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California Lawmakers to Confront Sexual Misconduct Scandal

California lawmakers will grapple for the first time as a group with a growing sexual misconduct scandal when they return to Sacramento on Wednesday. 

The 2018 legislative year will bring debates over legislation to boost protections for victims and people who report sexual misconduct, as well as both chambers’ continued efforts to improve their own policies for handling misconduct. 

On the very first day back, the Senate must confront how to handle one of its members, Sen. Tony Mendoza, who has refused calls to step aside amid an investigation into his alleged inappropriate behavior toward young women who worked for him.

“This is certainly not something we thought we’d be working on,” Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino said. “We’re finally going to be able to get it right and make sure any injustices in the past we can correct and that moving forward, everyone who works in the Capitol can feel like they can come forward.”

That’s not all that’s on lawmakers’ plates. Within a week of their return, Gov. Jerry Brown will submit his final budget proposal, kicking off six months of negotiating on how California should raise and spend money. Proposals that stalled last year on bail reform, single-payer health care and expanding renewable energy also will be back for debate. 

​Still, sexual misconduct will be a dominant theme. A letter circulated in mid-October by lobbyists, lawmakers, legislative staffers and other political consultants cited a pervasive culture of harassment in California’s Capitol. Women eventually came forward with specific allegations that prompted Democratic Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, both of Los Angeles, to resign.

Mendoza, meanwhile, denies allegations against him and says an investigation will clear his name. But Republican Sen. Andy Vidak said he’ll move to expel Mendoza when the Senate reconvenes, setting up a potentially fraught showdown on the Senate floor. 

Legislatively, Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez will bring forward for the fifth time a bill that would give whistleblower protections to legislative employees who report ethical violations, including sexual misconduct. The Senate has killed her bill four times. 

Dozens of women have said they do not report misbehavior by lawmakers or legislative staff because they are afraid of losing their jobs or facing other professional repercussions. Several former Mendoza staffers have accused the Senate of firing them because they reported his overtures to a young woman who worked for him, something the Senate and Mendoza deny. 

Melendez, of Lake Elsinore, has been tweeting the names of every lawmaker who has agreed to co-sponsor the measure as a means of ramping up pressure on the Senate. The bill has historically passed the Assembly with bipartisan support. 

Leyva, meanwhile, will introduce a bill that would ban nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment settlements, both in the public and private sectors, which can stop the parties from speaking publicly about what led to the settlement. 

“Eliminating these secret settlements, the no-disclosure agreements, then the accused, the person who is doing the harassing, they have nowhere to hide,” Leyva said. “They have to stop their behavior.”

Two other planned Assembly bills would extend the period in which people can report sexual harassment claims at the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing and impose stricter rules for employers – including the Legislature – to track sexual harassment complaints. Democratic Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes of San Bernardino is backing both pieces of legislation. 

Reyes sits on the Assembly subcommittee tasked with rewriting the Legislature’s sexual harassment policies. She was sharply critical during a hearing last month on the Assembly’s policy of not tracking sexual harassment complaints, only investigations. She wants to mandate better tracking by the Legislature and other employers. 

“The only way that were going to know if there’s a pattern is if we keep track of this,” Reyes said.

Regarding the state budget, another top concern for lawmakers, the governor must submit his blueprint by Jan. 10. Lawmakers must send a final spending proposal to Brown, who is term-limited out of office, by mid-June. 

The Assembly has already staked out budget priorities, including providing health care for people living in the state illegally and expanding a tax credit for the working poor. The Senate hasn’t outlined its ideas. 

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President Trump Criticizes Pakistan for "Lies and Deceit"

U.S. President Donald Trump is again accusing Pakistan of sheltering terrorists whom American forces are fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.

In his first Twitter message of 2018, Trump wrote, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.  No more!”

Washington has long accused Islamabad, particularly its security institutions, of turning a blind eye or covertly helping the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network to stage cross-border attacks against Afghan and U.S.-led forces.

It is not immediately clear whether Trump is threatening to cut financial assistance to Pakistan.   

