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Ride-Sharing Uber and Self-Driving Car Firm Waymo Settle Legal Battle

Ride-sharing giant Uber and the self-driving car company Waymo have agreed to settle their legal battle over allegedly stolen trade secrets.

The surprise agreement Friday came as lawyers for the companies prepared to wrap up the first week of the case’s jury trial in San Francisco, California.

As part of the agreement, Uber will pay $245 million worth of its own shares to Waymo.

Waymo sued Uber last year, saying that one of its former engineers who later became the head of Uber’s self-driving car project took with him thousands of confidential documents.

After the lawsuit was filed, Uber fired the employee and fell behind on its plans to roll out self-driving cars in its ride-sharing service.

Waymo, a company hatched from Google, says the settlement also includes an agreement that Uber cannot use Waymo confidential information in its technology.

“We have reached an agreement with Uber that we believe will protect Waymo’s intellectual property now and into the future. We are committed to working with Uber to make sure that each company develops its own technology,” Waymo said in a statement.

Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, expressed regret for the company’s actions in a statement Friday.

“While we do not believe that any trade secrets made their way from Waymo to Uber, nor do we believe that Uber has used any of Waymo’s proprietary information in its self-driving technology, we are taking steps with Waymo to ensure our Lidar and software represents just our good work,” Khosrowshahi said in a statement.

Lidar is a laser-based system that helps self-driving cars to navigate their surroundings.

The trial so far included testimony from former Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick, who denied any attempt to steal trade secrets from Waymo.

Uber has faced a series of recent struggles, including public accusations of sexual harassment at the company and accusations it used software to thwart government regulators.

2nd White House Aide Resigns After Accusations of Domestic Abuse

The White House confirmed late Friday that a second staff member had resigned over allegations of domestic abuse.

Spokesman Raj Shah said David Sorenson, a speechwriter for the Council on Environmental Quality, resigned Friday. Two days earlier White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter stepped down amid accusations by both his former wives that he had abused them.

Sorensen denied the abuse allegations, which were first reported Friday by The Washington Post. Sorenson’s ex-wife had told the Post that he was violent and emotionally abusive during their short marriage.

Trump on Porter

President Donald Trump said Friday that he is very sad at Porter’s resignation.

“He says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Friday. “He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent, so you’ll have to talk to him about that.”

The president did not mention the former wives or their claims that Porter physically and psychologically abused them.

Security clearance concerns

The revelations about Porter have raised fresh questions about the attitude of senior White House staff toward allegations of improper behavior by employees. It has also cast a spotlight on the practice of allowing staff without security clearances to work in and around the Oval Office.

Porter had only an interim clearance while holding one of the most sensitive jobs in the White House, where he controlled the flow of information to the president. A full clearance had been held up while the FBI investigated abuse allegations by his two former wives.

Trump Friday wished his former aide well, noting that Porter had done “a very good job in the White House.”

Porter’s swift resignation followed publication in Britain’s Daily Mail of a picture of his first wife, Colbie Holderness, with a black eye allegedly suffered when Porter punched her in 2005 while the couple was on vacation in Italy.

Holderness and Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, were both quoted by the tabloid as saying Porter’s consistent abuse was the reason for their respective divorces.

​Kelly under scrutiny

The Porter matter has intensified scrutiny of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former army general brought in to bring order to an administration that had been seen as chaotic under previous chief, Reince Priebus.

Media reports say Kelly apparently had prior knowledge of Porter’s inappropriate behavior. Critics say Kelly should have been more concerned about employees working without security clearances.

Kelly has also come under fire for appearing to defend Porter when the allegation of abuse first surfaced. He issued a statement Wednesday calling Porter “a man of true integrity and honor.”

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Kelly wrote. “He is a friend, a confidant and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”

Later, as the picture of Holderness with the black eye circulated on the Internet, Kelly amended his original statement, saying, “I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society.”

Porter resigns

A day after Kelly and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders spoke warmly of Porter, his departure was announced with a terse comment. 

“He was terminated yesterday and his last day was yesterday,” Shah, the deputy press secretary said Thursday. Shah characterized the departure as a resignation, however, rather than a firing.

Porter, a Rhodes scholar and Harvard-educated lawyer, played an important role in deciding which articles and policy proposals were given to the president for his review.

Porter had a hand in writing Trump’s recent State of the Union address, and news photos and videos often showed images of him with other members of the White House inner circle. Several news agencies have reported that he is currently romantically linked with another close Trump aide, White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.

