US House Opens Probe of Nevada Democrat Misconduct Claims

The House Ethics Committee said Friday it had opened an investigation into Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen over allegations of sexual harassment.

A former campaign aide said Kihuen, a freshman congressman, propositioned her for dates and sex despite her repeated rejections during his 2016 campaign. This week, a lobbyist told the Nevada Independent that he touched her thighs and buttocks and made unwanted sexual advances while he was a state senator.

In a statement, the Ethics panel said it was “aware of public allegations that Representative Ruben Kihuen may have engaged in sexual harassment.”

The top House Democrat, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, has called on Kihuen to resign, a request that he has resisted. Kihuen also apologized after the first allegation was made public, but said he didn’t remember the events the way the former campaign aide had described.

“As I’ve said previously, I intend to fully cooperate, and I welcome an opportunity to clear my name,” Kihuen said in response to the Ethics Committee one-page statement.

The announcement came from Republican Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana, the panel’s chairwoman, and Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, the ranking Democrat. They said the fact the committee was investigating the allegations does not indicate any violation has occurred and that the committee would make no further public statements pending completion of its initial review.

Kihuen is among a growing number of lawmakers whose political careers have been thrust into uncertainty or ended altogether by allegations of sexual misconduct.

On Thursday, Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said he would not seek re-election amid sexual harassment allegations that he has denied.

Last week, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., retired weeks after former aides shared stories of habitual sexual harassment. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., announced he would step down after he was accused of improper behavior by at least eight women and his support from fellow Democrats collapsed.

On Friday, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., abruptly resigned over revelations that he’d asked two staff members to act as surrogates to have his child, offering one $5 million.

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US Adds New Requirements for Visa Waiver Countries

The United States is expanding the requirements for dozens of countries taking part in the Visa Waiver Program, demanding that the countries check traveler information against U.S. counterterrorism information.

Trump administration officials said Friday that the countries will have to use U.S. information to screen travelers crossing their borders from third countries. Many countries in the program already do that, one administration official said.

The changes also affect VWP countries that have higher rates of citizens overstaying their visas to the U.S.

If more than 2 percent of a country’s visitors stay beyond the expiration of their visa, that country will be required to carry out a public information campaign aimed at reducing those overstay violations, the Department of Homeland Security announced.

In the 2016 fiscal year, four of the VWP countries —Greece, Hungary, Portugal, and San Marino, a wealthy enclave landlocked inside central Italy — had overstay rates higher than 2 percent, according to a DHS report.

The Visa Waiver Program permits citizens of 38 countries, mostly in Europe, to travel to the United States for business or tourism for up to 90 days without a visa.

President Donald Trump has sought to tighten the rules for those seeking to visit or live in the United States in several ways, saying restrictions are necessary for security reasons. The newly-confirmed Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, attributed the changes to anti-terrorism efforts.

“The United States faces an adaptive and agile enemy, as terrorists continue to explore ways to reach our country and to direct, enable, and inspire attacks against us. … These enhancements will strengthen the program, and they are part of our continued efforts to raise the baseline for homeland security across the board,” Nielsen said, via an emailed DHS statement announcing the modifications.

VWP and terror attacks

In a review of terror attacks on the U.S. from 1975 to 2015, a researcher for the Cato Institute found zero deaths attributable to people in the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.

The same report found three people out of nearly 400 million visitors under the VWP during that time committed non-lethal acts of terror. 

“That makes the VWP the safest visa category,” the report’s author concluded.

The three incidents involving visitors on VWP were:

• French national Zacarias Moussaoui, who was originally part of the 9/11 conspiracy but was in jail on immigration charges during the attacks;

• British national bomber Richard Reid, who tried but failed to light explosives hidden in his shoe during a transatlantic flight to the United States;

• British national Qaisar Shaffi, who was convicted in 2007 for his role in a foiled terror plot on financial landmarks in New York City.

The VWP changes will apply to all countries in the program.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

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Trump Leaves Open Pardon Possibility for Flynn

U.S. President Donald Trump Friday left open the possibility of a presidential pardon on behalf Michael Flynn, who Trump fired after serving just over three weeks as his national security adviser because Flynn lied about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

“I don’t want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet,” Trump told reporters outside the White House before departing for the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy in nearby Quantico, Virginia. Trump added: “We’ll see what happens. Let’s see. I can say this: when you look at what’s gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.”

