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Four Lincoln schools are among the 48 teams at the state volleyball tournament, which opens Thursday. Complete preview in Sports, Section B

Huskers rout Terps

Big serving helps NU volleyball team sweep. Page B1

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Leveling the past: Demolition beginning at Ninth and O for high-rise

Decades of Lincoln’s history on one of the city’s earliest blocks will soon disappear, razed to make way for a $65 million high-rise hotel and housing project known as Block 54.

Three buildings at Ninth and O streets — at 901, 927 and 935 O St. — are scheduled to be demolished starting Thursday afternoon or Friday morning, according to New Generation Construction.

On Wednesday, NGC crews were preparing the site, wrapping it in a chain-link fence built on top of concrete barriers to protect traffic from tumbling rubble.

Ninth and O is one of the city’s busier intersections, with 18,000 vehicles daily, but drivers should be only slightly disrupted. Contractors closed a lane of Ninth Street this week to get the site ready, but all lanes on O and Ninth should remain open during demolition, said Shane Dostal of the city’s Public Works Department.

The demolition crew will use the vacant lot in the middle of the block — at 921 O St., the former home of the Romantix adult store and Gourlay Bros. Piano — to load debris, so O Street drivers should watch for trucks pulling in and out, Dostal said.

The work will close the sidewalks on the south side of O Street and east side of Ninth, although the corner crosswalk will remain open, protected by a covered walkway.

The demolition should be finished by the end of the year, Dostal said.

And that’s nearly a year behind schedule. When Block 54 — billed as a 15- to 17-story building with two hotels, upscale condos, a restaurant and bar — was announced in November 2016, demolition was expected to begin the next month and construction earlier this year.

But the boarded-up buildings remained. In July, the Lincoln Hotel Group said “unforeseen developments” had delayed the project but didn’t provide details. The developer couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

The city’s Urban Development Department has not received a construction update from developers, according to the department’s Hallie Salem.

If built as originally announced, the project would be the tallest structure erected in Lincoln since the 1970s and the city’s third-tallest tower — behind the Capitol and U.S. Bank — towering over the ghosts of the block’s original buildings.

The block at Ninth and O was part of Lincoln’s original plat in 1867, and the first storefronts there were more-modest brick businesses.

“It was a key location; right across the street was market square, which then became the post office and courthouse, which then became city hall,” said Ed Zimmer, the city’s historic preservation planner.

The corner building was a small grocery early on, and later became a series of bars and restaurants — including the longstanding Marie’s Tavern. A second story was added in the early 20th century. And down the block on O Street, the small storefronts were remodeled at some point and linked under a new façade.

Most recently, the buildings to be demolished were home to Hungry Eye Tattoo, Recycled Sounds, Sidetrack Tavern, McCourt’s Ale House and Knickerbockers bar.

Courtesy image 

If built as originally announced last year, the 15- to 17-story hotel-and-housing project at Ninth and O streets would be the city's third-tallest structure.

In election glow, Dems see health care as a winning issue

WASHINGTON — Emboldened by election wins, Democrats are starting to see a political edge in health care, particularly widening Medicaid access for more low-income people.

In Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam promised a vigorous push as governor to expand Medicaid. Voters who said health care was important went decisively for Northam, according to political analysts. In Maine, voters defied Republican Gov. Paul LePage's determined opposition by passing a referendum to expand Medicaid to cover an estimated 70,000 more residents.

During Barack Obama's presidency, health care was often seem as a political liability for Democrats. In 2010, they lost their House majority following the bitter battle to pass the Affordable Care Act with no Republican support. In 2014, Democrats gave up the Senate a year after the Obama administration fumbled the rollout of And candidate Donald Trump seized on rising "Obamacare" premiums as part of his closing argument in the 2016 presidential campaign.

But public opinion seems to have shifted amid widespread opposition to Trump-backed "repeal and replace" bills that would have left millions uninsured and made it harder for people with pre-existing health problems to get coverage. The GOP bills not only would have repealed the ACA's Medicaid expansion, but also would have limited future federal financing for the entire program, even prompting opposition from some Republican governors.

"I think health care is a driving motivator for Democrats to elect people who will not take it away," Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, ranking Democrat on the Senate health committee, said Wednesday. "What's happened in the past six months is that Medicaid went from a hidden thing to something everyone has heard about. Before, nobody said, 'I'm on Medicaid.' Now we know it's our next-door neighbor."

Medicaid is a federal-state health program that covers about 75 million Americans, or about one in five. Beneficiaries include elderly nursing home residents, severely disabled people of any age, and many newborns and pregnant women. Under the ACA, it was expanded to cover more low-income adults, who in many cases work jobs that don't provide health insurance.

