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Updated: 1 hour 47 min ago

Former Baltimore mayor charged with wire fraud, tax evasion over book deals

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 08:59

Baltimore's former mayor Catherine Pugh has been indicted by a federal grand jury on wire fraud and tax evasion over lucrative book deals for her self-published Healthy Holly children's series, according to charges made public Wednesday.


Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh in 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) (Patrick Semansky/)

Pugh resigned in May after revelations about the deals she allegedly cut with companies connected to the city and state government, setting off another political crisis and setback for the city.

Pugh, 69, was the second Baltimore mayor to leave office in the past decade while facing corruption allegations. The indictment describes a years-long scheme dating to 2011, when she was a state senator and before her days running Maryland's largest city.

Prosecutors accuse Pugh of operating a sham business in which she ripped off non-profit organizations and taxpayers by accepting payments for thousands of books she never intended to deliver. Pugh used the funds, according to court papers, to promote her political career, fund her mayoral campaign and to buy and renovate a house in Baltimore.

Pugh churned book sales and replenished her inventory by selling the same volumes multiple times, prosecutors said, including taking back books intended as a donation to Baltimore school students.

Most of the books, stashed at locations throughout the city, were marketed and sold directly to groups and foundations that did business or tried to get business with the state and city of Baltimore, prosecutors allege.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert Hur, in a press conference along with top officials from the FBI and IRS, called Pugh's alleged actions a "betrayal of the public trust," adding that "the victims are all of us."

"This is a tragedy and the last thing that our city needs," Hur said.

Jennifer Boone, the special agent in charge of Baltimore's FBI field office said at the press conference that Pugh "blurred the lines between her public duties and her private duties. She failed to act in the best interest of her constituents."

The charges come after searches in April of Baltimore City Hall, Pugh's homes and of a nonprofit tied to her. Federal agents sought financial documents and other information related to almost $800,000 she allegedly was paid for the books, an enormous amount in the world of children's literature.

Pugh's attorney Steven Silverman said the former mayor plans to present herself to authorities Thursday afternoon at the start of her hearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Silverman declined to comment on the charges.

Two former Baltimore employees, Gary Brown Jr, 38, a longtime Pugh aide who worked at City Hall, and Roslyn Wedington, 50, who ran a nonprofit linked to the case, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and to filing false tax returns, prosecutors said.

Pugh, a state lawmaker for a decade and rising political star, was elected mayor in 2016. Her downfall stunned friends and supporters, and was another blow to the city struggling with ongoing violence and scarred by 2015 riots after the death of Freddie Gray from an injury in police custody.

Last week, the city recorded its 300th homicide for the fifth consecutive year. The grim numbers threaten to once again leave Baltimore with the highest or near the highest homicide rate in the country.

The breadth and scope of the alleged corruption dismayed Democratic political leaders, who said it erodes their ability to advocate for Baltimore and further undermines residents' trust in leaders trying to guide the beleaguered city to a better place.

"This news is going to make it just that much harder for us," said Sen. Antonio Hayes, the Baltimore Democrat elected to the Senate seat Pugh previously held. The scandal, he said, "has thrown our political system into a tailspin. It's provided instability in the mayor's office, and it's trickled down."

Sen. Cory McCray, acting chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, said "there has never been a more critical time" for Maryland's elected officials.

"We need elected officials who are accountable, have integrity and are trustworthy," said McCray, who represents Northeast Baltimore. "When people feel like the government is going the wrong direction, they get apathetic."

State and federal investigators began scrutinizing payments to Pugh from entities including the University of Maryland Medical System for the Healthy Holly book series, which follows an African American girl, Holly, and is aimed at promoting a healthy lifestyle.

In March, the Baltimore Sun first reported that Pugh received $500,000 for a total of 100,000 books starting in 2011, when she served on a state Senate committee that partially funded the private hospital network - and on its board. Pugh resigned from the board, on which she had served for 18 years. She returned $100,000 for a shipment of books she said was not completed.

The Sun also reported that Kaiser Permanente paid Pugh more than $100,000 for the book at the same time it was seeking a $48 million contract from a city board controlled by the mayor.

Hur suggested investigators were continuing to look at book buyers who would have been aware the purchases amounted to a bribery scheme. The indictment states that one buyer knew the books it was purchasing from Pugh would not go to the school system and instead be diverted to her campaign.

When asked whether additional indictments would be forthcoming, Hur said he could not comment. Hur said, "all very interesting questions but not ones that I can answer at this point. We look forward to telling more in court."

Pugh was hospitalized with pneumonia for five days in late March and took an indefinite leave April 1. She never returned to her job at City Hall.

Longtime City Council president Bernard "Jack" Young was elevated to acting mayor when Pugh took a leave of absence, and has served as mayor since her resignation. Young plans to run for mayor in the 2020 election.

In addition to Pugh's homes and office, agents searched Brown's apartment. Brown and Pugh have ties to the nonprofit Maryland Center for Adult Training, which was also searched in the spring and run by Wedington.

Pugh previously led the center's board of directors and Brown was listed in a tax filing as the program's executive director in the fiscal year that ended June 2017.

The 11-count indictment unveiled Wednesday charges Pugh with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, seven counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States and two counts of tax evasion.

Brown's lawyer Barry Pollack said in a statement that Brown "regrets his role in this matter, has resolved the charges against him, and trusts that the court process will treat everyone involved fairly."

Wedington's attorney, Brandon Mead, said his client has "taken ownership of the allegations against her." She agreed to help Brown because he offered her a way to repay outstanding student loan and health care debts, for which her wages were being garnished.

"She was presented a way out by Mr. Brown, and unfortunately she took advantage of that," Mead said Wednesday. Wedington "looks forward to making amends," which includes paying back taxes.

All three face the possibility of lengthy prison sentences.

Prosecutors allege a wide scheme that lasted from 2011 through 2019 that began as Pugh held a leadership position in the Maryland Senate. She was elevated to majority leader in 2015.

When Pugh was elected mayor, Brown, who had been her legislative aide, was designated to fill a vacancy in the House of Delegates. The morning he was scheduled to be sworn in, state prosecutors charged him with campaign finance violations linked to Pugh and - prosecutors now allege - Healthy Holly sales. His swearing-in was canceled, and he pleaded guilty. But Pugh kept Brown on the staff at City Hall, where he had an office down the hallway from her.

Prosecutors outlined several methods Pugh and Brown allegedly used to benefit from books including "Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors Like the Rainbow" and "Healthy Holly: Vegetables are Not Just Green."

They said Pugh stored the books at her house, her government offices in the state legislature and in Baltimore, in the mailroom and a warehouse of the Baltimore school's system and vehicles owned by the city.

Federal authorities also allege Pugh evaded taxes on her books sales and that she wrote "Healthy Holly checks" to Brown, which he cashed, and then returned to Pugh in cash money to fund straw donations to her election committee. Prosecutors said in their statement that Pugh underreported her income in 2016 when she reported earning $31,020, paying $4,168 in taxes, when in fact prosecutors allege she actually had taxable income totalling $322,365, and owed the government $102,444.

Even before the criminal charges became public, revelations about the medical system contracts for board members prompted the General Assembly to take action. State lawmakers ordered an audit of the medical system, with a report due to lawmakers by Dec. 15.

But the auditors last month requested an extension to March 13, 2020, saying UMMS had "delayed or hindered our work by repeatedly failing to make employees available and failing to provide request information on a timely basis ." The extension was approved Nov. 7 by Senate President Thomas Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County.

In a statement, the system said the audit had required "countless labor hours and the production of many thousands of documents on the part of UMMS." Auditors have been onsite for six months and "we have always endeavored to work collaboratively and transparently with them," according to the statement from John Ashworth, Interim President and CEO, University of Maryland Medical System.

- - -

The Washington Post’s Erin Cox and Rachel Chason contributed to this report.