Following Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey while he led the agency’s probe into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia during the the 2016 election, the Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller to lead a special counsel probe into the matter.

Earlier this week, the Justice Department disclosed hundreds of text messages between two FBI officials on Mueller’s team of investigators that revealed an anti-Trump bias, prompting some, particularly Republicans, to question the non-partisan nature of the law enforcement agency and its investigation into Russia.

The number two person at the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, defended Mueller Wednesday in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee and said he had no reason to dismiss him.

“It’s a shame what happened to the FBI but we’re going to rebuild the FBI,” Trump said. “It’s going to be bigger and better than ever but it is very sad when you look at those documents and how they’ve done that is really, really disgraceful and you have a lot of very angry people who are seeing it.”

After agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors, Flynn pleaded guilty on December 1 to one felony count of lying to the FBI last January about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The conversations occurred weeks before Trump’s inauguration.

Amid mostly Democratic speculation Flynn’s plea might prompt the Trump administration and its allies to attempt to prematurely end Mueller’s probe and curtail several congressional investigations, Trump did not rule out the possibility of pardoning Flynn.

The president has the authority to issue pardons, as he did in August when he pardoned Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt charges stemming from the hard-line tactics he used when pursuing undocumented immigrants.

An individual who has been convicted of a federal crime and wants to be pardoned must submit a request to the Justice Department, which assists the president in exercising his authority to pardon. The Justice Department informs pardon seekers to wait at least five years after their conviction date or their release from prison, whichever is later, prior to submitting a pardon application.

Arpaio did not, however, submit an application to the Justice Department and his pardon took effect before he was sentenced.


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US Prosecutors Move to Cash in on $8.5M in Seized Bitcoin

U.S. attorneys in Utah prosecuting a multimillion-dollar opioid drug-ring are moving quickly to sell seized bitcoin that’s exploded in value to about $8.5 million since the alleged ringleader’s arrest a year ago.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah cites the digital currency’s volatility in court documents pressing for the sale. The bitcoin cache was worth less than $500,000 when Aaron Shamo was arrested on drug charges, but the value of the digital currency has skyrocketed since then.

Bitcoin was created as a digital alternative to the traditional banking system, and is prone to swings in value based on what people believe its worth.

For federal prosecutors in Utah, sales of seized assets like cars are routine, but bitcoin is new territory, spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said Thursday.

Shamo is accused of selling pills containing the powerful opioid fentanyl on the dark web — an area of the internet often used for illegal activity — to thousands of people all over the U.S., at one point raking in $2.8 million in less than a year.

The 500,000-pill bust ranked among the largest of its kind in the country, and authorities also found $1 million of cash stuffed into trash bags.

Shamo has pleaded not guilty to a dozen charges.

The proceeds of the bitcoin sale will be held until the case is resolved, and then decisions will be made about where the money goes, Rydalch said. Seized asset sale proceeds usually goes to the agency that investigated, like the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Defense attorney Greg Skordas is not contesting the sale of his client’s bitcoins.

Although there’s no global consensus over the status of bitcoin — debate rages whether the virtual money is an asset or a currency — that hasn’t stopped officials in the U.S. and elsewhere from cashing in on the digital hauls seized from cybercriminals.

In 2014 the U.S. Marshals Service announced the auction of nearly 30,000 bitcoins seized from notorious dark web drug marketplace Silk Road. Other seizures have since netted the American government millions of dollars in a series of sales.

Other governments — from Australia to South Korea — have set up similar auctions over the years.

Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.

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German Government Says It Backs ‘Open and Free Internet’

The German government says it backs an “open and free internet” following the U.S. decision to repeal net neutrality rules.

A spokeswoman for the Economy Ministry said Friday that Germany had “taken note” of the U.S. move but declined to comment directly on it.

However, spokeswoman Beate Baron said the German government supports rules introduced across the European Union last year forbidding discriminatory access to the internet.

Baron told reporters in Berlin that “an open and free internet is indispensable for the successful development of a digital society that everyone wants to take part in.”