The United States suggested in August it would hold up $255 million in military assistance until Pakistan cracks down on extremists.

The U.S. Congress has authorized up to $700 million in a Coalition Support Fund to reimburse Pakistan for activities carried out in support of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.  

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif told the local Geo News television station, “We have already told the U.S. that we will not do more, so Trump’s “no more” does not hold any importance.”

The government late Monday summoned U.S. ambassador David Hale to the foreign ministry to protest and seek an explanation for Trump’s remarks, reported local media.

“I can confirm the Ambassador was asked to come to the Foreign Office tonight. He did and met with officials there. I don’t have any comment on the substance of the meeting, ” a U.S. embassy spokesman told VOA.

Meanwhile, an emergency meeting of the National Security Committee has also been convened for Wednesday where the country’s top civilian and military leadership will discuss the situation in the aftermath Trump’s statement.

Islamabad denies allegations it is harboring Afghan insurgents and instead complains anti-state militants are using the neighboring country for terrorist attacks against Pakistan.

Trump unveiled his new South Asia policy last August, in which Pakistan was blamed for providing “safe haven” to terrorists.

American officials have also warned that if Islamabad does not take actions against terrorist havens on Pakistan soil, Washington will do so unilaterally.

The Pakistan military last week warned Washington against any unilateral military action on its soil, saying U.S. allegations of terrorist sanctuaries in the country are “unfounded” and “no more valid” because “indiscriminate” security operations have targeted all terrorist groups.

“We have paid a huge price both in blood and treasure.  We have done enough and we cannot do anymore for anyone,” said the chief military spokesman, Major-General Asif Ghafoor.

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Pence Carving a Role as Presidential Envoy

U.S. vice presidents historically have held widely varying influence in the White House, depending on their relationship with the president. As Donald Trump’s administration prepares for its second year, Vice President Mike Pence’s role appears likely to broaden.

On overseas trips to Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region, and a recent holiday visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Pence has embraced the role of presidential envoy.

WATCH: Mike O’Sullivan’s Video Report

His work on international and domestic policy is more than merely symbolic, says Joel Goldstein of Saint Louis University School of Law, who has written two books on the changing vice presidency.

“Vice President Pence seems to be included and involved in decision making in the White House,” Goldstein notes. “And the vice president,” he adds, “has been laudatory, at time adulatory towards the president in his public comments.”

​‘Biggest cheerleader’

Some of Pence’s critics say he has taken on that role excessively, notes Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

She calls Pence “the president’s biggest cheerleader,” but argues that Pence serves as more than a publicist.

“He also has influence within the West Wing of the White House,” she says.

​Other VPs

That was not the case with vice presidents through much of U.S. history.

John Nance Garner, vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, famously said the job “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford’s VP, called the job “standby equipment,” notes Jeffe, yet some recent vice presidents have become important players in their administrations.

Joe Biden and Al Gore, and even Dan Quayle were not afraid to confront their bosses when they disagreed with them and were rewarded with expanded duties, Goldstein says.

But Pence has taken on a unique role under a president who often makes controversial statements — when Trump questioned, for example, “the commitment to the joint defense provisions of NATO,” Goldstein says, or said he had not ruled out military action in restoring democracy to Venezuela to stop what the administration calls the nation’s slide to dictatorship.

The vice president has “cleaned up those statements,” Goldstein explains, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to the North Atlantic alliance and its commitment to diplomacy and economic sanctions in dealing with Venezuela.

Pence played a similar role, said Jeffe, after Trump appeared to equate the white nationalists behind violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the counter-protesters who rejected their racist message. Pence said the Trump administration condemns white supremacist fringe groups “in the strongest possible terms.”

Support not guaranteed

Pence has at times distanced himself from the president, however.

When Trump supported Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, who was defeated in December following allegations that he had once made sexual overtures to young teenagers, Pence remained silent on the endorsement but said he found the allegations against Moore disturbing.