Israel strikes Iranian targets in Syria in response to rocket attack

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 08:47

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2018, file photo, Israeli tank takes a position at the Gaza Strip border. The Israeli military on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, said it has carried out a “wide-scale” strike on Iranian targets in Syria following a rocket attack on the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File) (Tsafrir Abayov/)

JERUSALEM — Israel said it struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria on Wednesday in a “wide-scale” operation in response to rocket fire on the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights the day before.

A Britain-based war monitoring group said the strikes killed at least 23 people, including 15 non-Syrians, some of them Iranians. Syrian state media only reported that two civilians were killed.

The exchange of fire along the increasingly tense frontier comes as Iran and its allies face blowback across the region, with mass protests against Tehran-aligned governments in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as demonstrations in Iran itself over a recent hike in fuel prices.

Israel has repeatedly struck Iran-linked targets in Syria in recent years and has warned against any permanent Iranian presence on the frontier. Last week, Israel killed a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed group in the Gaza Strip, setting off two days of heavy fighting. A separate airstrike targeted but failed to kill an Islamic Jihad leader in Damascus, underscoring the risk of escalation at various pressure points across the volatile region.

In the latest incident, the Israeli military said fighter jets hit multiple targets belonging to Iran's elite Quds force, including surface-to-air missiles, weapons warehouses and military bases. It said a number of Syrian aerial defense batteries were also destroyed after an air defense missile was fired.

The death toll was reported by Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist group with a network of contacts across Syria. He said the dead included five Syrian troops, 16 Iranian and Iran-backed fighters, and two Syrian civilians.

The Observatory said the airstrikes targeted Quds Force arms depots in the Damascus suburbs of Kisweh and Qudsaya. Abdurrahman said several other areas were targeted in Wednesday's strikes, including the Mazzeh air base in Damascus, where air defense units are stationed.

Syria's state-run SANA news agency said the two civilians were killed by shrapnel when an Israeli missile hit a house in the town of Saasaa, southwest of Damascus. It said several others were wounded, including a girl in a residential building in Qudsaya, also west of the Syrian capital.

It claimed that Syrian air defenses destroyed most of the Israeli missiles before they reached their targets.

Wednesday's strikes on Syria were the most intense since Jan. 21, when Israel claimed responsibility for a series of airstrikes on Iranian military targets in the Arab country, including munition storage facilities, an intelligence site and a military training camp, in response to an Iranian missile attack the previous day.

Israel had said the missile, fired by Iranian forces in Syria, was intercepted over a ski resort on the Golan Heights and that there were no injuries. That Iranian launch followed a rare Israeli daylight air raid near the Damascus International Airport.

On Tuesday, the Israeli military said it intercepted four incoming rockets from Syria. It said the attack "threatens Israeli security, regional stability and the Syrian regime," and vowed to "continue operating firmly and resolutely" against Iran in Syria.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said the significance of the retaliatory operation was the "multitude of targets" hit.

The targets included what he described as the Iranian headquarters at Damascus airport, where senior Iranian officials are based and which is used to coordinate shipments from Iran to its allies in Syria and beyond. He added that Israel also holds Syria responsible for hosting the Iranians.

Tuesday's rocket fire on the Golan was the sixth attempt by Iran to attack Israeli targets since February 2018, and all have been thwarted, Conricus said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued a series of warnings about Iranian actions throughout the Middle East and has vowed to respond firmly.

"I made it clear: whoever harms us, we will harm them. That's what we did tonight," he said early Wednesday. "We will continue to aggressively protect Israel's security."

Israel's new hard-line defense minister, Naftali Bennett, issued an equally firm statement.

"The rules have changed: whoever fires on Israel during the day will not sleep at night," he said. "Our message to the leaders of Iran is simple: you are no longer immune. Any place you dispatch your tentacles, we will chop them off."

Last week's airstrike targeting the Islamic Jihad commander in Syria marked a rare assassination attempt against a Palestinian militant in the Syrian capital. The militant, Akram al-Ajouri, survived the attack but his son and granddaughter were killed.

It came the same day as an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza, Bahaa Abu el-Atta, settling off the fiercest round of fighting there in years. The fighting killed at least 34 Palestinians and saw more than 450 rockets fired into Israel.

Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel's northern neighbor, and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. In Gaza, it supplies Islamic Jihad with cash, weapons and training, and also supports Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the coastal territory.

Netanyahu claims Iran is using Iraq and far-off Yemen, where Tehran supports Shiite Houthi rebels at war with a Saudi-led coalition backing the government, to plan attacks against Israel.

___

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.


Utqiagvik finally celebrates first whale of season

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 08:00

A whaling crew heads out of Utqiagvik onto the sea ice toward open water to begin their bowhead whale hunt on April 17, 2016. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Alaska Dispatch News/)

“Yay Hey Hey!” The cheer went up in town, on social media and out on the water Nov. 16 when Panigiuq Crew landed the first whale of the season for Utqiagvik, later than many people can remember ever bringing one in before.

"It's a really big blessing for all of us," said Captain Qulliuq Pebley. "It brings a lot of good food. It brings families and a whole bunch of different people together."

The crew, which many also refer to by their family name of Panigeo, was one of the last to remain out on the water this late in the fall, still searching for bowheads.

"Such a happy time," said Tasha Aina, the captain's sister. "(It is a) very long awaited celebration not just for us but for our community."

It's been a challenging year for whalers in Utqiagvik. Crews started going out in September, but found the bowheads weren't appearing in their usual concentrations in the waters closer to shore.

As the Sounder previously reported, scientists with the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals program were making similar observations. While the whales seemed on track in July and August, by September, they didn’t appear to be following their typical course and timing along the North Slope coast.

“At the beginning of the season everyone had a sense of anticipation, but as the season dragged on and the community started losing hope, we sort of doubted our ability. No matter where you went, captains, hunters and wives and crew members whispered among themselves, ‘Have your guys seen a whale yet?’ ‘None!’ ‘My guys went (a certain number of) miles and saw nothing. Not even one blow,’” said Natasha Itta.

“Week one came and gone, week two, week three, the anticipation grows, week four passes and people start to park boats and call it a season. There were one or two active crews who keep going out in the hopes that they would be blessed with a whale.”

As the season continued with few to no bowheads in reach, crews began to pull in their boats. The cost of food and fuel started to add up, along with the pressures of being away from family or jobs, making it tough to stay on the water all day, every day. Additionally, the light — which makes it safer to be on the water — was dwindling as the Arctic headed toward its final sunset of the season.

Some crews joined their efforts, going out together to search rather than putting more than one boat in the water at a time.

"We come from a praying community and the cry out for prayers has been apparent on social media since early September," Itta said. "When you begin to lose the light and hope that once lit bright inside, you realize that maybe that's when the miracles will happen."

On Nov. 16, a few different crews were out on the water once again.

"There was hardly any wind and it was maybe like 15 degrees and cloudy," said Pebley.

When they're out, the crews often keep in regular radio contact, both for safety reasons and because if everyone shares information, it increases the likelihood that one crew will find success.

It was this spirit of partnership and working together that paid off that day.

"Another boat had spotted it and then they called over the radios telling everybody that they saw a whale and then they gave us their GPS coordinates," Pebley said. "Pretty much all the boats that were out there that day went over to that area and we chased it for a little bit and then we harpooned it."

On the boat with Pebley were one of his uncles and his girlfriend’s father, he said. They towed the 25-foot, 4-inch agviq back to shore, where everyone helped to pull it up.

"I woke up Saturday morning and immediately, three of my family members messaged and texted me saying that my captain may have struck a whale. I immediately shot up from bed, said a prayer of thanksgiving and immediately got ready with the faith that this whale was going to be a successful hunt. I got confirmation 15 minutes or so later and I was already ready to go," Itta said.

“Immediately, the town sighed a huge sigh of relief. By the time the ladies of the crew got the house and kitchen ready, and we headed out toward Pigniq, we were immediately greeted with a long line of red lights and cars awaiting the arrival of the whale. People were hugging, crying, yelling and screaming with joy.”

It's a relief for the community, which relies on the whales for sustenance throughout the year, especially during the holiday season.

