Interior Secretary Alters His Overhaul Plans After Governors Push Back

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revamped a plan for a sweeping overhaul of his department Friday with a new organizational map that more closely follows state lines instead of the natural boundaries he initially proposed.

The changes follow complaints from a bipartisan group of Western state governors that Zinke did not consult them before unveiling his original plan last month. The agency oversees vast public lands, primarily in the U.S. West, ranging from protected national parks and wildlife refuges to areas where coal mining and energy exploration dominate the landscape.

Zinke said in an interview with The Associated Press that his goal remains unchanged: decentralizing the Interior Department’s bureaucracy and creating 13 regional headquarters.

Regional map redrawn

The redrawn map, obtained by AP, shows that states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming would fall within a single region instead of being split among multiple regions. Other states remain divided, including California, Nevada, Montana and Oregon.

Aspects of the original map remain, with some regions labeled according to river systems, such as the Upper Colorado Basin and the Missouri Basin. But the new lines tend to cut across geographic features and follow state lines, not boundaries of rivers and ecosystems.

The new proposal resulted from discussions with governors, members of Congress and senior leaders at the agency, Interior officials said.

Many department changes

Zinke, a former Republican congressman from Montana, has imposed major changes at the 70,000-employee Interior Department. He has rolled back regulations considered burdensome to the oil and gas industry and reassigned dozens of senior officials who were holdovers from President Barack Obama’s administration.

The vision of retooling the department’s bureaucracy plays into longstanding calls from politicians in the American West to shift more decisions about nearly 700,000 square miles (more than 1.8 million square kilometers) of public lands under Interior oversight to officials in the region.

Some Democrats have speculated that Zinke’s true motivation for the overhaul is to gut the department, noting that more than 90 percent of its employees work outside Washington, D.C.

Zinke contends that he’s trying to streamline Interior’s management of public lands by requiring all of the agencies within the department to use common regional boundaries, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service.

Congress has the final word on the proposal.

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Keillor: Relationship With Accuser Simply ‘Romantic Writing’

Garrison Keillor described several sexually suggestive emails he exchanged with a former researcher who accused him of sexual misconduct as “romantic writing” that never resulted in a physical relationship, and the radio host rejected the idea that because he was her boss — and the driving force of a hugely popular radio program — it could be sexual harassment.

The woman responded, via her attorney, that Keillor’s power over her job made her afraid to say no to him.

In one of his first extended interviews since Minnesota Public Radio cut ties over the allegations against the former A Prairie Home Companion host in November, Keillor said he never had a sexual relationship with the woman, a freelance contributor to the show at the time.

“No button was unbuttoned and no zipper was unzipped,” Keillor told The Associated Press. “I never kissed her. … This was a flirtation between two writers that took place in writing.”

Keillor also downplayed his power over the woman by portraying himself as uninvolved in the mundane operations of the radio show he created nearly a half-century ago and built into a powerhouse that attracted millions of listeners nationwide each Saturday evening, spun off assorted businesses and tours, and inspired a movie.

“I was not really the boss around Prairie Home Companion,” Keillor said. “I was a writer sitting in a dim office at a typewriter, back in the old days.” He also said: “I had no control over her whatsoever. She worked at home.”

Power imbalance

The woman said in an emailed response through her attorney that Keillor “had the power to provide or take away job assignments and opportunities. He also acknowledged several times that power imbalance between us, recognizing how his conduct could be offensive when it was coming from the person for whom I work.”

She also said she wasn’t interested in anything but a “collegial” relationship with Keillor.

“He was my mentor and employer,” she said. “As such, he had power over me. Every time I said ‘no’ or tried to avoid him I feared I was saying ‘no’ to my future.”

The Associated Press does not typically name alleged victims of sexual harassment unless they have chosen to go public.

MPR spokeswoman Angie Andresen said the station stood by its handling of the claims against Keillor. In January, the company said the woman had accused Keillor of dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents over several years, including requests for sexual contact and explicit sexual communications and touching.

