Haverhill schools for nine years before being elected to the School Committee in November. She said that when she was a school principal, any time she wanted to dispose of equipment or supplies, even books, the items had to first be declared surplus — not needed by the school or not usable.

"I'd have to write down how many books, then get permission from the School Committee to throw them away," she said. "I didn't see anything on a surplus list that we are following to throw stuff away.

"I saw the dumpster,'' she said of the one described by neighbors as a place to find items, "and it was full when I drove by.''

— Mike LaBella



Council has 'territorial war' with School Committee over maintenance

City councilors have agreed to spend $12,500 to fund a study by the Matrix consulting firm to determine how to best care for Haverhill’s city and school buildings.

Mayor James Fiorentini received the funds at last week's council meeting over strong objections by councilors including John Michitson, who called his proposal “worthless.”

The city’s top leader appeared before the governing body at last Tuesday's meeting to explain that the Joint Facilities Department – currently run by the School Department – is not being run as effectively as intended.

“Rather than arm-wrestling with the School Committee — or some members, in any event — the better thing to do would be to have a study,” he said at the meeting. “We should hire experts and not live by the seat of our pants.”

Councilors agreed with Fiorentini’s request – but did not dole out the funds easily. Councilor Thomas Sullivan said he “wasn’t thrilled” by the so-called “territorial war” that resulted from the divide between City Council and School Committee members.

“Instead of working together, we’re going to be relying on the experts to tell us we need to work together,” Sullivan said.

When preparing his 2020 budget, Fiorentini set aside money to hire a maintenance director to oversee the city and the schools, but said he received “resistance” from the School Committee regarding the idea. According to the mayor, the study will help hone in on just how many people are required to keep up the city’s infrastructure, if that work should be outsourced, and other preventative maintenance concerns.

Fiorentini disagreed with the idea that two separate maintenance staffs are necessary.

Accountability must be made paramount moving forward, councilors said.

“If we’re going to get this right, there should be a study,” Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua said. “Do a study, but do it quickly, effectively and make sure the results of the study fully address the needs of the city.”

Summed up Councilor Colin LePage: “There’s been a lot of ‘wait of see,’ and to do a study that promotes that atmosphere...I’m disappointed. I’m fearful. It can’t continue this way.”

Results of the Matrix study are expected in April, Fiorentini said.

— Allison Corneau


State gets poor grades on anti-tobacco spending

Curbing teen tobacco use and vaping get a lot of attention in Massachusetts, which has hiked age requirements to buy products, raised taxes and enacted some of the toughest regulations in the country.

But when it comes to overall spending on tobacco control, the state still gets failing grades.

That’s according to a new report by the American Lung Association, which raps the state for devoting too little from tobacco taxes and other sources of revenue to helping people quit.

Massachusetts collected more than $836 million in tobacco taxes in the budget year that ended June 30. That includes payments tied to a 1998 settlement with tobacco companies, according to the Department of Revenue.

But the state spent less that 1% of that money — about $4.6 million — on smoking cessation.

In recent years, Beacon Hill has put increasing amounts of the “sin tax” toward budget shortfalls and other programs, most of them unrelated to smoking.

“Unfortunately, the lack of funding leaves many adult smokers unable to get the cessation support and stymies our efforts to prevent kids from getting addicted to nicotine in the first place,” said Lance Boucher, the association’s senior director of state public policy. “The state has increased funding, but it’s still way short of what we need for a comprehensive and robust program.”

The state also gets federal funding for smoking cessation programs. It received $2.3 million in the previous fiscal year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Massachusetts spend at least 10.5% -- or about $67 million -- per year on anti-smoking programs.

The state also lost ground in other categories in the report, such as access to programs to help people quit. The lung association dropped its grade on access to smoking cessation programs from a “C” to a “D” from the previous year’s report. It dropped the state’s grade on the taxation of tobacco programs from a “B” to a “C” this year.

The lung association notes the state invests only $1.04 per smoker in its quit-line — a toll-free phone service to help smokers quit.

The average investment nationally is $2.14.

Massachusetts isn’t alone in devoting a pittance to anti-smoking campaigns.

New Hampshire, where the cigarette tax is $1.78 per pack, collects nearly $246 million a year from tobacco sales and settlement funds. It spent about $360,000 on smoking cessation in fiscal year 2020, earning an “F” grade from the lung association.

The state also got $2.1 million in federal funding for smoking cessation programs.

The lung association also hit the Granite State with an “F” for not raising the minimum purchase age for tobacco and vaping products to 21, and a “D” for lacking access to smoking cessation programs.

“If this was a school report card, you’re probably hide it from your parents,” Boucher said. “These programs have been woefully underfunded in New Hampshire for years.”

In New England, Maine is the only state that funds tobacco control close to levels recommended by health officials. It collected $188 million from tobacco taxes and settlement money in fiscal 2020 and spent more than $11.8 million on anti-smoking efforts.

The lung association gave Maine four “A” grades for tobacco control, age restrictions, smoke-free air regulations and access to smoking cessation.

Despite its poor grades, Massachusetts is viewed as a “pioneer” by anti-smoking advocates for enacting some of the country’s toughest rules on tobacco and vaping products.

Last year, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a groundbreaking ban on the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products, including menthol and mint cigarettes.

Prior to the bill’s passage, Baker declared a public health emergency and ordered a temporary ban on the sale of all vaping products, in part, as a response to injuries and deaths nationwide from a vaping-related illness.

The first-in-the-nation law also also sets a 75% excise tax on vaping products and requires insurers, including the state’s Medicaid program, to cover tobacco cessation counseling.

Baker has raised the legal age to purchase e-cigarettes from 18 to 21, expanded a ban on workplace smoking to include e-cigarettes, and banned pharmacies from selling e-cigarettes.

