Drug Trafficker Tells of Bribe to Ex-President of Mexico

A Colombian drug trafficker testified that Mexican cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman boasted about paying a $100 million bribe to the former president of Mexico.

Alex Cifuentes spoke about the alleged bribe to President Ernesto Pena Nieto during his testimony Wednesday in Guzman’s trial in New York.

Cifuentes first spoke with prosecutors about the bribery allegation when he began cooperating with U.S. authorities in 2016.

A spokesman for Nieto called the bribery claim “false and defamatory” when it first came up earlier in the trial. Nieto left office last year.

Under questioning from Guzman’s lawyer, Cifuentes said he wasn’t sure exactly what year the bribe was delivered.

Ciefuentes has testified that he lived with Guzman for a period of time at one of the kingpin’s hideaways in Mexico.

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No-cost Birth Control, Now the Norm, Faces Court Challenges 

Millions of American women are receiving birth control at no cost to them through workplace health plans, the result of the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, which expanded access to contraception.

The Trump administration sought to allow more employers to opt out because of religious or moral objections. But its plans were put on hold by two federal judges, one in Pennsylvania and the other in California, in cases that could eventually reach the Supreme Court.

The judges blocked the Trump policy from going into effect while legal challenges from state attorneys general continue.

Here’s a look at some of the issues behind the confrontation over birth control, politics and religious beliefs:

A turning point — the Affordable Care Act

Well into the 1990s many states did not require health insurance plans to cover birth control for women.

“Plans were covering Viagra, and they weren’t covering birth control,” said Alina Salganicoff, director of women’s health policy with the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. 

By the time President Barack Obama’s health law passed in 2010, employers and insurers largely began covering birth control as an important part of health care for women. 

The ACA took that a couple of steps further. It required most insurance plans to cover a broad range of preventive services, including vaccinations and cancer screenings, but also women’s health services. And it also required such preventive services to be offered at no charge.

Employers and insurers were required to cover at least one of each class of birth control approved by the Food and Drug Administration. That included costly long-acting contraceptives, generally more effective than birth control pills.

It’s estimated that 55 million to more than 62 million women now receive birth control at no cost, with only a small share paying for contraception.

“The irony I find about this battle is that in the period of time this policy has been in effect, teen pregnancies have gone way down and the number of abortions has gone way down,” said Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services secretary under Obama. 

While those rates were already going down before the health law, the trend does continue.

Religious, moral exemptions

The Obama administration originally exempted a narrow group of employers — houses of worship —  from the birth control coverage requirement.

Following pushback from religious institutions and social conservatives, the Obama administration created an “accommodation.” Women employees of religious-affiliated social service organizations, universities and hospitals could continue to get birth control as part of their health care coverage but their employer would not have to pay. 

The Supreme Court broadened that work-around to include smaller private companies with a religious objection.

That didn’t go far enough for social and religious conservatives, a core component of President Donald Trump’s political base. Some religious organizations see Obama’s “accommodation” as morally objectionable because it facilitates contraception.

“It still forces religious people to provide a health plan that includes things that violate their religion,” said Mark Rienzi, senior lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which led opposition to the Obama policies.

The Trump administration’s regulations broadened the religious exemption to any employer with an objection based on religious beliefs and created a new exemption for certain employers with moral objections. The administration made Obama’s workaround optional for employers and instituted other changes.

“It’s definitely not a tweak,” Sebelius said. An employer can say “I don’t believe in birth control, and I’m not going to provide it,” she added.

Sebelius explained that Congress through the ACA clearly intended health plans to cover women’s health services. All HHS did was spell out how that would be done. If the Trump administration wants to change that, it would have to repeal the law, she added, not just change a regulation.

Rienzi said the Trump administration hasn’t pulled its policy “out of nowhere.” U.S. laws traditionally have protected people with religious and moral objections to government policies.

What’s next?

The Obama-era policy remains in place for now, with U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone in Philadelphia placing a national hold on the Trump administration rules.

More than a dozen states are trying to reverse Trump’s policy, including California, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

The Justice Department hasn’t revealed its next move. It could ask federal appeals courts or the Supreme Court to lift the injunctions from lower-court judges and allow the Trump rules to go into effect while the cases continue.

The issue could eventually end up before the Supreme Court, which has become more conservative since the last time it considered the ACA’s birth control coverage requirement.

The Trump administration estimates that up to 126,400 women could be affected, having to find other ways to cover birth control if the rule is put into place.

But women’s rights groups say there’s no real way to know.

“The majority of employers want to cover birth control,” said Mara Gandal-Powers, a senior lawyer with the National Women’s Law Center. “We know that there are dozens of employers and entities that sued the Obama administration. But one of the problems with the (Trump administration) rule is that there is no master list of employers who object to birth control.”