In Utqiagvik, Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts around town center around the gift of the whale. Crews pass out portions at churches and gathering places to anyone who comes. Last week, captains had to consider what would happen if no one landed a whale. This season has been marked by uncertainty, and left many with unanswered questions about what the future may hold.

"It feels almost complete," said Asisaun Toovak. "I need a new word for how it feels because it is a mix of emotions — safe, complete, relief. The community was fed a whale we waited a long time for (with) two months of prayers, 10 hours of boating three or more times a week, and over a thousand gallons of gas. So, to see the whale pulled up, you exhaled, like I've been holding breath for a long time.

As always, when a whale is caught, a flag goes up over the captain's home, where people gather to pick up their portions, along with other food like rolls and donuts and more.

“When we served the whale, our crew members bought 600 disposable cups to serve the siignaq (stewed fruit) and we ran out of the siignaq and still half of the folks hadn’t entered the home,” Itta said. “I’m guessing about 1100 men, women, children and elders came in to receive a sample of the whale.”

For the crew and community, it was a joyful time. For Pebley, it just happened to coincide with another special occasion.

"When we served the whale, it was on my daughter's first birthday, so instead of a small birthday party with like 20 people, she got 600," he said, laughing. "It will be hard to beat that next year."

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at sgoarctic@gmail.com.

Two U.S. service members killed in helicopter crash during Afghanistan combat

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 07:47

KABUL, Afghanistan - Two American service members were killed Wednesday when their helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan while supporting combat operations, according to the U.S. military.

The military said the fatalities brought to 19 the number of U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan this year, adding that the crash is under investigation.

The Taliban said the helicopter was shot down as Afghan and U.S. forces were preparing to launch an attack in the area, according to a statement from Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman. The statement identified the helicopter as a Chinook, but Fawad Aman, the Afghan Defense Ministry deputy spokesman, said it was a smaller combat helicopter.

A lawmaker from Logar province said the crash occurred near an American outpost in the province. The helicopter "hit a mountainous area, and we understand that it occurred five kilometers away from a U.S. base," Mohammed Asif said.

Nineteen service members have been killed this year by hostile forces, surpassing the total of 13 who were killed in 2018. About 2,400 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. A U.S. Special Forces soldier was killed by small-arms fire in eastern Afghanistan on Sept. 16. Earlier that month, a suicide bombing in Kabul killed another service member, and the attack prompted President Trump to break off talks with the Taliban.

The Trump administration is intent on bringing home the bulk of U.S. forces by next year. But efforts to negotiate a peace deal to facilitate the withdrawal were scuttled in September. Since then, top U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad has sought to restart talks by negotiating a prisoner swap as a goodwill gesture.

On Tuesday, an American and an Australian were freed from Taliban custody, and the Afghan government released three high-profile militants linked to the Taliban.

Over the past year, the United States reduced its troop strength unilaterally, cutting 2,000 troops and bringing the total number of American troops in Afghanistan down to about 13,000.

In a draft of the peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, U.S. troop levels were set to decline to 8,600, down from 100,000 in 2011.

If talks do restart in the wake of the prisoner exchange, it is unclear whether the two sides will return to the agreement reached in September.

While the role of the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been described by the Afghan government as mentoring or training, security forces still rely heavily on American support to carry out operations, according to a Pentagon study released in June.

Uber plans to allow audio recordings of U.S. rides, responding to safety concerns

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 07:16

A sign marks a pickup point for the Uber car service at LaGuardia Airport in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File) (Seth Wenig/)

Uber plans to record audio during rides in the United States as part of a new security feature, its latest push to protect riders amid rising safety concerns.

The new feature, which is first to be piloted in some Latin American cities next month, allows users to opt in to activate an audio recording on any trip or all trips, according to internal communications viewed by The Washington Post and confirmed by Uber. In markets where it's available, users would likely be given a blanket warning that trips are subject to recording - and that the feature will be active in their market. Riders and drivers will not be able to listen back.

"When the trip ends, the user will be asked if everything is OK and be able to report a safety incident and submit the audio recording to Uber with a few taps," according to an email written by an Uber executive and obtained by The Post. "The encrypted audio file is sent to Uber's customer support agents who will use it to better understand an incident and take the appropriate action."

The company plans to test it in the U.S. "soon," according to the email, but the timeline for rolling it out is still unclear and may be difficult. "Laws in the United States around consent to being recorded can vary from state to state, but we hope to be able to make this available nationally," the email said.

In an interview with The Post, Sachin Kansal, Uber's head of safety products, said the feature is expected to help prove the truth of what happened on a ride, allowing the company to take decisive action.

"We have taken a position that whenever you are in an Uber, the feeling that we want both parties to have is 'the lights are on.'" he added. "That leads to safer interaction on the platform."

Still, privacy experts said the new function could be problematic to navigate in the U.S. - a hurdle Uber acknowledged it's working to overcome.

Uber has come under fire for safety lapses that have included numerous allegations of physical assaults, incidences of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, and other forms of misconduct on the platform. Some riders and drivers have complained that the company has been slow to respond to their complaints or hasn't taken them seriously enough - feeling they're in a he said, she said situation.

A Washington Post investigation found Uber's Special Investigations Unit, its internal safety division, exists primarily to shield the company from liability when issues are arise. Uber denied the allegations. Meanwhile, a House subcommittee chairman scolded both Uber and its chief competitor, Lyft, at a hearing on the safety of ride-hailing platforms last month as both declined to attend.

The on-trip audio recording is the latest safety-oriented change the app is making amid a push to reduce violence, unwanted advances and inappropriate behavior in its rides. Uber has added features such as in-app 911, along with automatic safety check-ins when trips veer off course as part of its Safety Toolkit.

Uber said that in the upcoming pilot, drivers can set the feature to automatically record all trips. For riders to record, they have to activate the feature through the Safety Toolkit, which becomes available before they get into the car. Drivers and passengers' recordings are placed in their trip history in case they decide to report the incident later.

But the new feature raises privacy concerns over the potential to run afoul of wiretapping and eavesdropping statutes aimed at ensuring people are not recorded without their consent. States like California, for example, require the consent of all parties to a conversation to record. Other states, such as New York, only need one party to consent.

Albert Gidari, consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said Uber runs the risk of violating those laws. What the company does with those communications is irrelevant to that conversation, he said. (Uber said its encrypted audio files would be password-protected for security.)

Uber needs to show the passengers and driver "expected they would be recorded or could be recorded in the vehicle," he said. "Absent that the fact - that it's an encrypted file is a meaningless safeguard."

Further complicating the issue is the myriad situations that could occur in an Uber, where the ride may be just a passenger and a driver or a group of passengers such as on a pooled ride. There could also be a sleeping or intoxicated passenger.

"You might have the drunk passed out in the back - you might have the additional rider who might understand it," Gidari said. "Either party can invoke it, but how can the other parties know what's happening?"

Uber and Lyft last year suspended a driver who had been secretly live-streaming passengers' trips. In Missouri, a one-party consent state, the taping was believed to be legal - but the recordings raised ethical concerns, The Post reported at the time.

Uber said it is in the midst of working out issues such as how to respond to a scenario involving multiple passengers in multiparty states.

Kansal said that in the markets where the feature is launching, riders and drivers will not be alerted the moment a recording is initiated. Rather, blanket statements to users where the feature is launching - as well as a series of prompts to activate recording within the app, such as granting microphone access - should serve as notice of potential audio collection on trips.

"If someone is already uncomfortable and they start the audio recording, we don't want there to be any escalation of that particular situation," Kansal said.

Kansal did not rule out the possibility of further applications of smartphone technology, such as the front-facing cameras already used to verify drivers' identification. But audio, Kansal said, provides a distinct advantage in its smaller file sizes and ubiquity of recording capability across smartphones.

He said that the Latin America pilot, first reported by Brazil-based press, is expected to begin in December in certain cities in Mexico and Brazil. Kansal said the timeline for testing in the U.S. is still unclear but that Uber would pay close attention to learn lessons from its Latin America pilot.