Porter issued a statement Wednesday denying the accusations.

“These outrageous allegations are simply false,” he said. “I took the photos given to the media nearly 15 years ago and the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described. I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.”

Russians Held for ‘Mining Bitcoin’ At Top Nuclear Lab

Engineers at Russia’s top nuclear research facility have been detained after they attempted to mine bitcoin on its computers, Russian news agencies reported Friday.

Several employees at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center in the city of Sarov have been detained after making “an attempt to use the work computing facilities for personal ends, including for so-called mining,” a spokeswoman for the center, Tatiana Zalesskaya, told Interfax news agency.

“Their activities were stopped in time,” she added.

“The bungling miners have been detained by the competent authorities. As far as I know, a criminal case has been opened regarding them,” she added, without saying how many were detained.

The center is overseen by Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, and works on developing nuclear weapons.

Such attempts “at our enterprises will be harshly put down, this activity technically has no future and is punishable as a crime,” the center’s spokeswoman said.

In 2011, the center switched on a new supercomputer with a capacity of 1 petaflop, which at the time made it the twelfth most powerful in the world, Russian television reported.

During the Cold War, Sarov was a top-secret city in the Nizhny Novgorod region, about 500 kilometers (300 miles) east of Moscow. Its Soviet-era name was Arzamas-16.

The center was the birthplace of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear weapons.

Sarov is still a closed city whose inhabitants are subject to travel restrictions.

Vladimir Putin visited the nuclear research center in 2012 while campaigning for president.

US Stocks Slump After Opening Higher in Last Trading Session of Turbulent Week

U.S. stocks slumped Friday afternoon after opening higher in the last trading session of a turbulent week in which the Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index plunged into correction territory for the first time in two years.

The Dow, the more broad-based S&P 500 and the technology-laden NASDAQ composite were all about one percent lower in afternoon trading.

Earlier Friday, global stock indexes closed out the week in negative territory, deepening the weeklong sell-off. France’s CAC 40 Index fell 1.2 percent, Britain’s FTSE 100 Index lost seven-tenths of one percent and Germany’s DAX finished 1.2 percent lower.

Asian benchmarks fell more sharply. China’s Shanghai Composite Index plummeted 4 percent, Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 retreated 2.3 percent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index lost just over 3 percent.

The U.S. sell-off began a week ago after the U.S. Labor Department reported wages grew rapidly in January, sparking concern of higher inflation and lower corporate profits.

European markets were rattled by a signal from the Bank of England that it may boost interest rates in response to a strong global economy.

Despite this week’s heavy losses, U.S. benchmarks are still posting strong gains over the past year. As of Friday morning, the Dow was 19 percent higher, the S&P was up 12.5 percent and the NASDAQ was ahead by more than 19 percent.

Many Wall Street observers had been expecting a correction — a drop in stock values of 10 percent or more over the most recent record high — because the market is currently in the middle of its second-longest bull run, or market that is expected to rise, of all time. Until now, the booming market had not seen a correction in two years, an unusually long time.

Congress Reaches Budget Compromise, But No Deal Yet on ‘Dreamers’

The U.S. Congress has approved spending bill and two year budget agreement which has been signed by President Donald Trump, ending a brief government shutdown. The deal ended weeks of uncertainty as well as Democratic hopes of linking passage of the budget with a solution for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. VOA congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports on the immigration fight ahead on Capitol Hill.

Kenya’s Flower Producers Eye US Market

Kenya’s cut-flower industry has blossomed since the 1980s, and now holds the biggest market share for exports to Europe. Kenya’s flower producers are hoping direct flights set to open between Nairobi and New York City could help them put down roots in a new market — the United States.

On the cutting floor of a factory in Naivasha, about a hundred workers dressed in red smocks stand at sorting tables, some with blades at the ready. The remnants of their work lay scattered about on the gray cement floor. 

Naivasha is Kenya’s floriculture heartland and workers at Van den Berg Kenya are trimming, packing and refrigerating bundles of roses. 

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, this is the busiest time of year for flower growers in Kenya — the world’s fourth-largest exporter of cut flowers, with most of the exports going to Europe, Australia and Japan.  

“We saw good growth of up to about 10 percent up to the year 2008,” said Jane Ngige, the outgoing CEO of Kenya Flower Council, which represents 115 of about 150 registered growers. “And, since then, it’s stabilizing at about 2 percent.”

Kenya’s cut-flower industry may be set to grow once again with direct flights opening in October to the United States. 

Kenya’s flower growers have been anticipating the direct flights for a few years now, according to Ngige. 