“Our decision was not based on flirtations or fantasies, but based on facts confirming unacceptable behavior in the workplace by a person in a position of power over someone who worked for him,” Andresen said by email.

Kelly Marinelli, founder of Solve HR Inc., a human resources consulting company in Colorado, said even when a relationship seems reciprocal, there could be problems when one person is the boss. 

 

“In a situation where someone has power over another person and whether or not they continue to receive work … it’s very difficult for that to be a real mutual, consensual relationship,” she said.

​AP views emails

Before the interview, Keillor’s attorneys allowed the AP to view hundreds of emails between Keillor and the woman dating from 2004 to 2017, on condition that they could be described but not quoted directly.

Some were work-related, including details from her research and Keillor’s critiques. But many were personal, sharing details about their families and emotional struggles from their home email accounts, and some were overtly sexual.

The tone began changing in 2013, as the pair began sharing more about their lives and signing off by saying they loved and missed each other. By 2014 and 2015, the emails became more amorous. They both shared wishes or fantasies of being intimate, sometimes in detail. In one July 20, 2015, email, Keillor wrote of his desire to reach into the woman’s blouse and hold her breast in his hand. Keillor was married at the time and still is.

“I agree that there are adolescent passages in there, but there were some by her and some by me,” Keillor told the AP.

“We were two writers and we wrote back and forth and sometimes we slipped into what one could call romantic writing,” he said. “But this was between two people who hardly ever laid eyes on each other.  She was never required to be in the office.”

Keillor also wrote several times about wanting to touch the woman, kiss her or be naked with her. She replied in kind. The emails also included some explicit acknowledgements by Keillor of their work relationship, with him apologizing for some of the emails and noting that he was the person she worked for — but that he didn’t feel like her boss.

One incident recalled

When MPR cut ties with Keillor in November, his public statement at the time acknowledged one incident — placing his hand on a woman’s bare back in what he portrayed as an accident. He said then it was the only incident he could remember.

A timeline provided along with the emails said it was in July 2015 when Keillor’s hand went inside her shirt and he touched her back as they embraced while at lunch. That was the same month in which he sent the email about holding her breast. In a July 2016 email, as he neared retirement, Keillor apologized to the woman; she replied that she forgave him.

Keillor was accompanied in the interview by his attorney, Eric Nilsson, who highlighted the woman’s status as a freelancer.

“There’s an important distinction between an employee and an independent contractor. This woman was an independent contractor,” he said.

Until his retirement in 2016, Keillor, 75, entertained millions weekly on A Prairie Home Companion, the show he created in 1974.

MPR faced a backlash from some listeners when it ended its relationship with him, in part because it provided scant details of the allegations against him. It later gave more details based on what the company said was a 12-page letter from the woman.

MPR has removed archived Keillor shows from its website and no longer rebroadcasts shows he hosted. It also ended broadcasts of The Writer’s Almanac, his daily reading of literary events and a poem. Talks between Keillor and MPR over transitioning their business relationship have gone nowhere since early January.

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US Men Win First Olympic Gold Medal in Curling

The American men have won the Olympic gold medal in curling in a decisive upset of Sweden.

 

John Shuster skipped the United States to a 10-7 victory Saturday for the second curling medal in U.S. history. Shuster was part of the other one, too, as the lead thrower on Pete Fenson’s bronze-medal team at the 2006 Turin Games.

 

The Americans received a good luck call from Mr. T before the match. The King of Sweden was there, as was U.S. presidential daughter Ivanka Trump.

They saw Shuster convert a double-takeout for a five-ender in the eighth — an exceedingly rare score that made it 10-5 and essentially clinched the win.

Sweden retained the last-rock advantage known as the hammer for the ninth end, and scored two. 

But that gave the hammer to the Americans for the 10th and final end. Shuster played it safe, throwing away one stone intentionally to keep the target area clear and avoid the traffic that can lead to big scores. The remaining rocks were used to methodically pick off Sweden’s until there weren’t enough left to catch up. 