Anchorage School Board approves $82.8 million bond proposal mostly targeting earthquake-related repairs

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 06:28

Workers remove damaged concrete siding inside Gruening Middle School in Eagle River on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, after the 7.0 earthquake. Funding for earthquake-related repairs at the school is included in the Anchorage School District's 2020 bond proposal. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / ADN/)

The Anchorage School Board on Tuesday narrowly approved a $82.8 million bond proposal for the April ballot following a flood of community input and debate between board members.

“This was a very tough decision for the board,” said School Board President Starr Marsett, who voted in favor of the proposal. “There was a lot of difference of opinion.”

Tension surrounded whether the board should add Aquarian Charter School to the bond, whether it should reopen Eagle River’s Gruening Middle School and whether it should remodel or replace Inlet View Elementary School. The board also sparred over whether to have two bond proposals or one.

After a flurry of amendments — nearly all of them failing — the board approved a single bond proposal in a 4-3 vote shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Here’s what the proposal includes:

• About $70 million to pay for earthquake-related repairs and improvements at 14 schools across the district. Gruening Middle School has the highest price tag at $39.3 million, followed by East High School at about $11 million and Eagle River High School at $4.5 million. Gruening Middle School and Eagle River Elementary School have remained closed since the November 2018 quake.

[Anchorage School District wants nearly $40 million to repair and improve Gruening Middle School]

• There’s roughly $3.3 million in design funding to replace Inlet View Elementary School near Westchester Lagoon. In 2018, a consultant for the school district reported Inlet View had the highest utilization rate of any Anchorage neighborhood school. He recommended knocking it down and building a larger school.

• $6.8 million to pay for a new roof and other fixes at Aquarian Charter School. The board voted 4-3 to approve an amendment adding the money to the proposal. In response, Aquarian supporters in the audience erupted in applause Tuesday night.

[Devoted to its run-down schoolhouse, Anchorage charter school looks to taxpayers for repairs]


Aquarian Charter School advocates stand at the Anchorage School Board meeting on Tuesday to show their support for adding funding for a new roof and other projects at the school to the bond proposal. (Tegan Hanlon / ADN)

• Nearly $3.3 million will pay for safety and code upgrades.

Board members Marsett, Andy Holleman, Deena Mitchell and Margo Bellamy voted in favor of the bond proposal. Elisa Vakalis, Dave Donley, Alisha Hilde voted against it.

Vakalis, Hilde and Marsett had voted against adding Aquarian to the bond.

Donley had raised concerns about the bond proposal’s total cost. He also wanted to split the bond proposal into two, one for earthquake repairs and one for other improvements.

About the version of the bond proposal approved, he said: “I think it’s going to be a very difficult sell to the public.”

Last year, 59% of Anchorage voters approved a $59.1 million school bond package.

The Anchorage Assembly still must approve the 2020 bond proposal before it goes on the April municipal ballot.

Anchorage Assembly OKs $540M budget with boost in homeless services and more police

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 06:16

The Anchorage Assembly passed its 2020 municipal budget Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (Aubrey Wieber / ADN/)

The Anchorage Assembly passed the city’s 2020 operational budget Tuesday night with few hiccups.

In addition to maintaining current services, the budget includes year-round shelter beds for the homeless, more police, adds a bus route and dedicates funds to help students who have experienced trauma get back on track academically.

The overall budget comes in at $540 million, up from a final 2019 budget of $528.8 million. The budget increase will be an annual hike of $20 on the property tax of an average home valued at $350,000.

The final budget passed unanimously, though a couple of amendments garnered substantive debate.

On Friday, Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel proposed a near 1% cut from the proposed budget to fund 150 shelter beds for the homeless year-round, rather than just October to April. She also wanted 300 day-shelter spots to be located in Midtown. The cuts would have freed up $2.36 million in the budget.

The cuts would have hit all departments evenly, other than police and fire, with an alternative version also saving the library and health department from any loss. However, Zaletel did not include direction on how individual departments would adjust to less funds.

The proposal had strong support from the Assembly.

“Homelessness is defining our city, and that’s not the way it should be,” Assemblyman John Weddleton said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The amendment was not endorsed by Mayor Ethan Berkowtiz’s administration, despite a philosophical alignment. The problem was the funding source, said Ona Brause, Berkowitz’s chief of staff.

“A 1% cut without analysis -- what are the alternatives to prevent that from happening?” Brause said of the administration’s collective mindset.

In the end, Zaletel and Assemblymen Chris Constant and Kameron Perez-Verdia introduced an amended version of the plan that allocated $735,000 to fund the 150 shelter beds through December 2020.

A quarter-million will come from existing funds within the health department’s budget. The elimination of proposed positions for a payroll auditor and the information team freed up another $130,000, and $43,500 came from a cut to the information technology department’s travel budget.

Additionally, $290,000 is expected to come from the dividend of increased revenue to the city’s trust fund through the sale of its utility, Municipal Light & Power. Brause said several of the cuts could be revisited in April during first-quarter budget revisions.

Brause said she, Berkowitz and Deputy Chief of Staff Jason Bockenstedt spent a combined 60 hours over the weekend to figure out a funding mechanism to make it work.

When asked at the meeting to speak on the issue, Berkowitz agreed homelessness is a serious issue and assured that the city is not “standing idle.”

“There is a panoply of need that exists out there,” he said. "When you have pervasive homelessness it is incredibly corrosive to a community’s ability to move forward.”

As late as Monday afternoon, Zaletel and Constant were not aligned with the administration, which initially wanted to push the idea to first-quarter revisions.

Funding for year-round shelter beds with a promise to revisit day shelter spots in April was a compromise that brought all sides on board, while allowing for city officials to find a location for day shelter services and public meetings, Brause said.

“I fully intend to fight for day shelter, because I think that really, really shifts the paradigm,” Zaletel said.

United Way grant

An amendment from Assemblymen Forrest Dunbar and Felix Rivera to allocate $250,000 for a grant to United Way also brought about deliberation. The money would go to bolster programs that connect students with a history of trauma -- who are at risk of slipping academically -- with community-based services.

Perez-Verdia, a former United Way employee who strongly endorsed the program, worried that giving such a large chunk of money to a nonprofit set a dangerous precedent. In the end it passed with Perez-Verdia being the sole dissenter.

Other potential sticking points -- such as a proposal from the mayor’s administration to provide four police officers to patrol the trail system -- were worked out in advance.

After Assembly members voiced concern that data did not back up the assertion that the trails were a center of crime or danger, the administration changed the wording to make them general officers, giving the police department more discretion.

Analysis: Republicans defend Trump as concerned with Ukrainian corruption, but aides tell a different story

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 05:43

National Security Council Europe expert Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman and aide to Vice President Mike Pence, Jennifer Williams appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 19, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

WASHINGTON - Some of President Donald Trump’s allies have argued that his motivation for holding up almost $400 million in aid to Ukraine was his deep-seated concern about corruption - and that he needed to test the new Ukrainian administration’s dedication to rooting it out.

In persistent questioning during the House hearings, Republican lawmakers and their staff lawyer have pressed witnesses to agree that Ukraine has long had a corruption problem and to portray Trump's desire to have Kyiv investigate his political rivals as fitting within that broader worry.

“Corruption is not just prevalent in Ukraine. It’s the system. Our president said time out, time out, let’s check out this new guy,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said last week, referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

But while there is widespread agreement that Ukraine has long struggled with corruption, recent congressional testimony, along with interviews with officials who worked closely with the president, raise questions about how much Trump cared about corruption broadly in Ukraine as opposed to investigations that stood to benefit him politically.

The president "doesn't give a s--- about Ukraine," E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland told colleagues in Kyiv after getting off a July 26 phone call with Trump, according to testimony given to Congress this week diplomat David Holmes. Sondland added that the president only cared about politically motivated investigations, like having Zelensky launch a probe into former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, according to Holmes.