The Republican-controlled U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Thursday repealed Obama-era rules requiring all web traffic to be treated equally.

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Scientists Working on Writing Five-day Forecast for Solar Storms

Charged particles from the sun are responsible for the brilliant auroras at the earth’s poles. But there can be cases of too much of a good thing. When huge solar storms push massive waves of energized particles into Earth’s path, they can wreak havoc on our satellites and electric grid. That is why researchers are trying to figure out what causes solar storms. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Trump Touts Progress on Slashing Federal Regulations

U.S. President Donald Trump has touted progress on slashing federal regulations, which he says cost America trillions with no benefit. Speaking Thursday from the White House, the president said his administration had exceeded its goal of removing two federal regulations for every new one, by removing 22 for every new one. Opponents have criticized some of the deregulation, especially dismantling of the net neutrality rules that guarantee equal access to the internet. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Detroit Builds a Symbol of Resurgence on Iconic Spot

An 800-foot-tall (244-meter) centerpiece is coming to Detroit’s resurgent downtown as the city continues to build momentum about three years after exiting the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

The 58-story building dominating the local skyline will rise on the site of the iconic J.L. Hudson department store, whose 1983 closing epitomized Detroit’s economic downfall.

“When we lost Hudson’s, it symbolized how far Detroit had fallen,” Bedrock Detroit real estate founder Dan Gilbert said Thursday during a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new building. “When it was imploded in 1998 it was a very sad day for a lot of people.”

One of four projects

But the bad times for downtown appear to be largely over. Bedrock Detroit’s $900 million, two-building project will include a 58-story residential tower and 12-floor building for retail and conference space. Up to 450 residential units can be built in the tower.

It is one of four projects representing a $2.1 billion investment in downtown by the Detroit-based commercial real estate firm. Altogether, the projects are expected to create up to 24,000 jobs in a city that desperately needs them and generate $673 million in new tax revenue.

Mayor Mike Duggan’s office has spearheaded redevelopment programs targeting a number of city neighborhoods, but Detroit’s growth is most evident in greater downtown, where office space now is limited and available apartments are tough to come by.

A ribbon-cutting was held in August for an $860 million sports complex just north of downtown. The 20,000-seat Little Caesars Arena is the new home of the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons. It will anchor a 50-block neighborhood of offices, apartments, restaurants and shops.

A 6.6-mile-long light rail system launched earlier this year along Woodward Avenue, downtown’s main business thoroughfare.

Microsoft move

Software maker Microsoft announced in February that it plans to move its Michigan Microsoft Technology Center next year from the suburbs to downtown. In 2016, Ally Financial opened new offices downtown that the financial services company said eventually would be occupied by more than 1,500 employees and contractors.

“Bedrock building on the Hudson’s site will be an important addition to the community and the vitality and prosperity of downtown,” said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor whose work has included policy on economic development issues.

“It will act as an important centerpiece for continuing the overall downtown development … but much more has to be done for the entire city to feel a resurgence.”

Many residents poor

However, much work remains for a city where many residents are still poor.

Detroit’s unemployment rate was about 8 percent in April, yet far below the more than 18 percent unemployment rate during the city’s 2013 bankruptcy filing.

The city’s 2016 poverty rate was just more than 35 percent, the highest among the nation’s 20 largest cities and more than double the national poverty of 14 percent. A family of four is considered living in poverty if its annual earnings are less than $24,563.

Downtown construction projects such as the work at the Hudson’s site can help change that, some say.

“What a shame that anybody should be unemployed in Detroit when we have a need for skilled trades,” Gilbert said. “We like to say Detroit is located at the intersection of muscle and brains. We need brains to sort this all out … somebody still has to build stuff. We still need muscle.”

While Bedrock’s new building would be Detroit’s tallest, rising above the 727-foot (222-meter) Renaissance Center along the city’s riverfront, it still would be far shorter than some other U.S. towers.

One World Trade Center in New York measures 1,776 feet (541 meters). Chicago’s Willis Tower hits 1,451 feet (442 meters), while the Empire State Building in New York climbs to 1,250 feet (381 meters).

