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Judge: Ousted Arizona Lawmaker Can Run for State Senate

A judge said Friday the first state lawmaker in the U.S. to be ousted over sexual misconduct allegations after the rise of the (hash)MeToo movement can run for the Arizona Senate because he is still a resident of the district he wants to represent. 

The judge ruled in a legal challenge filed by a candidate in the Aug. 28 primary claiming ex-Rep. Don Shooter does not live in the district.

Shooter previously served in the Arizona House and represented a district that includes parts of Yuma and Phoenix.

The state House voted 56-3 to expel Shooter in February after investigators concluded he sexually harassed at least seven women, including fellow lawmakers

Shooter has apologized for what he called insensitive comments involving women but said he never sought to touch anyone or have a sexual relationship.

Shooter has filed more than 800 voter signatures to qualify for the primary election ballot in the southwestern Arizona district.

In her ruling, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Rosa Mroz found that Shooter has treated his Yuma apartment as his primary residence in the five years that he’s lived there. Mroz noted that he lists the home on his driver’s license and tax returns. She said he also receives mail and visitors at the residence.

Shooter testified Thursday that he still lives in the condo in Yuma and his wife lives at a house in Phoenix, where he would stay during legislative sessions and now for meetings with his attorneys.

Republican candidate Brent Backus filed the lawsuit saying Shooter couldn’t run for the seat because he doesn’t live in the district.

Backus’ attorney Tim La Sota introduced evidence showing Shooter’s voter registration had been switched to the Phoenix address for two weeks, but Shooter denied making the change.

La Sota also said the power had been shut off in Shooter’s Yuma condo, and he has spent most of his time in Phoenix since the expulsion by the House. 

Shooter said his wife had the electricity turned off to save money — a decision he was unaware of. 

Shooter’s attorney Tim Nelson said in an email that he and his client were “pleased with the ruling and believe Judge Mroz was right on the law and in her finding that Mr. Shooter is a Yuma resident.” 

Backus said he would respect the decision by the judge and let voters decide about Shooter.

“I feel 100 percent confident the voters will reject him,” Backus said. “He has a right to run and I look forward to meeting him on the trail.”

Other candidates seeking the district’s Senate seat are Republican incumbent Sen. Sine Kerr, a dairy farmer who was appointed to fill the seat, Republican Royce Jenkins, and Democrat Michelle Harris.

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Top US Ethics Official Seeks Expanded Probe of EPA’s Pruitt

The top federal ethics officer asked Friday that an internal investigation of Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt be resolved quickly so he can determine whether “formal corrective action” is needed and make recommendations to President Donald Trump.

David Apol, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, also asked the EPA inspector general to expand its probe of whether Pruitt is violating federal ethics rules to include allegations he used staffers to do personal chores during work hours and seek business deals for his wife.

His letter to EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. was released hours after Trump gave conditional support to the embattled agency administrator, saying his unhappiness with Pruitt was overridden by the “fantastic job” he was doing at EPA.

In his letter, Apol said the American public needs to have confidence that allegations of ethical misconduct are investigated.

“We ask you to complete your report as soon as possible so that we can decide whether to begin a formal corrective action proceeding in order to make a formal recommendation to the president,” he wrote.

Pruitt is the subject of several investigations over his use of first-class travel, round-the-clock security and spending.

Recently released emails show Pruitt had aides reach out to Chick-fil-A about a “business opportunity” for his wife, inquire about getting a used mattress for him from the Trump International Hotel and arrange for him to attend batting practice at a Washington Nationals baseball game, among other favors. It also has been disclosed that he got a sweetheart deal renting a Washington condo co-owned by the wife of a lobbyist who had business with the agency.

Federal ethics codes prohibit having staffers conduct personal errands and bar officials from using their position for private gain.

“I’m looking at Scott,” Trump told reporters in a question-and-answer session on the White House driveway. “I’m not happy about certain things,” he said, repeating the same phrase three times in all.

But at the same time, Trump praised Pruitt’s performance at the EPA, where the administrator has initiated numerous overhauls of Obama-era regulations.

Asked if he thought Pruitt was using his position for private gain, Trump said, “I hope not.”

Trump did not refer to the scandals specifically.

Growing numbers of Republican lawmakers have joined Democrats in withering condemnations of Pruitt’s ethics troubles.