Pence is an evangelical Christian and social conservative, and Goldstein says that while it’s impossible to know what is said behind closed doors, Pence may have had a hand in White House moves that have pleased conservatives, such as loosening environmental regulations on American businesses and appointing conservatives to judicial posts.

Pence, unlike Trump, is an experienced politician, having served as a longtime congressman and Indiana’s governor.

“Pence knows the players on Capitol Hill,” Jeffe says, and “Pence is trusted by the Republican players at least on Capitol Hill.” In his role as president of the Senate, which is assigned to the vice president under the U.S. constitution, Pence has cast six tie-breaking votes for passage of bills backed by the administration.

Goldstein adds that “members of the leadership in Congress who have some misgivings about the president see Vice President Pence as somebody who comes from their political world and as somebody they are comfortable dealing with.”

As a presidential envoy, whether comforting victims of a Texas hurricane or representing the United States in Argentina or Australia, Pence is carving out his role.

“And he’s trying to walk a fine line between being supportive of the president,” Goldstein says, “trying to placate his constituency of one, and yet at the same time not entirely embrace some of the controversial tweets and other statements that the president makes from time to time.”

It’s not easy task in an age of populism when policy debates take place through social media and the political rules are changing, analyst Jeffe says.

She says Pence, whose roots are in the old politics, has a political future tied to the success of a president who is breaking all the rules. So far, these analysts say, Pence has been walking the fine line as vice president successfully.

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Report: Australian Diplomat’s Tip a Factor in FBI’s Russia Probe

An Australian diplomat’s tip appears to have helped persuade the FBI to investigate Russian meddling in the U.S. election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told the diplomat, Alexander Downer, during a meeting in London in May 2016 that Russia had thousands of emails that would embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the report said. Downer, a former foreign minister, is Australia’s top diplomat in Britain.

Australia passed the information on to the FBI after the Democratic emails were leaked, according to the Times, which cited four current and former U.S. and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.

“The hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the FBI to open an investigation in July 2016,” the newspaper said.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb declined to comment, saying in a statement that the administration was continuing to cooperate with the investigation now led by special counsel Robert Mueller “to help complete their inquiry expeditiously.”

Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI and is a cooperating witness. Court documents unsealed two months ago show he met in April 2016 with Joseph Mifsud, a professor in London who told him about Russia’s cache of emails. This was before the Democratic National Committee became aware of the scope of the intrusion into its email systems by hackers later linked to the Russian government.

The Times said Papadopoulos shared this information with Downer, but it was unclear whether he also shared it with anyone in the Trump campaign.

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How US Attorney General Jeff Sessions Has Rolled Back Obama-era Policies

Every attorney general leaves his imprint on the U.S. Justice Department. Jeff Sessions is no exception.

Since being sworn in as the nation’s 84th attorney general in February, the former Republican senator and federal prosecutor has moved to radically overhaul the Justice Department and its approach to law enforcement.

From scrapping civil rights protections for transgender people to ending leniency in sentencing criminal defendants, Sessions has rolled back a host of policies his two immediate predecessors — Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder, both chosen by former President Barack Obama — enacted to promote civil rights and social justice.

The policy reversals have not been without their critics.

While Sessions and his supporters say the attorney general is restoring the rule of law and ending Obama-era policies that amounted to executive overreach, critics say he’s returning to criminal justice policies that led to mass incarceration and undermined civil rights.

​Blistering criticism

Sessions’ singular success in remolding the Justice Department is widely acknowledged. The irony is that it has come in the face of sometimes blistering personal criticism of the attorney general by his boss, President Donald Trump.

An early and ardent supporter of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, Sessions was rewarded with one of the most coveted positions in the administration.

But his relationship with Trump soured after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation in March, following revelations that Sessions had not disclosed meetings with Russia’s former ambassador to Washington during the presidential campaign.

Trump is said to have become so frustrated with his attorney general over the summer that he said he would not have picked Sessions for the job, had he known Sessions would have recused himself from the Russia probe.

But the attorney general largely shrugged off the criticism, saying at a news conference in July that he was “confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way,” and later traveling around the country to sell Trump’s tough on crime and immigration policies.