“And what we’re looking at is an opportunity to diversify our markets to the American market. And, we’re also looking — not to compete with the South Americans, who are the main producers or the main suppliers of flowers for North America — but look at complimenting the product. Because, our products are very different,” Ngige said.

Kenyan roses have a smaller head-size than the Columbian flowers that dominate the U.S. market, say growers in Naivasha, but Kenya’s varietals and low production costs could give it an edge. 

While a small fraction of Kenya’s flowers currently end up in the U.S., the air freight stopover in Europe is a costly barrier to greater market access. 

The managing director of Flamingo Horticulture Kenya, Jonathan Ralling, agrees that direct flights are a good opportunity — if there is enough cargo space. 

“I think it will depend on how much freight is available, in terms of what can leave the country, and also of course how competitive Kenya can be against the South American exporters, which are very, very strong in terms of the U.S.,” Ralling said.

There are 100,000 workers directly employed in Kenya’s flower industry, but Kenya Flower Council says indirect services and products account for another 400,000 jobs, providing livelihoods for around two million people. 

The hope is that, with better access to the U.S. consumer market, Kenya’s flower industry — and the number of people it supports — can only grow. 

Trump Signs Budget Agreement, Ending US Government Shutdown

U.S. President Donald Trump has signed a sweeping bipartisan budget bill, ending a brief government shutdown and adding hundreds of billions of dollars in spending on domestic programs, disaster aid and the military.

Trump signed the measure without fanfare after it received final congressional approval in the early hours of Friday morning.

White House officials said the lack of a signing ceremony indicated Trump’s displeasure with the last-minute additions that will further add to the government’s ballooning deficit. In two subsequent morning tweets, he took aim at Democrats, who had demanded more domestic spending in return for the votes needed to win enough bipartisan support to pass the deal.

The House voted in the wee hours of the morning, 240-186, to approve the measure, which funds the government through March 23. Hours earlier, the Senate had voted 71-28 in favor.

The deal gives appropriations committees in both houses of Congress time to craft a detailed spending plan that will fund the government through September of 2019.

Several lawmakers on the left and right opposed the bill, including conservative Republicans who objected to the large spending increases. Progressive Democrats protested the omission of language that would end the threat of deportation for more than one million young undocumented immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States as children.

Trump ordered an end to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year. Participants face deportation when the program expires March 5 unless Congress takes action.

Trump, in his third tweet of the day, applauded the exclusion of the Dreamers, or recipients of the DACA provision, from the spending bill. “Fortunately, DACA not included in this Bill, negotiations to start now!” he wrote.

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders praised the deal.

“This is a great victory for our men and women in uniform. Republicans and Democrats joined together to finally give our troops the resources and our generals the certainty to plan for the future,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who had opposed earlier versions of the bill that cut domestic and disaster relief spending, also claimed victory.

“What makes Democrats proudest of this bill is that after a decade of cuts to programs that help the middle class, we have a dramatic reversal,” Schumer said. “Funding for education, infrastructure, fighting drug abuse, and medical research will all, for the first time in years, get very significant increases, and we have placed Washington on a path to deliver more help to the middle class in the future.”

Dreamers’ plight

While Schumer and the Democrats yielded on the DACA issue, Republican leaders gave assurances that overhauling America’s immigration system remains high on their agenda.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to start Senate floor debate on immigration reform, including a fix for DACA recipients, as soon as spending issues are resolved.

Speaker Ryan gave a similar assurance Thursday, saying, “To anyone who doubts my commitment to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not. We will bring a solution to the floor, one that the president will sign.”

A single Republican senator had held up passage of the budget bill Thursday, forcing the brief government shutdown, to underscore his fear that increasing spending by hundreds of billions of dollars would explode America’s already rising federal deficit and add to the nation’s more than $20 trillion national debt.

“The reason I’m here tonight is to put people on the spot,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said in a fiery floor speech that went on for hours. “I want people to feel uncomfortable. I want them to have to answer people at home who said, How come you were against President [Barack] Obama’s deficits and then how come you’re for Republican deficits?'”

Michael Bowman contributed to this report.

Watch related video by VOA’s Katherine Gypson:


Pence in Pyeongchang for Olympics Opening Ceremonies

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday to attend the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Earlier Friday, Pence traveled to the South Korean Navy’s 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul, to visit a memorial for the South Korean warship Cheonan, which was sunk by an explosion blamed on the North. Nearly 50 sailors aboard the Cheonan were killed.