As the allegations swirl around him, Pruitt has continued his work targeting regulations put in place by the Obama administration, pursuing a pro-business mission for which he is careful to credit Trump.

On Friday, the EPA announced it had wrapped up a proposal expected to narrow the scope of an Obama-era rule on what kind of waterways fall under the protections of the federal Clean Water Act. Pruitt’s official Twitter account signaled the news Thursday night, showing a 2017 photo of a beaming Trump watching Pruitt sign a document starting the process of changing the rule.

The move accomplished a promise that Trump had made, Pruitt’s tweet said. He concluded by saying, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President!” Thursday was Trump’s 72nd birthday.

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Justice Department Initiative Aims to Protect Houses of Worship

The U.S. Justice Department will intensify its efforts to bring up lawsuits against municipalities that discriminate against religious establishments, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Wednesday.

The initiative, called the “Place to Worship Initiative,” is centered on bringing cases against towns and cities that use zoning laws to prevent houses of worship — churches and mosques, for example — from building.

“In recent years, the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief,” Sessions said. “Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”

The announcement came during an event for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center — an Orthodox Jewish advocacy group — in Washington, D.C. Sessions also announced the Justice Department would be filing a lawsuit against a New Jersey town for denying the building of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.

“Religious Americans have heard themselves called deplorables,” Sessions said. “They’ve heard themselves called bitter clingers.”

Sessions referred to comments made by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during their presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2008, respectively. Clinton made no reference to religion in her 2016 speech.

Heather Weaver, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU, told VOA the initiative was a welcome step from the Justice Department, provided that they enforce it equally based on all faiths.

“Based on past actions and policy, there are concerns that this administration will enforce that law equally among states,” Weaver told VOA, referring to the Trump White House’s signing of several executive orders restricting immigration from a group of Muslim-majority countries.

Sessions also commended the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, in which the court ruled 7-2 that a Colorado baker could refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple, based on religious freedom.

“There is no need for the power of the government to be arrayed against an individual who is honestly attempting to live out — to freely exercise—his sincere religious beliefs,” Sessions said. “There are plenty of other people to bake that cake.”

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Trump Mounts Fresh Attack on Mueller Probe

Outside the White House Friday, a media frenzy.

And at the center of it all, President Donald Trump.

“Can we do one question at a time? Wait! One question at a time,” the president scolded reporters.

Trump launched a new attack on the Russia probe in the wake of a critical report on the Hillary Clinton email investigation by the inspector general of the Department of Justice.

“I did nothing wrong. There was no collusion. There was no obstruction,” he said. “The IG (inspector general) report yesterday went a long way to show that, and I think that the Mueller investigation has been totally discredited.”

But the report in question only dealt with how the FBI handled the Clinton email controversy.

It was critical of the man Trump fired as FBI director, James Comey, but rejected the notion of a politically-directed effort aimed at Trump.

“This report did not find any evidence of political bias or improper considerations actually impacting the investigation under review,” announced current FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Democrats also took note of the report.

“Anyone who is hoping to use this report to undermine the Mueller probe or prove the existence of a ‘deep state’ conspiracy against President Trump will be sorely disappointed,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said.

During his lengthy encounter with reporters Friday, Trump also defended his recent summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“They are doing so much for us, and now we are well on our way to get denuclearization,” he said. “And the agreement says there will be total denuclearization. Nobody wants to report that. I got along with him great. We have a great chemistry together. That is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Trump also lashed out at opposition Democrats and tried to blame them for recent administration actions to separate family members caught trying to come across the U.S. border.

“The Democrats forced that law upon our nation. I hate it. I hate to see separation of parents and children,” Trump said.

A host of Democrats on Capitol Hill blasted the president’s comments, including Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico.

“There are no substantive defenses, no policy defenses, to their current actions separating families and taking children away from their mothers and fathers at the border. It just is another indication that they cannot govern,” she said.

Trump’s relatively lengthy encounter with the media Friday was unusual for a president who tends to favor appearances on Fox News Channel and who generally takes only a few questions at news conferences.

 

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Judge Jails Ex-Trump Campaign Chair Manafort

A federal judge on Friday sent President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort to prison for tampering with witnesses while out on bail.

Manafort was free on $10 million unsecured bail since he was first indicted last October by the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign.

He is one of 20 people charged by special counsel Robert Mueller and the first former Trump associate to go to prison in connection with the investigation.