With two stones apiece left, Swedish skip Niklas Edin pushed off with a spin and a smile, and then conceded defeat. (Although Sweden had two stones in the house, the end does not count in the score).

Sweden is the reigning world champion silver medalist and finished first in pool play with a 7-2 record. The Americans barely squeaked into the playoffs with a 5-4 record after losing four of their first six games to move to the brink of elimination. 

But Shuster, American curling’s only four-time Olympian, guided his team to three straight victories to advance to the playoffs and then a semifinal win over three-time defending gold medalist Canada. No U.S. curling team, men’s or women’s, had ever beaten Canada at the Olympics.

This year’s team — Shuster, Tyler George, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and alternate Joe Polo — did it twice in one week.

 

Sweden took the silver medal. Switzerland beat Canada in the third-place game on Friday for bronze. 

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More US Companies End Marketing Programs With National Rifle Association

Three more companies say they have ended marketing programs with the National Rifle Association (NRA), as gun control advocates stepped up pressure on firms to cut ties to the gun industry following last week’s school shooting in Florida.

Activists have posted petitions online, identifying businesses that offer discounts to NRA members, in a push to pressure the companies to cut ties to the gun rights organization.

Corporations that ended their discount programs with NRA members on Friday included insurance company MetLife, car rental company Hertz, and Symantec Corp., the software company that makes Norton Antivirus technology.

The move comes after several other companies cut their ties to the NRA earlier this week, including car rental company Enterprise, First National Bank of Omaha, Wyndham Hotels and Best Western hotels.

The NRA is one of the country’s most powerful lobbying groups for gun rights and claims 5 million members.

Florida shooting renews debate

Last week’s shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead has renewed the national debate about gun control.

Gun control activists have been mounting a campaign on Twitter, including using the hashtag #BoycottNRA as well as using social media to pressure streaming platforms, including Amazon, to drop the online video channel NRATV, which features gun-friendly programming produced by the NRA.

On Thursday, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that those advocating for stricter gun control are exploiting the Florida shooting.

Receiving a rousing reception, LaPierre said, “There is no greater personal individual freedom than the right to keep and bear arms, the right to protect yourself and the right to survive.”

Arming teachers

On Friday, President Donald Trump reiterated to CPAC for the third time this week the need to arm teachers with concealed weapons to prevent more shootings in U.S. schools.

“It’s time to make our schools a much harder target for attackers. We don’t want them in our schools,” Trump said.

Trump has also proposed raising the age to buy assault-style rifles from 18 to 21, which is opposed by the NRA.

In his speech to CPAC, Trump indicated he does not intend to battle the powerful organization.

“They’re friends of mine,” Trump said of the NRA, which gave more than $11 million to his presidential campaign in 2016 and spent nearly $20 million attacking his Democratic Party general election challenger, Hillary Clinton.

The mass shooting in Florida on Feb. 14 has sparked a wave of rallies in Florida, Washington and in other areas of the United States in an attempt to force local and national leaders to take action to prevent such attacks.

 

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Trump Pushes to Arm Some Teachers in Wake of Florida School Shooting

U.S. President Donald Trump repeated his call to arm some teachers in the wake of the high school shooting in Florida. Trump spoke before a conservative group near Washington. He is the latest in a series of U.S. presidents forced to deal with the impact of a mass school shooting and with the question of what can be done to prevent them. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports that presidents have often been frustrated when trying to bridge the great divide over guns in the United States.

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Florida Governor Proposes Tighter Gun Restrictions in Wake of School Shooting

Florida Governor Rick Scott announced a proposal on Friday to increase restrictions on buying guns and to strengthen school safety measures after a

gunman killed 17 people at a high school in the state last week.

Scott said he would work with state lawmakers during the next two weeks to raise the minimum age for buying any kind of gun in Florida to 21 years old, with some exceptions for younger military members and law enforcement officers. Long guns, including the assault rifle used in the Feb. 14 attack, can currently be bought by people as young as 18.