 

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US Tax Agency to Bring 46,000 Furloughed Workers Back

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service said on Tuesday it intends to bring back more than 46,000 workers furloughed by the partial shutdown of the federal government to process annual tax returns and refunds and other tasks.

The federal tax agency, part of the Treasury Department, said in a shutdown contingency plan that the employees, about 57 percent of its 80,000-member workforce, would be designated “excepted or exempt” from the shutdown.

The 2019 tax filing season is set to begin on Jan. 28, with Americans having until April 15 to file their obligatory annual tax returns. Furloughed IRS employees returning to work will not be paid until government agencies reopen.

The shutdown, which began with President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, is now in its 25th day.

Trump and Democrats in Congress show no signs of budging, raising the prospects of a lengthy impasse that could leave the president and his Republican allies in Congress vulnerable to public criticism, especially if annual taxpayers’ refunds — which many people rely on financially — are delayed.

The 132-page IRS contingency plan sets out a legal rationale for handling returns and refunds during a shutdown, saying those operations are similar to Social Security payments that are unaffected by the disruption.

But the agency will not perform audits and other key functions until Trump and Congress agree on funding to reopen the one-quarter of the government affected by the shutdown, according to the document.

Lawsuit, hearings

The administration’s plan is already the target of a lawsuit by the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which claims the plan is illegal because it obligates funds that have not been appropriated by Congress.

Democrats in the House of Representatives are also considering hearings on the shutdown’s impact on the IRS, including the agency’s ability to deliver tax refunds on time.

“There is no doubt the IRS needs to get ready for the 2019 filing season that starts Jan. 28, and IRS employees want to work,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon said in a statement.

“But the hard, cold reality is that they’ve already missed a paycheck and soon they’ll be asked to work for free for as long as the shutdown lasts.”

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Pentagon Agrees to Extended Role on US-Mexico Border Mission

The military is taking on a new and extended role on the U.S.-Mexico border, the Pentagon said Monday.

At the request of the Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon agreed to provide personnel to operate security cameras and to lay about 150 miles (240 kilometers) of concertina wire between official ports of entry, officials said. The military also will continue to fly aircraft in support of Customs and Border Protection personnel.

“DOD is transitioning its support at the southwestern border from hardening ports of entry to mobile surveillance and detection, as well as concertina wire emplacement between ports of entry,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Troops last fall put down about 70 miles (110 kilometers) of concertina wire.

An official familiar with the agreement said the Pentagon has not yet determined how many additional active-duty troops will be required to carry out the additional work. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that were not made public after Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan approved the plan.

There are about 2,350 active-duty troops performing the border mission, which began Oct. 30 and initially was to end Dec. 15. It was extended to Jan. 31 before DHS submitted a new request for help Dec. 27 and will now stretch to the end of September.

The official said it is possible that National Guard troops could perform some of the aviation support.

The military’s current role at the border has been widely debated, in part because it began just days before the congressional midterm elections in November and was attacked by critics as a political ploy.

The military is prohibited by law from performing domestic law enforcement tasks but has periodically provided assistance to civilian border security authorities.

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 A Look at the History and Importance of Congress’ Power to Investigate

When Democratic lawmakers won the majority in the House of Representatives in recent elections, they not only won the ability to better shape legislation in the House, they also gained the enormous power of investigation. Investigations have always been an important way for Congress members to hold government officials accountable, to inform public policy and to spur national debate. 

House Democrats have promised to hold investigations on a range of topics, including the activities of President Donald Trump and his staff. Here is a look at the history and importance of Congress’ power to investigate matters.  

Why does Congress have the ability to investigate?

The U.S. Constitution says Congress will hold “all legislative powers” of government. While the Constitution does not explicitly grant Congress the right to carry out investigations, the founding fathers envisioned lawmakers investigating matters as part of their responsibility to legislate and courts have long upheld that role.

According to a website run by the Senate Historical Office, George Mason of Virginia said at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that members of Congress “are not only Legislators but they possess inquisitorial powers. They must meet frequently to inspect the Conduct of the public offices.”

Congressional investigations date back to 1792 when the House passed a resolution to examine the St. Clair expedition, according to the Senate Historical Office. General Arthur St. Clair led U.S. soldiers to their defeat in a 1791 battle against Native American fighters in what is now Ohio, prompting President George Washington to demand his resignation and for Congress to start an investigation.

What can Congress investigate?

Congress is able to investigate anything that pertains to legislative matters.

“Hearings are most commonly held for three reasons: to consider pending legislation; to investigate issues that may require legislation in the future; and, to investigate and oversee federal programs,” according to a website run jointly by the Clerk of the House’s Office and the State Department’s Office of the Historian. 