“These are huge policy initiatives that have made Massachusetts a leader in tobacco control once again,” said Marc Hymovitz, Massachusetts government relations director for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. “We’re not where we need to be on tobacco control funding, but we’ve definitely made progress in recent years.”

Hymovitz points out that Baker and legislative leaders have increased funding for tobacco control and cessation programs in the past several state budgets.

Recent data shows 41% of Massachusetts high school students have tried e-cigarettes at least once, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

About 20% of them reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days -- a rate six times higher than adults, the group says.

More than 9,000 Massachusetts residents die every year from smoking-related diseases, according to the CDC. Annual costs of tobacco-related illnesses have risen to $4 billion.

Nationally, smoking-related deaths top 400,000 a year, while health care expenditures are estimated at more than $170 billion.

Anti-smoking advocates say the federal government has done little to increase spending or enact policies aimed at curbing the death toll and mounting costs.

“Overall, the federal government is failing to protect kids,” Boucher said. “States need to be investing more in tobacco cessation and treatment to prevent the future costs to society.”

— Christian M. Wade


Congress goes to bat for minor league baseball

Members of Congress want to pressure Major League Baseball to scrap plans to scale back the minor leagues, saying it would be "devastating" to clubs and communities that host them.

A bipartisan resolution, filed in the House of Representatives by Rep. Lori Trahan and other members of the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force, expresses support for the current roster of 160 minor league teams and "recognizes the unique social, economic and historic contributions that Minor League Baseball has made to American life."

A restructuring plan, which surfaced in October, would end MLB's affiliation with 42 minor league teams including the Lowell Spinners, a short-season Class A affiliate of the Red Sox.

Trahan, a Lowell native and Westford Democrat, said the changes would be "devastating" to Lowell and other communities that host teams, and Congress needs to get involve

"Congress has long been a partner to the league in protecting and expanding America’s favorite pastime," Trahan said. "We deserve to have our voices heard in any conversation with such potentially devastating consequences."

The resolution, if approved, would not force baseball's operators to scale back or change plans. Backers say its is meant as a signal that Congress plans to exert its influence over the restructuring.

Major League Baseball has an exemption from federal antitrust laws, but Congress could change those rules to initiate hearings on the plans.

The House resolution has nearly 70 backers, including Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, and other members of the Massachusetts delegation.

A Moulton spokesman said he signed onto the resolution because he "believes that these cuts would not only fail to solve prevailing labor standards within the minor leagues but would take jobs from Lowell and 41 other communities."

The Spinners, who play home games at Edward A. LeLachuer Park in Lowell, have prepped players in the Red Sox minor league system since 1996. The team has hosted notable Sox players over the years including Mookie Betts and Hanley Ramirez.

The Red Sox cover most of the team's expenses, including salaries of players and coaches.

The Spinners are owned by Dave Heller, who owns four minor league teams, three of which are on MLB's termination list.

Heller welcomes the pressure from Congress, saying it shows the major leagues that lawmakers don't like the plan and want alternatives.

"It's important for Major League Baseball to know that Congress is very strongly against the idea of contracting our teams," he said. "They've got our backs on this."

Under the MLB plan, the Spinners and 41 other Class A clubs would become independent when the existing agreement with the minor league system expires next year. Those clubs would be allowed to join collegiate summer leagues, like the Cape Cod League, or a so-called "Dream League" of unaffiliated teams.

In response to the resolution, MLB issued a statement saying its plans will "improve playing conditions for our players, and protect baseball in communities across America."

"The most constructive role Congress can play to achieve these goals is to encourage Minor League Baseball to return to the bargaining table so we can work together to address the real issues impacting minor league players and communities all across the country," the statement read.

Previously MLB officials have cited problems with the minor league system including substandard stadiums, low player pay and poor working conditions.

— Christian M. Wade


District court to move

Plaistow's district courthouse will be moved to an alternative location due to deficiencies in the building, according to a Jan. 24 letter from the chair of the New Hampshire Court Accreditation Commission.

The courthouse, home of the 10th Circuit Court, will be stripped of its Americans with Disabilities Act accreditation. In addition to “ADA-related deficiencies,” the letter cites security concerns and physical limitations of the building as reasons for the decision.

The loss of accreditation will become effective May 1, according to the letter.

“This action is necessary to protect the rights, safety and security of judges and staff of the court, as well as all others who must enter the facility,” Associate Justice James Bassett writes in the correspondence.

Chairwoman Francine Hart brought the Board of Selectmen's attention to the situation during meeting, noting that the board was not aware of the situation when they approved the 2020 operating budget just days before.

“So that kind of puts us in a sticky wicket on a bunch of things,” she said, noting that the town will not only lose revenue, but will now have to pay police officers overtime and mileage to travel to another location, most likely in another town, for court proceedings.

“Instead of walking across the street to go to court, they are going to have to get into a vehicle and drive somewhere,” she said. The courthouse is located at 14 Elm St. The police station is in close proximity at 27 Elm St.

She added that officers could be “pulled off of duty to drive there (to court),” and that the Police Department was “blindsided.”

Greg Colby, assistant town manager and finance director, said the court pays the town about $45,000 per year in rent, but greater than the loss of revenue will be the added expense of overtime and travel for police officers.

He said, “That certainly was not accounted for when this budget was built.”

At this time, there is no estimate for the added Police Department expenses, according to Hart, but the town hopes to have a rough estimate by the end of the week. Depending on the estimate, the board agreed to consider bringing a motion to change the 2020 operating budget during the deliberative session on Feb.1.

“The hard part is we don't really know where they are relocating,” Hart said.

She added that it would not be “economically or geographically feasible” to update the courthouse in a way which would satisfy the commission.

“They want way more parking spaces than we physically have geography for,” Hart said.

— Erin Nolan



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