​Iconic Hudson’s

Although the 25-story Hudson’s building was once the nation’s tallest department store, it measured only about 400 feet (122 meters). It was far more famous for what was inside.

When Detroit was humming along and leading the nation in car production, the store was where auto executives and assembly line workers shopped. From household goods to clothing and furs and many things in between, it was a primary downtown destination.

There were 50 display windows, 12,000 employees and 100,000 customers per day. But as shopping tastes shifted to expansive suburban malls and Detroit’s population tumbled by more than 600,000 people between the 1950s and 1980, Hudson’s lost its luster.

“Building something of significant magnitude on the old site will provide a good deal of good feelings by older generations,” Mogk said.

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Trump Touts Progress on Rolling Back Federal Regulations

With the ceremonial flourish of oversized golden scissors slicing a giant piece of red tape, U.S. President Donald Trump symbolically cut through decades of regulations on Thursday. 

“So, this is what we have now,” the former reality television program host said, gesturing toward a 190-centimeter-high pile of what was said to be 185,000 sheets of paper. “This is where we were in 1960,” he added, referencing a smaller stack representing an estimated 20,000 pages of federal regulations.

“When we’re finished, which won’t be in too long a period of time, we will be less than where we were in 1960, and we will have a great regulatory climate,” the president added at the event in the White House Roosevelt Room.

Trump decried that an “ever-growing maze of regulations, rules and restrictions has cost our country trillions and trillions of dollars, millions of jobs, countless American factories, and devastated many industries.”

The event took place just after the Federal Communications Commission, in a 3-2 vote, repealed a rule of the previous Obama administration calling for  “net neutrality,” the principle that all internet providers treat all web traffic equally. 

Lawsuits filed

The deregulatory zeal has generated a backlash. 

The state of California has filed seven lawsuits challenging part of the administration’s deregulatory efforts dealing with the environment, education and public health. 

The administration’s “rule rollbacks risk the health and well-being of Americans and are, in many cases, illegal,” according to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. 

In his remarks Thursday, Trump touted his executive order, signed days after he took office in January, mandating that two federal regulations must be eliminated for every new regulation put on the books. 

His administration, Trump said, has exceeded that mandate by “a lot.” 

The president, who as a real estate developer long railed against government regulation, claimed that for every new rule adopted, his administration has killed 22 — far in excess of the 2-for-1 pledge. 

For the first time in “decades, the government achieved regulatory savings,” Trump said, boasting that “we blew our target out of the water.” 

The administration, over its first 11 months, according to the president, has “canceled or delayed more than 1,500 planned regulatory actions — more than any previous president by far.” 

He called for his Cabinet secretaries, agency heads and federal workers to “cut even more regulations in 2018.”

“And that should just about do it,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll have any left to cut.”

$570M in savings seen

The cost savings, according to administration officials, will total $570 million per year. But they say there are benefits that go beyond money. 

“When the government is interfering less in people’s lives, they have greater opportunity to pursue their goals,” Neomi Rao, the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters following the president’s ribbon-cutting event. 

Asked whether she could verify that this is, as Trump has declared, the largest deregulatory effort in American history, Rao hedged to echo such a sweeping statement, saying, “I don’t think there’s been anything like this since [Ronald] Reagan, at least.” Reagan was president from 1981 to 1989.

The president’s former strategist, Stephen Bannon, has said a primary goal of the Trump administration, through deregulation, is achieving “deconstruction of the administrative state.” 

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Kremlin: Putin, Trump Discuss North Korea in Phone Call

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program with U.S. counterpart Donald Trump in a phone call Thursday, the Kremlin said.

The two heads of state discussed “the situation in several crisis zones, with a focus on solving the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula,” the Kremlin said in a statement, without elaborating.

Washington this week said it was ready to talk to North Korea — which has launched several intercontinental ballistic missiles in recent months — “without preconditions.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that while the Trump administration was still determined to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal, it was willing to “have the first meeting without preconditions.”

Putin, in his annual press conference Thursday with hundreds of journalists in Moscow, welcomed the United States’ “awareness of reality” in the crisis.

However, he called on all sides to “stop aggravating the situation” and said Moscow did not recognize North Korea’s status as a nuclear power.

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