Investigations also serve an important function to oversee the judicial and executive branches, including probing possible presidential wrongdoing, and in rare cases laying the groundwork for impeachment proceedings. 

In its more than 200 years, Congress has investigated a huge range of topics including the sinking of theTitanic, organized crime, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, which was instrumental in bringing about the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

“Today congressional oversight enables House and Senate members to serve as the eyes and ears of the American public,” according to the Senate Historical Office. 

The Supreme Court has ruled that one thing Congress cannot investigate is the private affairs of individual citizens. 

Who carries out the investigations?

Both the House and Senate can hold investigations, which are usually carried out by one of the many committees by which the houses of Congress are organized. Lawmakers can also set up joint committees composed of members of both houses of Congress as well as create special committees, which are set up for a specific purpose. 

What resources do Congressional committees have for investigations?

Members of Congress generally have more ability to research topics than the average citizen. Lawmakers typically have access to government information, including, in some cases, classified material. They also have a trained staff that has the time and ability to research issues. 

Additionally, Congressional committees have the ability to compel witnesses to testify before lawmakers. In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could hold witnesses in contempt if they failed to testify when subpoenaed. 

In a ruling two years later, the high court said that witnesses who lie before a congressional committee can be convicted of perjury. Congressional committee members can also call on outside experts to testify before investigative hearings and to help make a more detailed study of the issues. 

What is the impact of Congressional investigations?

Congressional investigations are not just a means to get information that is important to lawmakers. They are also a way to inform the public about various topics and to shape the political narrative. Most committee hearings are open to the public and are widely reported in the media. 

While investigations generally function to enable lawmakers to make better policy decisions, they are also an integral part of the U.S. government’s system of checks and balances. By design, lawmakers have a responsibility to bring to light abuses by the others branches of government, including those carried out by the president, cabinet members, and judges.

Challenges to the success of Congressional investigations include the appearance of partisanship, which can taint the results in the public eye. Sam Ervin, the chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, which was set up to investigate the Watergate scandal in 1972, warned that for an investigation to be successful, it must avoid partisan politics. 

He said investigations “can be the catalyst that spurs Congress and the public to support vital reforms in our nation’s laws,” but said they may also “afford a platform for demagogues and the rankest partisans.” 

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Trump Administration Considers Easing Restrictions on Drones

The Trump administration plans to ease restrictions on flying drones at night or over crowds.

Under new rules drafted by the Federal Aviation Administration, drone operators would no longer need FAA waivers to operate the small aircraft at night. But they would have to undergo training and install special lights on the drones.

Those who want to fly them over large crowds would also no longer need waivers, but they would have to adjust the weight and speed of the drones so they do not cause severe injuries if they should drop.

“The department is keenly aware that there are legitimate public concerns about drones,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Monday. She added that the new rules “will be a major step forward in enabling the safe development, testing and deployment of drones in our country.”

The rule changes will be open for public comment; it is unclear if or when they would take effect.

Those who want the rule changes say having to obtain waivers stifles the beneficial commercial and industrial uses of drones.

Opponents call it a question of public safety.

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China Reports Record Trade Surplus with US, Amid Signs of Slowing Economy

China’s trade surplus with the United States rose dramatically in 2018, despite a tit-for-tat tariff war with the U.S. that has roiled global markets.

The surplus stood at a record-high $323.3 billion, compared to $275.8 billion recorded the year before. 

Data released Monday by China’s customs bureau shows the country’s exports to the U.S. grew more than 11 percent in 2018. Imports from the United States rose only slightly (0.7 percent). 

But the data also revealed that exports slowed by 3.5 percent last month, as the administration of President Donald Trump imposed a series of stiff tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods to force Beijing to buy more American goods and to resolve issues involving technology, intellectual property and cyber theft issues.

The data also revealed mixed news about the strength of the world’s second-biggest economy – while China’s global trade surplus was $352 billion for 2018, its global exports dropped 4.4 percent in December compared to a year earlier, while imports plunged 7.6 percent, suggesting softening demand both at home and abroad.

Figures released by the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers show that car sales fell in 2018 – the first time in 20 years for a decline.

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American-Founded Liberian Academy’s Investigation Looms Over Parents

Parents of students at an all-girl American academy in Liberia are anxiously awaiting an investigation into allegations that the charity failed to act on signs of a staff member’s sexual abuse. A 2018 exposé co-published by the U.S.-based research organization ProPublica and Time magazine on the More Than Me Academy sparked public outrage over the widespread rape and exploitation of girls who were supposed to be rescued. Monique John reports from Monrovia.

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Trump: Broken Border More Damaging than Government Shutdown

U.S. President Donald Trump contended Sunday that the damage from the country’s “badly broken border” with Mexico is “far greater” than the effects of the longest-ever partial government shutdown, now in its 23rd day.