Four former administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, shared Sondland's view and said Trump's main contention was that Ukrainians had "tried to take me down," in the words of one former senior administration official.

Trump angrily complained, this official said, that they had Hillary Clinton's email server, a reference to an unfounded theory that Democrats conspired with Ukrainians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Former envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, Sondland and other officials said in testimony that that view was shaped by Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer.

Officials said Trump described Ukraine as a problem because it caused tensions with Russia and sucked security money out of the United States. He begrudgingly approved the military aid in 2017 after being repeatedly pushed by national security officials.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that early in the Trump administration, he met with then Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who testified as part of the impeachment inquiry last week about her ouster from her post earlier this year.

"My sense was she was not operating within the daily oversight of the State Department, of Foggy Bottom. She had discretion. Folks in D.C. weren't paying attention," Murphy said during a September interview. "For much of the past two years, the Trump administration couldn't care less about Ukraine."

Current and former aides say Trump did not understand the specifics of endemic corruption in the country and did not care to learn - only caring about the "big stuff," also in the words of Sondland, according to Holmes, who serves as a counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

"I noted that there was, quote, unquote, big stuff going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant, quote, unquote, 'big stuff' that benefits the president, like the, quote, unquote, 'Biden investigation' that Mr. Giuliani was pushing. The conversation then moved on to other topics," Holmes testified. The president was more interested that day, he said, in helping free hip-hop artist A$AP Rocky from a Swedish jail as a favor to son-in-law Jared Kushner and the Kardashian family.


Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, right, questions Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, as they testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. Seated to the left looking on is Steve Castor, the Republican staff attorney. (Shawn Thew/Pool Photo via AP) (SHAWN THEW/)

When officials pushed for Trump to question the Ukrainians on corruption in his first call in April with Zelensky, he did not raise the topic from Air Force One, even though a White House readout of the call said he did.

"To the best of my knowledge, he did not," Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified Tuesday when asked if Trump followed "talking points" urging him to bring up the issue of corruption during the April call.

Instead, he touted the strength of the U.S. economy and brought up his previous ownership of the Miss Universe pageant.

"When I owned Miss Universe, they always had great people," the president said. "Ukraine was always very well represented."

In the July 25 call with Zelensky, Trump does not bring up broader Ukrainian corruption, but instead mentions "CrowdStrike, the server," a reference to his belief that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, and investigating the Bidens - issues tied to his political fortunes.

"I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that's really unfair," Trump said of Yuri Lutsenko, a Ukrainian prosecutor who was providing information to Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer. "A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved."

Yovanovitch and others shared a different view of Lutsenko. When asked if he was corrupt, she said, "That was our belief."

"It was disappointing, it was concerning, it wasn't certainly based on anything that the State Department would have reported, or frankly anybody else in the U.S. government," she said of Trump's comments about Lutsenko. "Frankly, there was an interagency consensus that while when Mr. Lutsenko came into office we were very hopeful that he would do the things he would set out to do, including the prosecutor general's office, but that did not materialize."

Other officials who have testified in the impeachment inquiry described Lutsenko as part of an effort joined by Giuliani to get rid of Yovanovitch through a smear campaign because of her focus on corruption.

Time and time again, U.S. officials have said anti-corruption efforts were part of U.S. policy in Ukraine.

"The leaders agreed on the importance of expanding bilateral trade and investment, and the Vice President underscored the need for continued reforms to fight corruption, increase transparency, and improve the business climate," read the March 2018 readout of Vice President Mike Pence's call with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

But Trump has rarely voiced similar concerns, even when meeting with Ukrainian officials.

When officials met with him in the Oval Office in May after Zelensky's inauguration, Trump was fixated on what he believed the Ukrainians had done to him, The Washington Post has reported, and was not interested in discussing much else.

"All I remember was being incredibly frustrated that we couldn't have a dialogue with the president about our findings," Sondland told lawmakers, according to a transcript released by House committees involved in the impeachment inquiry." He said he and the other officials who met with Trump that day wanted to tell the president that Zelensky was a promising leader who could change the country and tackle its corruption problem.

Holmes, the State Department official who dined with Sondland in Kyiv, described Trump as delivering a "blow" to the United States' anti-corruption effort by removing Yovanovitch, who has been praised by U.S. officials for her focus on cleaning up Ukraine.

Vindman wrote the official readout saying Trump spoke to the Ukrainians about corruption on the April call where the president did not, officials said. Asked about that Tuesday, he said the government wanted to send a message even if it wasn't delivered by the president.

“Our whole commitment was to get rid of corruption and stop that Russian aggression,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said during Tuesday’s hearing with Vindman. “The Giuliani, Sondland, Trump policy was not about that, it was about investigations into a political opponent.”

Sondland says he ‘followed the president’s orders’ on Ukraine

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 05:24

WASHINGTON -- European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland will testify Wednesday that he “followed the president’s orders” on Ukraine.

Sondland confirmed for House impeachment investigators Wednesday he spoke with President Donald Trump on a cellphone from a busy Kyiv restaurant the day after the president prodded Ukraine’s leader to investigate political rival Joe Biden.

Sondland, the most anticipated witness in the inquiry, also said he kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top administration officials aware of what was going on.

He said he specifically told Vice President Mike Pence he "had concerns" the military aid to Ukraine "had become tied" to the investigations.

"Everyone was in the loop," Sondland testified in opening remarks. "It was no secret."

The wealthy hotelier and Trump donor has emerged as a central figure in an intense week with nine witnesses testifying over three days. He has told lawmakers the White House has records of the July 26 call, despite the fact that Trump has said he doesn't recall the conversation.

The ambassador's account of the recently revealed call supports the testimony of multiple witnesses who have spoken to impeachment investigators over the past week.

Trump's pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrats as he was withholding military aid to the East European nation is at the center of the impeachment probe that imperils his presidency.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

Watch live: Public testimony in the Trump impeachment inquiry

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 05:12

WASHINGTON -- Watch live analysis from The Washington Post as public hearings of the Trump impeachment inquiry continue.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, will testify in the morning.

David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, will testify at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Assembly rejects plan to fund Anchorage share of state road project

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 05:06

Location of the proposed Seward Highway overpass at Scooter Avenue looking eastbound towards Academy Drive on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

The Anchorage Assembly put its mettle on display Tuesday night, removing funding for a road project it felt forced by the state to fund.

It amended its bond proposal to divert the $4 million for the road project to other projects deemed more necessary.

For nearly two decades, the Alaska Department of Transportation has been planning upgrades to the Seward Highway through Anchorage. Part of that project is to lift the highway at Scooter Avenue and build a road connecting Scooter and Academy Drive east of the highway. The section is just south of Dimond Boulevard.


Scooter Avenue, Seward Highway and Academy Drive

When proposed, the state said it would elevate traffic in the area. However, Assembly members have said as the city has grown over the years, the traffic in that area has dissipated while the project remained.

A new road moving east under the highway would dump an estimated 12,000 additional cars per day onto a neighborhood street not built to handle the increased traffic.


State and City changes to Scooter Avenue, Reward Highway and Academy Drive

To avoid a traffic nightmare, the city planned to extend Academy to Abbott Road. That project was originally estimated to cost $8 million, but new estimates from the city put it at $20 million. To pay for the project, the city was going to bond for it over several years, displacing other road projects the city has determined are more impactful.

Instead, the body passed Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar’s amendment to increase the bond amount to $4.5 million, with none going to road construction on Academy Drive.

Instead, the city proposes spending $1.5 million on construction for upgrades to West 32nd and 33rd avenues. Another $1.5 million will go to resurfacing 15th Avenue. The final $1.5 million will go to purchasing a building from Christian Health Associates.

The building is in the path of the previously planned road. Associate Director Dave Kuiper has told the Assembly that he and others have spent at least 1,000 hours over the past three years working to find a new building and negotiate a sale under the impression that the city would be purchasing the building to construct the road.

The city is in talks on a purchase price and officials have said if the road doesn’t get built, the city will rent the property out.