In a tweet Friday afternoon, President Trump said: “Wow, what a tough sentence for Paul Manafort, who has represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other top political people and campaigns. Didn’t know Manafort was the head of the Mob. What about Comey and Crooked Hillary and all of the others? Very unfair!”

Manafort appeared in court to plead not guilty to new charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice in connection with his efforts to influence the testimony of two potential witnesses in his case.

Federal district judge Amy Berman Jackson, citing the new charges, granted a motion filed last week by Mueller, to revoke his bail and send him to prison while he awaits trial in September.

Manafort was escorted out of the court room by deputies as he waved to his wife.

The latest indictment against him, issued by a grand jury last week, accused Manafort, 69, and a business associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, 48, of “repeatedly” contacting two unidentified people in an effort to sway their testimony.   The contacts took place between February and April of this year.

WATCH: Trump on Manafort’s legal woes

According to prosecutors, the two potential witnesses worked with Manafort in enlisting a group of former European officials to lobby both European officials and members of Congress on Ukraine’s behalf.

Defense lawyers, saying Manafort was unaware  the two people were cooperating with the special counsel, painted the contacts as innocuous.  They asked that prosecutors provide a list of people Manafort should not be contacting while on bail.

“A clear no-contact role will solve the problem,” one of Manafort’s lawyers said.  “He can be put in a position where conditions can be met.”

But prosecutors argued that given Manafort’s track record of flouting his bail conditions, no new terms would ensure compliance.

“We’re in a very different situation,” said Andrew Weissmann, one of Mueller’s prosecutors.  “Today, we’re talking about obstruction while on bail.  Mr. Manafort has absolutely violated the terms of his release by committing a crime while on bail.”

Judge Jackson said she had to “wrestle” with whether to revoke Manafort’s bail, but in the end she said she could not keep him free.

 “You have abused the trust placed in you six months ago,” she said.

 

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IG Faults Comey’s Judgment, But Sees No Bias

The U.S. Justice Department’s watchdog on Thursday criticized former FBI Director James Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but said it found no evidence that Comey had been motivated by “political bias.”

In a long-awaited review of the investigation, the department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, did not question Comey’s decision to close the investigation without bringing charges against Clinton, but said the former FBI director made a “serious error of judgment” when he went public with the bureau’s findings in the run-up to the vote. 

“While we did not find that these decisions were the result of political bias on Comey’s part, we nevertheless concluded that by departing so clearly and dramatically from FBI and department norms, the decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the department as fair administrators of justice,” the report said. 

“Although we acknowledge that Comey faced a difficult situation with unattractive choices, in proceeding as he did, we concluded that Comey made a serious error of judgment,” the report said.​

​Focused on decisions

The inspector general’s probe focused on decisions made by Comey, at key moments during the campaign, to publicly disclose the FBI’s findings in the Clinton email probe, without coordinating with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

On July 5, 2016, Comey publicly announced that he was not bringing criminal charges against Clinton for her handling of classified information in her emails. 

Then, on Oct. 28, less than two weeks before the election, Comey informed members of Congress that he was reopening the investigation after discovering a new cache of emails, before closing it a second time just two days before the election. 

The inspector general said those announcements deviated from long-standing Justice Department protocols that require the FBI director to coordinate statements with the attorney general and let Justice Department officials report on major investigations.

Later Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau accepted the findings in the report but noted that it in no way “impugns the integrity” of the agency. 

“As I said earlier, fair and independent scrutiny is welcome and appropriate accountability is crucial. We’re going to learn from this report, and we’re going to be better and stronger as a result,” Wray said.

Speaking hours after the release of the report, he said the most important point he took away from it was that it found no evidence of political bias or improper consideration “actually impacting the investigations under review.” He said the FBI would continue to drill “home the importance of objectivity — and of avoiding even the appearance of personal conflicts or political bias in our work.”

Wray said the bureau had taken some steps, such as reassigning people and referring some cases to be reviewed by the FBI’s internal personnel department, although he would not comment on who might have been referred.

“We’ve already referred conduct highlighted in the IG report to OPR, the FBI’s independent Office of Professional Responsibility. We need to hold ourselves accountable for the work we do and the choices we make,” Wray said. “And we’re doing that, fairly but without delay.”

He also said there was a new policy regarding contacts with reporters and news leaks. He said bureau staff would receive “intensive training” and it would be made “painfully” clear what the department’s new rules were.