The Republican governor also said he would change laws to make it “virtually impossible for anyone who has mental issues to use a gun.” He wants to ban the sale of bump stocks, an accessory that transforms a semiautomatic rifle into a weapon able to fire hundreds of rounds a minute.

Scott, who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and has received its highest rating for supporting gun rights, called for a mandatory law enforcement officer in every public school and for mandatory “active shooter training” for students and faculty.

Scott spoke as staff members were returning for the first time to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 14 students and three faculty members were killed in one of the deadliest school attacks in U.S. history.

“They’re looking to get back to be with their kids,” Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie told reporters. “They’re consoling each other.”

Some teachers slowly walked around looking at the piles of flowers and makeshift memorials to the victims. One woman who brought balloons to add  to the memorials fell to her knees in tears.

Maintenance staff have used power washers to clean up the scene of the attack and have fixed broken windows, but the building where the shooting occurred will remain closed, Runcie said. He has proposed tearing the building down and creating a memorial.

Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old former student at the school, has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.

Authorities have said that Cruz was expelled last year for unspecified disciplinary problems.

The attack has inflamed the national debate about gun rights. Many of the student survivors of the massacre have since advocated for tougher gun-control laws, traveling to meet politicians in Tallahassee, the state capital, and U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House.

In remarks to reporters on Friday, Trump criticized the armed sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school. The deputy, Scot Peterson, resigned after an internal investigation found he failed to go inside and confront the shooter, the Broward County sheriff said on Thursday.

“When it came time to get in there and do something, he didn’t have the courage or something happened,” Trump said. “But he certainly did a poor job. There’s no question about that.”

Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco said Scott’s plan to have at least one law enforcement officer for every 1,000 students did not go far enough.

Some parents also felt the proposal fell short.

“There should be armed guards at every door,” said Jeannette Formica, 50, who has a teenage son who attends a middle school near Stoneman.

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Trump Junior Address on Indo-Pacific Ties Renamed Following Criticism

A business conference in India has renamed an address by Donald Trump Jr. after criticism that the original title of the talk suggested he was speaking on foreign policy issues that should be left to diplomats and government officials.

The talk was initially titled “Reshaping Indo-Pacific Ties: The New Era of Cooperation,” before it was rebranded as a “Fireside Chat.”

The conference, which Trump, Jr., executive vice president of the Trump Organization, attended Friday was organized by the prestigious The Economic Times newspaper in New Delhi and attended by the Indian business and political elite.

In speaking with an Indian journalist, the younger Trump steered clear of all policy issues and tried to rest criticism that has dogged his trip. “I am here as a businessman. I am not representing anyone. I have been coming to India for over a decade,” he said at one point.

Deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Asia program Michael Kugelman told VOA the “damage control” done by changing the speech to something innocuous” was a wise move, though given the backlash and outcry that had already ensued, that change may have come too late.”

In a letter sent to the American ambassador in India earlier this week, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern that the speech could “send the mistaken message” that Trump Jr. is speaking on behalf of the U.S. government.

Trump Jr., who spoke about his experiences as the son of the U.S. president, told the audience that he rarely talked politics with his father any more. “We see him so little that when we are together, it’s really about being a family.” He accused American journalists of unfair criticism and praised the Indian media, saying they “are so mild and nice.”

Conflicts on interest

Controversy about Trump Jr.’s visit erupted before he landed in India on Monday after newspaper advertisements offered buyers properties licensed by the Trump Organization “dinner and conversation” with the president’s son, sparking concerns of ethics and conflict of interest.

The Trump Organization has licensed its name to five projects being built by local developers in India, the company’s largest market outside the United States. One luxury apartment complex is complete in Pune, while four others, are in varying stages of construction in Mumbai, Kolkata and Gurugram.

In Delhi and Kolkata, customers who paid the booking fee of $ 38,000 were invited to dine with Trump Jr.

Kugelman said there certainly is “something questionable about the president’s son inviting buyers of his father’s properties to meet with him.”