Here is a look at seven major Obama-era policies Sessions has rolled back, or attempted to, since taking office:

​Keeping private prisons

In his first act as attorney general in February, Sessions scrapped an Obama administration plan to phase out the use of private prisons for federal inmates. The 2016 direction to the Bureau of Prisons was sent after a harshly critical report about private prisons by the Justice Department’s inspector general. But Sessions said the Obama policy “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”

Dropping transgender protections

Also in February, Sessions directed the Justice Department to withdraw a guidance issued in 2016, requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.

In October, Sessions rescinded another policy memo issued by the Obama administration that said the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s employment discrimination prohibitions applied to transgender people. Rights group Human Rights Campaign called the move “discriminatory” against the transgender community and a “dangerous change of course.”

​Targeting sanctuary cities

With the Trump administration vowing to crack down on illegal immigration, it has fallen to Sessions to enforce one of the administration’s most controversial policies: cutting off federal funding to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, cities and counties that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

In April, Sessions sent letters to nine sanctuary jurisdictions requiring proof of compliance. In July, he announced that sanctuary cities would not be eligible for millions of dollars in funds for policing.

Chicago and Philadelphia later sued Sessions and the Justice Department over the sanctuary plan. In November, a federal judge permanently blocked Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities.

Reviewing consent decrees

In April, Sessions ordered a review of Obama-era reform agreements between the Justice Department and police agencies, saying, “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”

Known as “consent decrees,” a dozen such court-enforced agreements were struck between the Obama Justice Department and local police departments. Sessions has said the agreements have demoralized police departments, but civil rights advocates say they have helped produce necessary reforms.

Charging and sentencing policy

In a departure from the Obama administration’s policy of leniency in sentencing low-level, nonviolent offenders, Sessions directed federal prosecutors in May to “pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” with the lengthiest sentences in all criminal cases.

The guideline rescinded a 2013 memo by then-Attorney General Eric Holder directing prosecutors to avoid triggering mandatory-minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.

Sessions said the new charging policy “affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.” But critics, such as former Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, have slammed it as a failed “one-size-fits-all” policy that has swelled America’s prison population.

​Affirmative action

In October, the Department of Justice announced it had reopened an investigation into Harvard University’s use of race in its admissions policy, raising fears the administration will target affirmative action policies widely practiced by American universities and colleges.

The Justice Department probe was triggered by a 2015 complaint against Harvard filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups. The Justice Department said the investigation is limited to the complaint against Harvard, but civil rights activists fear the probe is part of a broader effort to undermine affirmative action policies that date back decades and that supporters say have leveled the playing field for otherwise disadvantaged students.

Return to debtors’ prison?

On Dec. 21, Sessions rescinded a 2016 Justice Department letter advising local courts against hitting indigent defendants with stiff fines and fees.

The 2016 letter said the changes were “needed to guarantee equal justice under law to everyone, regardless of their financial circumstances.”

Sessions said he was rescinding the letter and 25 other so-called “guidance documents” because they were “unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law or otherwise improper.” The move provoked a firestorm, leading critics to decry it as a “criminalization of poverty” and a “return to debtors’ prisons.”

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White House, Congress Prepare for Talks on Spending, Immigration

The White House said on Friday it was set to kick off talks next week with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders on immigration policy, government spending and other issues that need to be wrapped up early in the new year.

The expected flurry of legislative activity comes as Republicans and Democrats begin to set the stage for midterm congressional elections in November. President Donald Trump’s Republican Party is eager to maintain control of Congress while Democrats look for openings to wrest seats away in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

On Wednesday, Trump’s budget chief Mick Mulvaney and legislative affairs director Marc Short will meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan — both Republicans — and their Democratic counterparts, Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the White House said.

That will be followed up with a weekend of strategy sessions for Trump, McConnell and Ryan on Jan. 6 and 7 at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, according to the White House.