An amendment to Dunbar’s amendment would have raised the amount dedicated to the building purchase to $2.2 million created division. Some members felt the city was caught making amends for poor state planning. It eventually failed.

Assemblyman Chris Constant argued the city has many needs, and bending over backward for one property owner isn’t first priority.

“This is the state’s problem," Constant said. "They should sue the state.”

Dunbar’s original amendment passed unanimously, with Assembly members Austin Quinn-Davidson and Kameron Perez-Verdia excused.

It’s unknown how the state will respond to the Assembly action.

“I don’t know what happens to the state’s infrastructure if this project doesn’t get built," Kent Kohlhase, Anchorage’s director of project management and engineering, told the Assembly.

Dunbar has said he is reaching out to the Legislature to ask lawmakers to push the state to augment its plan.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

UAA athletes make some noise on the national level

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 20:09

The national limelight shined on UAA sports Tuesday.

The women’s basketball team earned the No. 11 ranking in the first NCAA Division II women’s basketball poll of the season, and Ellen Floyd of the volleyball team was named the Division II national player of the week.

The basketball team debuted in the No. 11 spot in the national coaches poll, moving up from 16th in the preseason poll released last month. The Seawolves are 3-0 heading into this weekend’s four-team Seawolf Hoops Classic at the Alaska Airlines Center.

Floyd, a sophomore setter from Pensacola, Florida, earned national recognition from the American Volleyball Coaches Association, which made her its Player of the Week following a pair of UAA road victories last weekend.

Floyd had a combined 91 assists and 29 digs in two big wins. In a five-set win over nationally ranked Western Washington, she had 43 assists, 14 digs, four blocks, two kills and one ace; in a four-set win over Simon Fraser, she had 48 assists, 14 digs, five kills and five blocks.

This is the second straight season a UAA player received the national player-of-the-week award; last year, outside hitter Eve Stephens received the honor in mid-September.

UAA is in second place in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference heading into the final week of regular-season play. The Seawolves play their final home games at the Alaska Airlines Center with a Thursday match against Saint Martin’s and a Saturday match against Seattle Pacific.

Legal opinion for Anchorage School District raises concerns about proposed education ballot measure

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 19:42

A lawyer for the Anchorage School District is raising concerns about a proposed education ballot measure, describing it in a recently released legal opinion as a “well-intentioned but poorly-executed effort to address perceived problems with Alaska’s public education system.”

If enacted, the ballot measure would amend state law to provide guidelines about education issues, from class size to teacher pay to curricula.

Its supporters are currently collecting signatures to put the ballot measure, known as the Alaska Students’ Educational Bill of Rights, in front of voters next year. They say the measure would ensure Alaska students have access to high-quality education from pre-elementary programs to college.

But Anchorage School Board President Starr Marsett said while she agrees with the goals in the proposal, she has concerns that they are “unfunded mandates.” She’s also concerned that the ballot measure, if approved, would strip away authority from local school boards, she said.

“When I see something that I have concerns about, I have to bring it forward,” she said.

Marsett and Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop agreed to have a lawyer review the ballot measure.

The resulting six-page, preliminary legal opinion, by Anchorage attorney Matt Singer with the law firm Holland & Knight, was posted online with the school board’s agenda for its Tuesday evening meeting.

The review says the ballot measure fails to recognize the roles of the state education department and local school districts and is “imprecise and vague.” It has no funding mechanism, creating uncertainty about who’s charged with paying for schools to meet the guidelines, the opinion says.

“The best that can be said about the proposed ballot initiative is that it is well-intentioned but ill-considered,” it says.

An initiative group, Alaskans for Excellent Public Education, is backing the ballot measure. Supporters include Alaska’s National Education Association teachers union and the Alaska Parent Teacher Association.

Anyone who believes the measure includes unfunded mandates misunderstands it, Scott Kendall, attorney for the initiative group, wrote in an email Tuesday.

“Contrary to putting any mandate on local school districts, the Bill of Rights attempts to compel state bodies to make funding and policy decisions the right way — by putting the outcomes of students first, and by using the best available data to reach those decisions,” wrote Kendall, who was chief of staff to former Gov. Bill Walker.

For too long, he wrote, support for education has been left to politics.

A statement from the Anchorage School District said the proposed ballot measure draws attention to key priorities in K-12 education, and to pre-elementary programs.

“Yet, the bill could be improved by incorporating quantifiable outcomes for students and addressing the issue of K-12 technology and connectivity throughout Alaska in the same way it does for the University of Alaska,” it said.

Marsett said the Anchorage School Board wasn’t consulted before the ballot measure was drafted.

The school board was scheduled to discuss the legal opinion at its Tuesday evening meeting. It will not take an official position on the proposed ballot measure, Marsett said.

Voters, she said, “need to look at all the information, pros and cons, and make up their own minds.”

Alan Brown, a school district spokesman, said he didn’t have information Tuesday on the cost of the legal opinion. The district has a retainer agreement with the law firm, he said.

The Association of Alaska School Boards had not taken a position on the ballot measure by Tuesday, executive director Norm Wooten said.

The University of Alaska Board of Regents also had not taken a position on the measure, according to UA spokeswoman Robbie Graham. Graham said UA generally supports the ballot measure’s goals to elevate the importance of education and ensure Alaskans have access to quality education.

So far, Alaskans for Excellent Public Education has collected more than 15,000 signatures, according to Kendall. They need 28,501 signatures by Jan. 20 to qualify for the 2020 ballot.

Prosecutors decline to charge man who Anchorage police say knew where dangerous suspect was hiding

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 19:35

Nellie Serradell is arraigned Nov. 19, 2019 at the Anchorage Jail courthouse. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Prosecutors on Tuesday declined to charge a man who Anchorage police say knew the whereabouts of a woman they were searching for on charges of kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery and vehicle theft.

Officers said in an alert Monday that 25-year-old Nellie Serradell was considered armed and dangerous.

She was arrested at a Spenard hotel Monday around 4 p.m., a later alert said.

Two men who police said were associated with Serradell were also arrested at the hotel Monday. Lincoln Courville, 55, was charged with hindering. Prosecutors declined to charge 52-year-old Bryant Brown.

Serradell, Courville and Brown appeared in court Tuesday. Brown was released from custody.

[Anchorage police: Woman arrested for car theft, kidnapping and sex assault has been hospitalized]

Early Sunday, Serradell was seen on traffic camera surveillance footage flagging down vehicles from the middle of the road on Dimond Boulevard between Arctic Boulevard and C Street, police said. She got in the car with an 18-year-old woman who offered her a ride, police said.

Serradell then told the woman she had a gun, punched her and sexually assaulted her, according to the charges.

The victim escaped at a gas station in Fairview because Serradell fell asleep, police said. Serradell woke up and took off in the car, investigators said.

Police issued an alert searching for Serradell Sunday. She showed up at Courville’s hotel room at Americas Best Suites around 10 a.m. Monday, according to the charges.


Lincoln Courville is arraigned Nov. 19, 2019 at the Anchorage Jail courthouse. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Police had contacted Courville four times Sunday about Serradell and he knew she had a warrant out for her arrest, the charges said. Courville told police she was distraught and he wanted to give her time to calm down before turning herself in on the warrant, charges said.

Brown was also at the hotel and insisted Courville call police, charges said.

Courville called police around 4 p.m. and Serradell was arrested.

Police said she suffered “medical issues” while being driven to police headquarters for questioning and was brought to a hospital. A spokesman for the department did not have details about what kind of medical issues Serradell suffered.

Serradell and Courville are being held at the Anchorage Correctional Complex. Serradell’s bail is set at $150,000.

Bail was set at $1,000 for Courville.

The stolen car was found early Tuesday, police said. Officers were still searching for witnesses seen talking to Serradell before the abduction on traffic camera footage.

After a month on the run, Napakiak man arrested in Palmer by violent offender task force, federal authorities say

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 19:06

A Napakiak man who’d been on the run from law enforcement for over a month was apprehended in Palmer on Tuesday by a multi-agency task force, said the U.S. Marshals Service.