The head of one of the companies building the Trump Towers in India, Kalpesh Mehta, told reporters $15 million was put down by buyers on Monday. He said over $100 million worth of real estate has been sold in the towers coming up in Gurugram, near New Delhi.

Trump Jr. has dismissed claims that his family business is benefiting from his father’s presidency and told an Indian television channel that his family had gotten no credit for business it has lost because of self-imposed restrictions President Trump has applied to stay away from any new foreign business deals during his term in office.

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Reports: Former Trump Campaign Associate to Plead Guilty in Russia Probe

Rick Gates, a former associate of President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, is expected to plead guilty and agree to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election, several U.S. media outlets reported on Friday.

 

The guilty plea could come as early as Friday afternoon, ABC News reported, citing a letter Gates sent his friends and family earlier in the day.

 

Gates’ lawyer, Thomas Green, didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether his client planned to plead guilty.

 

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office declined to comment.

 

Gates is expected to become the third former Trump campaign associate to plead guilty to criminal charges and agree to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation into whether there was collusion between the Trump team and Russia during the 2016 election.

 

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos last year pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their interactions with Russian officials.

 

It was not immediately clear what charges Gates will plead guilty to.  He faced decades in prison over a raft of charges brought by Mueller.  A guilty plea to a lesser charge and cooperation with prosecutors could help him reduce jail time.

 

The expected plea comes a day after Mueller’s office announced a new indictment against Gates and his former business partner and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

The new indictment accuses Gates and Manafort of bank fraud and tax evasion among other charges, alleging the two men avoided taxes by hiding millions of dollars in consulting fees from Ukrainian politicians as bank loans from offshore entities.

 

Manafort and Gates were initially charged in a 12-count indictment in October in connection with a multi-million dollar money laundering conspiracy tied to their political work in Ukraine. They were also accused of failing to register as agents of a foreign government.

 

Manafort headed the Trump campaign from June to August 2016. Gates was brought into the campaign by Manafort and stayed on even after Manafort was fired a few months later following revelations about his Russian connections.

 

The charges against Gates and Manafort are not related to a key question Mueller has been investigating since his appointment last May – whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.

 

Last week, Muller’s office announced charges against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for conspiring to disrupt the U.S. elections and tilt it in favor of the real estate tycoon. The indictment, however, did not allege collusion on the part of the Trump campaign.

 

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Protesters Ousted From Sacred Hawaiian Site Where Elvis Filmed Movie

State sheriffs on Thursday removed protesters from the ruins of a Hawaii hotel where they have been squatting since last year in an attempt to block redevelopment of land where Hawaiian chiefs once lived and where Elvis Presley’s character got married in the movie Blue Hawaii. 

The Hawaii Department of Public Safety said in a statement Thursday that state sheriffs arrested Mahealani Hanie-Grace, 23, for trespassing at Coco Palms on Kauai.

The protest began when two men arrived claiming they owned the property because they descend from King Kaumualii, the last ruler of Kauai. Dozens of other protesters have come and gone.

Police have cited protesters for trespassing. A judge last month issued an order to evict them.

The public safety department said 25 deputy sheriffs participated in the raid.

Coco Palms has been shut since 1992, when Hurricane Iniki heavily damaged the property.

Demolition began in 2016, with the goal of reopening in mid-2018. The clash has caused delays, so the developers hope to start construction soon after the protesters leave.

The renovated hotel will have 350 rooms, including 22 master suites and about 50 junior suites. Hyatt will manage the hotel once it’s reopened.

The protest is the latest example of Native Hawaiian activists taking a stand on cultural issues and sacred places. Protesters in recent years blocked a road leading to the summit of Mauna Kea, the Big Island’s highest peak, to stop the construction of one of the world’s largest telescopes. That case is currently before the courts.

Hawaiian chiefs were born and lived on the property hundreds of years ago. Royalty favored the area for its plentiful water, which made it ideal for irrigating fields for the starchy vegetable taro, a staple crop.

Coco Palms opened as a resort in 1953. Eight years later, it served as the backdrop for scenes in a Hollywood romantic comedy featuring Presley. 

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