The Senate returns to work on Jan. 3 and the House on Jan. 8. Congress passed a short-term government funding bill last week before taking its Christmas break, but needs to come to an agreement on defense spending and various domestic programs by Jan. 19, or the government will shut down.

Also on the agenda for lawmakers is disaster aid for people hit by hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, and by wildfires in California. The House passed an $81 billion package in December, which the Senate did not take up. The White House has asked for a smaller figure, $44 billion.

Immigration

Deadlines also loom for soon-to-expire protections for young adult immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, known as “Dreamers.”

In September, Trump ended Democratic former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected Dreamers from deportation and provided work permits, effective in March, giving Congress until then to devise a long-term solution.

Democrats, some Republicans and a number of large companies have pushed for DACA protections to continue. Trump and other Republicans have said that will not happen without Congress approving broader immigration policy changes and tougher border security. Democrats oppose funding for a wall promised by Trump along the U.S.-Mexican border.

“The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc,” Trump said in a Twitter post Friday.

Trump wants to overhaul immigration rules for extended families and others seeking to live in the United States.

Republican U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, a frequent critic of the president, said he would work with Trump to protect Dreamers.

“We can fix DACA in a way that beefs up border security, stops chain migration for the DREAMers, and addresses the unfairness of the diversity lottery. If POTUS [Trump] wants to protect these kids, we want to help him keep that promise,” Flake wrote on Twitter.

Debt ceiling

Congress in early 2018 also must raise the U.S. debt ceiling to avoid a government default. The U.S. Treasury would exhaust all of its borrowing options and run dry of cash to pay its bills by late March or early April if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling before then, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Trump, who won his first major legislative victory with the passage of a major tax overhaul this month, has also promised a major infrastructure plan.

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Trump Dismisses Last of His HIV/AIDS Advisory Council

The Trump administration has fired the remaining members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, also known as PACHA.

Council members received a letter this week saying that their appointments to the panel were terminated, “effective immediately,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

PACHA was established in 1995, during the Clinton administration, to advise the White House on HIV strategies and policies.

Six of the members of the council, upset by White House actions on health policy, resigned in June. Scott Schoettes, a lawyer with Lambda Legal, a LGBT rights organization, was one of them.

He wrote in Newsweek at the time that U.S. President Donald Trump “simply does not care” about people living with HIV. Schoettes said the Trump administration “pushes legislation that will harm people living with HIV and halt or reverse important gains made in the fight against this disease.”

He told The Washington Post Friday, “The tipping point for me was the president’s approach to the Affordable Care Act,” which he said “is of great importance for people living with HIV like myself.”

Schoettes said in Newsweek that much of the public is unaware that “only about 40 percent of people living with HIV in the United States are able to access the life-saving medications that have been available for more than 20 years. It is not acceptable for the U.S. president to be unaware of these realities, to setup a government that deprioritizes fighting the epidemic and its causes or to implement policies and support legislation that will reverse the gains made in recent years.”

B. Kaye Hayes, PACHA’s executive director, said in a statement that the dismissals were part of the White House’s effort to “bring in new voices.”

Dr. David Kilmnick, CEO of the New York LGBT Network, saw the move differently. The firing of the council members “is another outlandish and despicable move by the Trump administration in his year-long effort to erase the LGBT community and the issues that disproportionately affect us,” he said in a statement Friday.

“From ending protections against bullying for trans youth in our schools to his attempt to ban the transgender community from the military to no mention of Gay Pride month during June to leaving out the LGBT community on World AIDS Day to banning words such as transgender, diversity and other, this president has been nothing but a complete train wreck that is a danger to the safety and lives of all Americans,” Kilmnick continued.

A notice on the Federal Register says the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking nominations for new council members. Nominations must be submitted by Tuesday.

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Trump Foreign Policy Unconventional, Others Agree With What They Call a New Doctrine

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has broken with previous foreign policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal and taking a more aggressive stance toward North Korea. Views about these departures are mixed — with some welcoming the forceful projection of American power on the world stage, while others criticizing what they see as a dangerous course for the United States. More from VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo.

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