Alexie Michael, 65, was arrested Tuesday afternoon on seven counts of first-degree sexual assault, according to court records and the U.S. Marshals Service.

The search for Michael began on Oct. 7 when members of the U.S. Marshals Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force flew to Bethel at the request of local law enforcement, said Deputy U.S. Marshal Rochelle Liedike.

Word of mouth travels fast when officers arrive into a village, Liedike said. Michael fled before the task force could make an arrest, going through Bethel to Anchorage, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.

The task force arrested Michael at around 2 p.m. Tuesday in a residential neighborhood in Palmer, according to a statement from the U.S. Marshals Service.

The arrest investigation started under Operation Rural Alaska Anti-Violence Enforcement — known as RAAVEN — an initiative created after U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr announced emergency funding for public safety in rural Alaska earlier this year, said the statement.

Michael is currently detained at the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility.

Police say concrete benches on corners of Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood were magnets for street crime. Now they’re being demolished.

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 19:04

Workers demolish a concrete structure at the corner of Minnesota Blvd and Spenard Road Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Workers on Tuesday demolished a concrete retaining wall on a busy corner of Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood that police and business owners said had become a magnet for public drinking and other trouble.

The short concrete wall outside the Holiday gas station complex at the corner of Spenard Road and Minnesota Drive was the second to be torn out in the past month.

Earlier, crews removed a similar concrete wall-turned-bench from property at the corner of the Walgreens parking lot at Northern Lights Boulevard and Minnesota Drive.

Removing the structures is part of an effort to use environmental design to rein in public drinking, loitering, litter and panhandling in the city, said Anchorage Police Department spokesman MJ Thim.

Not everyone is convinced taking away an easy place to sit is an answer to complex problems of homelessness and addiction on display on some Midtown Anchorage corners.

“They believe this will somehow keep the population of people who like to hang out outside from hanging out on their corner,” said Jay Stange, president of the Spenard Community Council. “Removing the wall — I don’t think that’s removing the problem.”

Remove benches, remove crime?

The retaining walls are on right-of-way land owned by the state, said Alaska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy.

Originally intended as design elements to spruce up the long gray stretch of Minnesota Drive, they had been used as benches for years, attracting groups of people sometimes numbering a dozen or more.

The wall-turned-bench outside the Holiday store, which also features a Brown Jug liquor store and a Pizza Hut, attracted frequent police visits in 2019.

Anchorage police were called to the Holiday some 514 times through the end of October, according to data from the police department. The calls for service include 71 disturbances, 20 assaults, 84 trespassing calls, seven indecent exposure calls and one report of rape.

The Walgreens address garnered 60 calls in the same time frame, including four assaults.

Anchorage police first approached state transportation officials about removing the walls in December 2018 to “address ongoing public safety issues,” said McCarthy.

Officers with police department’s Community Action Policing Unit came up with the idea, based on principles of “crime prevention through environmental design,” according to police spokesman Thim.

The idea is that changes in the built environment can influence people’s behavior, making public places safer.

After consulting with area community councils, the state issued a permit that would allow private businesses to remove the retaining walls, McCarthy said.

No public money is being spent on the project. Walgreens and Holiday are paying for the cost of the demolition, according to McCarthy.

Walgreens and Holiday Station stores corporate offices did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

“I also don’t want it in my backyard”

The bench outside the Holiday store has long been the site of public drinking and panhandling but the groups gathering there have gotten bigger this year, said Bonnie Welsh, who manages and is in the process of buying Alaska Leather, a motorcycle leather goods store at the northeast corner of the intersection.

Her store has its own concrete wall, which becomes a problem every once in a while when people are displaced from the Holiday corner, she said.

Welsh said she’s found “every kind of” liquor bottle in the bushes outside her store. She supports the decision to remove the walls.

“I’m a live-and-let-live person,” she said. “But I also don’t want it in my backyard.”

Welsh said she noticed that a string of tents in grassy areas along Minnesota Drive disappeared after the demolition began on Monday.

“OK. So where do these people go?” she asked. “Where are they?”

Possibly her corner next, she said. She thinks the answer lies partly in support for organizations that help people leave homelessness by providing housing and job training.

Street family

Not everyone is convinced taking away the benches will work as intended.

People seem to be attracted to the Holiday corner by the opportunity to interact with a steady stream of motorists stopped at red lights, said Stange. If people are determined to be there, what’s to stop them from sitting on the ground, he asked.

Stange said he was speaking for himself and not the community council as a whole. People on the council have “a wide diversity of opinions on whether this is an effective idea,” he said.

John Lonch, 40, stood in the median of eastbound Spenard Road in front of the Holiday station panhandling Tuesday, as a crew tore out concrete on the sidewalk.

He said he used to frequent the bench, a popular place to meet and socialize for what he called his “little street family.”

“They weren’t doing nothing wrong. Just trying to live and find something to eat,” Lonch said of the denizens of the now-demolished bench. “To find a job.”

“It’s not against the law to sit there,” Lonch noted, watching the demolition crew.

Where will people go now? Lonch pointed across the street to other concrete retaining walls at the other corners of the intersection.

“That corner, or that corner,” he said.

Daily News reporter Jeff Parrott contributed reporting to this story.

Vote now for Alaska Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 18:21

The Alaska Sports Hall of Fame will be choosing its Class of 2020 soon, and the public has until the end of the month to be part of the voting.

Members of the public can make their choices known at the Hall of Fame’s website at alaskasportshall.org. Voters can choose from the people, events and moments featured on the website, or they can write in their picks.

The cumulative results of the public vote will then count as one vote during next month’s selection process. There will be 10 votes in all — nine from members of the selection panel, plus the public vote. All are given equal weight when deciding which people, events and moments will be enshrined at next year’s Class of 2020 induction ceremony.

You can place your vote here. Public voting is online only and must be done on a laptop or desktop computer.

Last year’s inductees were Olympic medal-winning trapshooter Corey Cogdell, Major League Baseball pitcher Chad Bentz, the Alaska Run for Women and Kodiak’s 2001 state basketball championship team.

Alaska Sports Hall of Fame inductees

People

George Attla

Chad Bentz

Carlos Boozer

Red Boucher

Holly Brooks

John Brown

Martin Buser

Susan Butcher

Mario Chalmers

Don Clary

Corey Cogdell

Janay DeLoach

Herb Didrickson

Rosey Fletcher

Scott Gomez

Jeannie Hebert-Truax

Virgil Hooe

Nicole Johnston

Reggie Joule

Nina Kemppel

Jeff King

Trajan Langdon

Wally Leask

Hilary Lindh

Lance Mackey

Dick Mize

Tommy Moe

Buck Nystrom

Nancy Pease

Kikkan Randall

Joe Redington, Sr.

Mark Schlereth

Bill Spencer

Rick Swenson

Vern Tejas

Kristen Thorsness

Norman Vaughan

Bradford Washburn

Chuck White

Events

Alaska Run For Women

Arctic Winter Games

Equinox Marathon

Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship Sled Dog Races

Gold Medal Basketball Tournament

Great Alaska Shootout

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Iron Dog

Midnight Sun Baseball Classic

Mount Marathon Race

Native Youth Olympics

Yukon Quest

World Eskimo-Indian Olympics

Moments (with year of occurrence)

First Ascent of Denali (1913)

First Winter Ascent of Denali (1967)

Iditarod Photo Finish (1978)

Elliott Sampson’s Upset Victory (1981)

Libby Riddle’s Iditarod Victory (1985)

Les Anderson’s World Record King Salmon (1985)

Doug Herron’s 800 Meter Run (1985)

UAA Men’s Basketball Upset of Michigan (1988)

Vern Tejas’ Solo Winter Ascent of Denali (1988)

Tommy Moe Wins Olympic Gold (1994)

Dolly Lefever Becomes First American Woman to Complete the Seven Summit (1994)

Scott Gomez Brings Home the Cup (2000)

Chris Clark’s Olympic Marathon Trial Victory (2000)

Special Olympics World Games Comes to Anchorage (2001)

Kodiak Boys Basketball State Championship (2001)

UAF Wins Top of the World Classic (2002)

Michaela Hutchison Beats the Boys (2006)

Matt Carle Wins the Hobey Baker Award (2006)

White House unleashes attacks on its own employee during impeachment testimony

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 17:51

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman leaves after appearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 19, 2019. Washington Post photo by Matt McClain (Matt McClain/)

WASHINGTON - The White House attacked a key witness in the House impeachment investigation during his testimony, seeking to undermine one of its own employees as part of a scorched-earth campaign being pursued by allies of President Trump.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a senior National Security Council official who testified before lawmakers Tuesday, faced withering criticism from Trump's defenders, who questioned his loyalty to the country and his allegiance to the president. As Vindman spoke, the official White House Twitter account posted a tweet questioning his judgment.