Maine-style referendum campaigns are planned in at least three states — Alaska, Idaho and Utah. Before Maine's vote, 31 states and Washington, D.C., had expanded Medicaid under ACA. They have the support of the hospital industry and the medical community, influential interest groups in just about every state.

"I honestly believe that if you had a referendum on expanding Medicaid in most of the states that don't have it, it would win," said Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the House committee that oversees the program. "People know the value of Medicaid in a way that they didn't before."

Public opinion expert Robert Blendon says what's changing is not so much that Americans have suddenly fallen for "Obamacare," but that there's a growing belief that government does have a responsibility to make coverage available and affordable.

"The Obamacare weapon was great for Republicans until you debated what the Republican alternative was," said Blendon, who teaches at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "The alternative can't be dropping people and taking away protection for pre-existing conditions."

Using Medicaid to cover low-wage workers is popular with the public, he added, at a time when many jobs don't come with benefits once considered standard. Separately, studies have shown that Medicaid coverage is associated with fewer financial problems and better emotional health.

The Trump administration seems to be moving in a different direction, however.

In an Election Day speech to state Medicaid officials, the top administration official overseeing the program took issue with Medicaid expansion.

"The thought that a program designed for our most vulnerable citizens should be used a vehicle to serve working age, able-bodied adults does not make sense," Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Tuesday.

Verma said the goal should be to help working-age adults "move up, move on, and move out," underscoring the administration's willingness to approve state requests for work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries.

"We shouldn't just celebrate an increase in the rolls, or more Medicaid cards handed out," she said.

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Former Lincoln police officer arrested; woman says she was repeatedly coerced into sex acts

A former Lincoln police officer has been arrested and accused of coercing an emotionally fragile woman into a sexual relationship while he was on duty.

Gregory S. Cody, 54, who left the force last month, was booked into Lancaster County jail Wednesday afternoon on a charge of first-degree sexual assault of an incompetent person. He was a 27-year veteran of the police department, working most recently as a street officer in southwest Lincoln.

His attorney, John Ball, declined to comment about Cody's arrest Wednesday.

He would face up to 50 years in prison if convicted. 

In a nine-page affidavit, Nebraska State Patrol Investigator Neal Trantham said Cody's accuser, a 30-year-old Lincoln woman, described more than a year's worth of interactions with Cody, including about 50 incidents of sexual encounters that she described as forced.

She said it began in July 2016, when Cody released her from custody rather than take her into emergency protective custody and said she would "owe him." They became friends on Facebook and conversations quickly turned sexual.

According to court records, she had told several friends, health care workers and at least two other Lincoln police officers she was being stalked and abused by an officer before any formal investigation began.

She told one officer over the summer — identifying Cody by name and showing the officer Cody's personal cellphone number saved on her phone, according to the affidavit.

That officer told her how to report it to internal affairs, but didn't take the information to superiors until after Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister sent an internal memo to all officers about the investigation.

A sergeant on the police force also came forward in response to the memo, and said the woman had told him Oct. 16 that there was a rapist in the department but wouldn't say who.

The woman later told investigators about an incident in Cody's police vehicle in the parking lot of the Lincoln Children's Zoo that she says happened the night of Oct. 15.

She said Cody had tried to touch her breasts, grabbed her crotch and squeezed her neck and kissed her, according to the affidavit. When she tried to leave, she said, he pushed her into the "search position" against his SUV and put his hand into her pants and penetrated her.

The first investigation of her allegations started Oct. 17, after police found her lying on a sidewalk, intoxicated, near Holmes Lake Park. She said she had fallen from the backstop at a nearby ball field.

At a Lincoln hospital where she was being treated, she told a mental health specialist she was being abused, physically and sexually, by a police officer but was afraid to report the abuse.

Later that day, Cody, while on duty and in uniform, entered the hospital's locked intensive care unit where she was being treated, according to Trantham's affidavit. The woman told nurses after he left that Cody was the one who had been assaulting her for more than a year.

The police department placed Cody on unpaid administrative leave Oct. 18. He retired two days later.

Another officer later was put on unpaid, investigative suspension and soon resigned. It is uncertain whether that officer is one of the two who did not immediately report the woman's allegations. Police have not released that officer's name.

An early retirement or resignation has no impact on an officer's ability to collect pension benefits, city Human Resources Director Doug McDaniel said recently. And a later criminal conviction — even for an event that occurred while the officer was working — wouldn't have an impact.

The law, labor contracts and the ongoing investigations have prevented Lincoln police from disclosing more information, Bliemeister said previously.

In a statement Wednesday following Cody's arrest, the police chief said: "The Lincoln Police Department will not tolerate actions that undermine the public’s trust.”

"The actions of these individuals do not define the men and women of our agency,” he said.