“The building of the Wall on the Southern Border will bring down the crime rate throughout the entire Country!” Trump claimed on Twitter.

About 800,000 federal workers missed their first paychecks on Friday in the closures that have shuttered about a quarter of U.S. government operations.

The dispute centers on Trump’s demand for more than $5 billion to build a barrier along the 3,200-kilometer border with Mexico to thwart illegal immigration.

There was no movement toward a settlement, with Congress not meeting again till Monday.

“I’m in the White House, waiting,” Trump said. “The Democrats are everywhere but Washington as people await their pay. They are having fun and not even talking!”

Trump was ridiculing about 30 opposition Democratic lawmakers who flew to the sun-drenched Caribbean island territory of Puerto Rico for a charity performance of the hit Broadway show “Hamilton.”

Trump most recently has blamed Democrats for the government shutdown, but before it started Dec. 22, he said he said he would be “proud” to “own” it.

Numerous government services have been curtailed, while some museums and parks have been closed during the shutdown. The 800,000 federal civil servants who went without normal pay last week have been furloughed or ordered to work without pay, although they likely will be paid retroactively when the stalemate over Trump’s border wall plan is resolved.

Trump was asked late Saturday by Fox News talk show host Jeanine Pirro why he has not declared a national emergency to build the wall without congressional approval as he signaled last week he was ready to do. But Trump said he wants to give Congress a chance to negotiate a deal.

“I want to give them a chance to see if they can act responsibly,” Trump said.

Trump walked out of a White House meeting last week with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, when they refused to approve a border wall, even if he reopened the government and negotiated over border security for the next 30 days. Democrats have offered $1.3 billion in new border security funding, but none specifically for a wall.

Trump contended, “I’m ready, willing and able to get a deal done…. This country wants to have protection at the border. Many of our crimes, much — MS-13 comes through the border, drugs, a big proportion of the drugs from, you know, that we have from this country — in this country come through the border.”

New polls on wall, shutdown

Two new polls, by The Washington Post and ABC News, along with one from CNN, showed American voters blame Trump and Republicans more than Democrats for the partial government shutdown and oppose construction of the wall.

The Post-ABC poll said a slight majority (54 percent) opposes construction of the wall, with 42 percent favoring it. CNN’s poll said the split against was 56-39.

CNN said the public generally blames Trump for the shutdown, with 55 percent saying that he is more responsible to 32 percent for Democrats, with 9 percent saying both are responsible. The Post-ABC poll pegged the blame on Trump and Republicans at 53 percent to 29 percent on Democrats.

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US Warns German Firms of Possible Sanctions over Russia Pipeline

The U.S. ambassador to Germany has warned companies involved in the construction of the Russian-led Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that they could face sanctions if they stick to the project, a senior U.S. official said on Sunday.

U.S. President Donald Trump has accused Germany of being a “captive” of Moscow due to its reliance on Russian energy and urged it to halt work on the $11 billion gas pipeline.

The pipeline, which would carry gas straight to Germany under the Baltic Sea, is also seen critical by other European countries as it would deprive Ukraine of lucrative gas transit fees which could make Kiev more vulnerable in the future.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell addressed the issue in a letter sent to several companies, the U.S. Embassy said.

“The letter reminds that any company operating in the Russian energy export pipeline sector is in danger under CAATSA of U.S. sanctions,” the embassy spokesman said, adding that other European states also opposed the planned pipeline.

Germany and other European allies accuse Washington of using its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to meddle in their foreign and energy policies due to its extraterritorial effect.

Russian gas giant Gazprom is implementing the project jointly with its Western partners – Uniper, Wintershall, Engie, Austria’s OMV and Anglo-Dutch group Shell.

The letter raised eyebrows within the German government. A German diplomat said the ambassador’s approach did not correspond to common diplomatic practice and that Berlin would address the issue in direct talks with officials in Washington. An Uniper spokesman declined to comment while no immediate reaction was available from Wintershall.

Germany and Russia have been at odds since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. But they have a common interest in the Nord Stream 2 project, which is expected to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream 1 route.

German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, which was first to report on the letter, said that Grenell was trying to blackmail German companies with the letter.

The U.S. Embassy denied this.

“The only thing that could be considered blackmail in this situation would be the Kremlin having leverage over future gas supplies,” the embassy spokesman said.

The letter was coordinated in Washington by several U.S. government agencies and “is not meant to be a threat but a clear message of U.S. policy”, the spokesman added.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Thursday that any U.S. sanctions against Nord Stream 2 would be the wrong way to solve the dispute and that questions of European energy policy had to be decided in Europe, not in the United States.

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