Comey came under harsh criticism for his actions during the election. 

While Republicans blasted his initial decision to publicly exonerate Clinton, Democrats blamed him for costing them the election by reopening the investigation so close to the vote. 

Trump, who had praised the relaunch of the probe on the eve of the election, last year cited Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation when he abruptly fired him as FBI director. The president later said that he had the “Russia thing” in mind when he fired Comey. 

​Comey responds

Comey has long defended his actions during the election, writing in a recently released book that he did “something I could never imagine” in order to protect the bureau’s independence after concluding that Lynch “appeared politically compromised.”

In a tweet after the report’s release, Comey wrote that the “conclusions are reasonable, even though I disagree with some.”

“People of good faith can see an unprecedented situation,” he wrote.

The inspector general expanded his investigation last year after discovering a series of anti-Trump and pro-Clinton text messages exchanged during the campaign by two senior FBI officials on the investigative team. The report said investigators for the inspector general found text and instant messages exchanged by five FBI employees assigned to the Clinton email investigation team. 

The report said that while the messages “cast a cloud” over the FBI’s handling of “the investigation and the investigation’s credibility,” investigators found no evidence that their political bias “directly affected” the email probe. 

The report singled out two FBI officials — Peter Strzok, a senior counterintelligence agent, and Lisa Page, a lawyer — for exchanging text messages that “potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations.”

Strzok and Page were romantically involved at the time. In one exchange uncovered during the investigation, Strzok wrote to Page, “No. No, he won’t. We’ll stop it,” in response to Page’s question “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”

The inspector general wrote that Strzok’s response “is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects.”

Both Strzok and Page briefly worked for special counsel Robert Mueller, investigating Russian interference in the election. Mueller removed Strzok from his team after the disclosure of his text messages. Page later left the special counsel’s office. 

Trump and his Republican allies have seized on the text exchanges to allege that the FBI was systematically biased against the president.

Other reactions

The report elicited mixed reactions.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the report reaffirmed Trump’s “suspicions about Director Comey,” adding that the text messages exchanged between Strzok and Page showed “the political bias the president has been talking about.” 

Trey Gowdy, the Republican chairman of the House oversight and government reform committee, said he was “alarmed, angered and deeply disappointed” by the findings.

The report confirms that the FBI decisions during the election “deviated from traditional investigative procedures in favor of a much more permissive and voluntary approach,” Gowdy said in a statement. 

But Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the inspector general “found no evidence” that Comey and other FBI and Justice Department officials “acted on the basis of political bias or other improper considerations. Instead, their decisions were made on the basis of the facts and the law.”

Moreover, Schiff said in a statement, “Nothing in the IG’s report calls into question the legitimacy or conduct of the Special Counsel’s Russia investigation, or the importance of allowing the Special Counsel to complete his work without political interference.”

Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations at the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog, said the FBI’s actions during the investigation “damaged the credibility of the Justice Department and the FBI in an investigation that desperately needed to be beyond reproach.”

“Justice Department and FBI leadership need to take a deep look inward and sort out how they should collaborate in high-profile, politically sensitive investigations,” he said. 

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US Supreme Court Eases Rules for Voter Attire

The U.S. Supreme Court eased the rules Thursday for what Americans can wear when they go to vote, striking down restrictions in one state that banned voters from wearing clothes with the name of a candidate or political party when they enter the polling place.

In a victory for free speech, the high court in a 7-2 ruling overturned a law in the Midwestern state of Minnesota that barred clothing representing recognizable political views. The state had said the law was aimed at keeping order at polling places and preventing voter intimidation among partisans.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said that while the state’s intentions were “generally worthy of our respect, Minnesota has not supported its good intentions with a law capable of reasoned application.”

Nine other states have laws similar to Minnesota’s. The Supreme Court returned the case to a lower court for consideration of what restrictions might be reasonable.

The Minnesota case stemmed from a 2010 incident in which a voter showed up at a polling place wearing a T-shirt supporting the conservative Tea Party movement with the words “Don’t Tread on Me,” as well as a button stating, “Please I.D. Me.”

The man was allowed to vote, but sued to overturn the law.