“Our objective here today is to stand with our allies. But is also to stand up for the truth. And to recognize that whatever images may emerge against the powerful backdrop and idealism of the Olympics, North Korea has to accept change,” Pence told reporters at the naval base before heading to the Olympic Games venue.

“They have to abandon their nuclear ambitions. They have to end the day of provocation and menacing. And frankly they have to end an appalling record of human rights that you heard first-hand today, the world community,” he added.

The vice president also met with North Korean defectors while in Pyeongtaek.

At the Olympics

U.S. officials have not ruled out the possibility that the vice president might meet a North Korean official at the Olympics. North Korean state media said Thursday there was no intention on the North Korean side for such talks to take place.

Pence said his team had not requested a meeting, but that if it did happen, he would continue his message that North Korea must entirely abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile efforts and will remain under pressure until it does so.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said South Korea sees hosting the Olympics as a way to improve diplomatic relations with North Korea. He has referred to the games as the “Olympic Games of peace.”

Ahead of the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, Pence, Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended a reception for about 200 dignitaries hosted by the South Korean president.

According to the vice president’s office, Pence stopped by many tables at the reception, “but did not come across the North Korea delegation.”

Vow to South Korea

On Thursday, Pence said in a meeting with Moon that Washington would “bring maximum pressure to bear on North Korea” until they abandon their nuclear weapons program.

Meeting with Moon at the Blue House in Seoul, Pence reaffirmed to longtime ally South Korea the U.S. commitment to economically and diplomatically isolate North Korea in order to achieve the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

On Thursday, while in Japan, Pence stopped at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, where he gave a pointed speech against North Korea.

He said the United States will act with “vigilance and resolve” in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile threats, and reiterated the Trump administration’s warning that while its seeks peace, “all options are on the table.”

About 54,000 personnel are stationed at the U.S. base. Pence toured the facility and met with Air Force Lt. Gen. Jerry Martinez, commander of U.S. Forces Japan. He also was briefed on the capabilities of the base if “diplomacy fails.”

Pence said North Korea has repeatedly responded to overtures from the world with broken promises and provocations. He highlighted his earlier announcement that the United States would continue to intensify what he called a “maximum pressure campaign” and keep it in place until North Korea abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“We’re standing in a country that has literally seen ballistic missiles overfly their land twice in a single month. And they’ve seen multiple ballistic missiles land within their economic zone in the Sea of Japan,” Pence later told reporters.

“American forces, the Self-Defense Forces of Japan are ready for any eventuality. And we will continue to make it clear to all parties that the United States and our allies in this region stand ready at a moment’s notice to defend our people and defend our way of life,” he added.

Republicans, Democrats Fight Over Infrastructure Plans

U.S. House of Representatives Democrats on Thursday proposed $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending over 10 years — five times the amount President Donald Trump is expected to offer in his upcoming plan to spur states and cities to seed new public works projects.

Trump will outline his long-awaited plan to use $200 billion to try to generate at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure improvements over 10 years next Monday, a White House official confirmed earlier this week.

But Democrats want far more government spending, including $100 billion on schools alone as well as billions to expand rural broadband internet service, improve airports, mass transit, roads and ports, boost energy efficiency and improve aging water systems.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Trump’s plan was a “disappointment” and spends too little federal money. The plan “shifts the burden onto cities and states,” she added.

A leaked document last month disclosed administration plans to reduce federal cost-sharing for projects to no more than 20 percent of the costs from the traditional 80 percent.

The Trump administration has previously rejected Democrats’ call to spend $1 trillion in new government spending as not fiscally responsible.

On Wednesday, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders unveiled a spending deal that includes an additional $20 billion over two years “to invest in infrastructure, including programs related to rural water and wastewater, clean and safe drinking water, rural broadband, energy, innovative capital projects, and surface transportation.”

Specific spending details will be left up to members of Congress when they write legislation later this year.

Trump will meet with state and local officials Monday to tout his plan, which includes $100 billion in incentives for state and local projects, $50 billion in grants for rural projects, $30 billion for government lending programs and $20 billion for transformative projects, sources briefed on the matter said.

Trump plans a separate meeting with congressional leaders later next week and is expected to travel to Florida for an infrastructure event next Friday, two officials said.

One big question is how improvements will be paid for.

Democrats did not propose a specific funding mechanism Thursday, and the Trump administration has said it plans to rely on spending cuts to pay for the plan. The White House has not ruled out potential new revenue streams, such as an increase in the gas tax.