"Tim Morrison, Alexander Vindman's former boss, testified in his deposition that he had concerns about Vindman's judgment," the tweet read. Morrison is a former senior NSC official.

The attacks were an attempt to undercut the testimony from Vindman, a decorated combat veteran who told the House Intelligence Committee that a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that is at the heart of the impeachment probe was "a partisan play" that prompted him to report it to an NSC lawyer.

Vindman also testified that some of Trump's allies sought to condition a White House meeting for Zelensky on political investigations targeting former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

His testimony undercut claims from Trump that his call with Zelensky was "perfect" and that he had done nothing wrong in withholding military aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine.

Vindman defended himself from claims that Morrison, his boss, had expressed concerns about his judgment, reading from his latest performance evaluation in which another former top NSC official described him as "brilliant" and "unflappable."

On Tuesday, Trump also sought to downplay Vindman's role and influence.

"I never heard of him. I don't know any of these people," Trump told reporters during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. "I don't know Vindman at all. What I do know is that even he said the transcript was correct."

While Trump said he would "let people make their own determination" of Vindman, Donald Trump Jr. spent much of Tuesday attacking the Iraq War veteran on Twitter.

"He's a low level partisan bureaucrat and nothing more," the younger Trump wrote.

In another post, Trump Jr. wrote, "Seems fair," in response to a charge that Vindman should face an investigation for perjury.

In a statement after the hearing, which also included testimony from vice presidential adviser Jennifer Williams, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham defended Trump and decried the impeachment inquiry as "illegitimate." She also implicitly criticized Vindman and Williams for sharing their "personal opinions and conjecture about a call the White House long ago released to the public."

On Sunday, Trump attacked Williams as a "Never Trumper" and accused her of trying to attack the president.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., asked Vindman and Williams whether they had political reasons for testifying in the impeachment inquiry and whether they would describe themselves as "never Trumpers."

Both said no.

"Representative, I would call myself 'never partisan,'" Vindman said.

In his opening statement, Vindman preemptively defended himself from some attacks, emphasizing his up-by-the-bootstraps American story: His family fled the Soviet Union four decades ago to start a new life in the United States, an experience that he said built in him a sense of dedication to his new country. Today, he and his twin brother both serve in the U.S. military are both assigned to the NSC at the White House.

After stating that previous "vile character attacks" on other witnesses in the impeachment inquiry were "reprehensible," Vindman addressed part of the statement to his father.

"Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth," he said.

The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger, Elise Viebeck and John Wagner contributed to this report.

Charting a course for Alaska’s ferry system

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 16:56

FILE – In this May 4, 2013, file photo, the Alaska Marine Highway ferry Malaspina cruises through Tracy Arm near Juneau, Alaska, as part of its 50th anniversary. State officials announced Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, that the ferry will be put into "unmanned, long-term layup status" in January because there is no money to pay for repairs. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire via AP, File) (Michael Penn/)

We know where the Alaska Marine Highway System has been, but the crucial issue is where it is going.

The AMHS came on line in the 1960s with three mainline vessels—the Malaspina, Taku and the Matanuska—designed to connect the roadless communities of Southeast Alaska with the Canadian highway system at Prince Rupert, British Columbia, then on to the Lower 48. The route to Bellingham, Washington, came later.

In the past 20 years, the ferry system has expanded, and last year served 33 coastal communities with 10 ships covering a good portion of Alaska’s 32 million miles of coastline. Now the schedule shows only four in operation, with one of those four set to be laid up indefinitely in January.

Today, due to budget constraints, the system is in a freefall awaiting the Dunleavy administration’s submission to the Legislature of an operational plan for the coming year. The plan is being prepared by the consulting firm of Northern Economics. Their report was due early in October but now is expected to be completed in December. It has been my observation that government agencies often look to consultants for answers that are already well known to those who are looking for expedient solutions.

The fact is that the AMHS is fundamentally flawed. It is a part of the state Department of Transportation, headed up by a commissioner who is also responsible for the state’s highways and airport maintenance and operation. Each of these entities require uniquely qualified personnel and many of the projects require considerable lead time, which is often compromised by the political reality of elections, as appointed personnel come and go and the project of the hour goes onto the back burner.

I believe the ferry system should now be taken out of the DOT and placed, as is the Alaska Railroad system, in a state-owned and -operated corporation with one single priority: operating the ferry system.

I have reviewed several past consultants reports on the AMHS and, almost without exception, they have recommended a state-owned corporation with an appointed board of directors who would concern itself with the operating of the system. Philip Spaulding, in his report to the state, said “the AMHS is a big business and it should be run as such. It should strive to be a profit center unto itself and serving Alaska."

Earlier this year, the state won its lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service. The court declared that in the 2005 SAFETEA-LU transportation bill, Congress authorized the state to construct, operate and maintain roads and utility corridors to connect Southeast Alaska communities. This was a big win because it finally provided the state an opportunity to implement the 2004 Southeast Transportation Plan, which is the state’s current plan for Southeast.

As the 2004 plan calls for, the state may now construct roads to provide access to ferry terminals at the north and south ends of each Southeast island on the mainline ferry routes. This would allow people to drive from one end of an island to the other. Like the ferry at the Ketchikan Airport, day ferries would shuttle people and cars between islands. By eliminating overtime and the need for multiple crews for each vessel, implementation of this plan would dramatically cut the current cost of ferry operation in Southeast.

Equally important in the transportation business is to structure operations to attract increasing traffic from the population centers which feed the route system. That is why it is necessary to continue to maintain convenient scheduling to both Prince Rupert, as well as Bellingham. Both of these routes have their own attraction to visitors and Alaskans who want to come to Southeast Alaska and beyond. There is an opportunity to solicit a new type of visitor who wants to explore Alaska both by road and ferry. They could leave from Prince Rupert or Bellingham to Ketchikan, take the inter-island ferry to Hollis on Prince of Wales Island and with more than 100 miles of paved road to explore, then ferry either north or south on the AMHS for further adventure. This concept, if properly promoted, can provide new visitor opportunities for those communities along the way.

For those who really want the facts, I suggest they review Nickles and Spaulding, Naval Architects and Engineers, 1982 report, as well as the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan of August 2004.

The tide is currently going out on the ferry system. Unless the administration, the Legislature and the communities which are served come together to support an effort to restructure and grow the system, the whole AMHS will soon be under water.

Frank Murkowski served as governor of Alaska from 2002–2006, and also served as U.S. senator from Alaska from 1981–2002.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Human remains found in burned home on Prince of Wales Island

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 16:42

CRAIG — Alaska State Troopers say human remains were found in a home that burned in the Southeast Alaska community of Craig.

Troopers early Saturday morning were notified of a fire at Mile 2.1 Port St. Nicholas Road east of Craig.

The Craig Volunteer Fire Department responded with troopers and found the home engulfed by fire.

The human remains found inside were transported to the state medical examiner for positive identification.

The cause of the fire is under investigation by state fire marshals.

Craig is a city of 1,100 on Prince of Wales Island about 56 miles northwest of Ketchikan.

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