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Immigrant Candidates ‘Running Everywhere’ in Upcoming US Elections

When Colombia-born Catalina Cruz stepped toward the podium in Jackson Heights, Queens, officially launching her campaign for New York State Legislature, a few dozen supporters stood nearby with fluorescent blue, green and red signs — #VoteCatalina, #ElectADreamer.

Like other first-generation American candidates for local, state and nationwide office, Cruz had overcome a series of obstacles to get to that morning in June. Many can relate in her diverse community — including her opponent, a daughter of Dominican immigrants.

“We have many people who understand the struggle of the immigrant, who understand that we do not come here to steal opportunities or take advantage of the system, but to work, to fight,” Cruz told VOA.

“My mom had to take any job — handing out leaflets, making empanadas (meat pies), selling food, babysitting,” she said of her childhood era, a near 13-year-span during which she and her family lived under the radar, undocumented.

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Years later, after Cruz completed college, married her high school beau (a U.S. citizen), gained citizenship, and attended law school, she set out to defy the odds again by entering American politics — an arena that has never reflected the diversity of the general population, particularly outside progressive urban centers.

But 2018 may be a tipping point; immigrants are running “everywhere,” says Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of New American Leaders (NAL), a national non-partisan organization which prepares first and second-generation Americans for political office.

“You’re seeing people run [for office] wherever they are, without the burden of, ‘Oh, well, I’m not in a district that necessarily quote-unquote looks like me,’” Bhojwani said in an interview with VOA.

Barriers

On the one hand, Bhojwani predicts immigrant candidates will face “subtle and not-so-subtle references to (their) backgrounds and affiliations,” like Abdul El-Sayed, who is hoping to become the country’s first Muslim governor in Michigan, and has faced the kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric that is pervasive nationwide.

Yet, despite increasing partisan polarization, Bhojwani says immigrant candidates are beginning to “claim their space” across a range of offices and not just in progressive bubbles like Queens.

Ahead of the 2018 elections in November, NAL has tracked at least 100 foreign-born candidates running for U.S. Congress, where a smaller share of immigrants currently holds seats than during either of the country’s 19th and early 20th century waves of European immigration.

And immigrant candidates have been quietly making headway in both local and state elections, where fewer than two percent of 500,000 seats were held in 2015 by either Asian-Americans or Latinos — the two most populous groups of first and second-generation Americans — according to a report by NAL.

Positions like school board and local city council member “are often stepping stones” to higher office for women, candidates of color and immigrant candidates, says Paru Shah, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, whose research examines the characteristics of first and second-generation Americans running for political office.

Would-be candidates all face the difficulties of financing a campaign and finding the time to run. But additionally, immigrant candidates often have their own psychological barriers, according to Shaw.

“Historically it’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation, where people don’t see themselves in those positions,” Shah told VOA by phone, a situation of “that’s not for me.”

Changing the equation

According to a report by Shah and UCLA PhD candidate Tyler Reny, published in Social Science Quarterly (SSQ), race or foreignness was the most frequently cited barrier among immigrant leader respondents.

“I will have to overcome those who challenge how American I am because I was not born here,” read one recorded statement from the SSQ report.

“I imagine that my ability to lead and my loyalty to the nation would be questioned by the electorate,” read another.

According to Pew Research Center, the share of Asian-American and Hispanic Americans who think of themselves as “typical Americans” approximately doubles from the first-generation (Americans born outside the U.S. or U.S. territories) to 61 percent among the second (US-born with at least one immigrant parent).

For support, Asian-American and Latino candidates for state legislature often rely more heavily on labor unions and community-based groups than their white counterparts, according to NAL data. In return, the groups benefit from better representation.

“There is a lot that you can do to create an environment that is supportive and welcoming,” Bhojwani said. “People are stepping up and saying, ‘Look, I can represent my community and ensure that our schools feel safe and that our cities are welcoming.”

“We are not going to forget how we have lived up this point,” said candidate Catalina Cruz. “Many people might think, ‘Oh, she managed to get her papers and forgot.’ No, this is something you carry with you in your heart and in your blood.”

Laura Sepúlveda, of VOA’s Spanish Service, contributed to this report.

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DACA May Finally Get a Vote in the House

Leaders of the Republican-led House of Representatives are promising to hold votes on two immigration measures next week, putting the heated issue back on center stage during a tough election year. The move ends a plan by moderate Republicans to force a vote, with the fate of thousands of young undocumented immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, at stake. VOA’s Congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson has more.

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